Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed

HUGH CODDING’S “DEAD ZOO”

Santa Rosa schoolkids in the 1960s-70s may remember field trips to the museum. No, not to the place on Seventh street with its neoclassical architecture – that didn’t open as a museum until 1985. Before that the schoolbus drove to a nondescript industrial building on Summerfield Road which was the “Codding Museum,” although in truth it was mostly Hugh Codding’s hunting trophy room.

Codding, it seems, had been blasting away on all continents (except Antarctica) since the late 1940s. “I don’t say hunting is good,” he told a biographer, “it’s just the way I am. I don’t play golf. Hunting and fishing I like because you get a little reward at the end. It’s like a stick with a wienie on it.”1

Inside the “Codding Foundation Museum of Natural History” (as it was formally known) there were some four hundred stuffed animals or parts thereof. There were bears of all kinds in scary poses, a Bengal tiger and a leopard along with other animals that had menacing claws or antlers. There were entire walls of mounted heads and sometimes the big game wasn’t so big; there was a South African dik-dik which was about the size of a cocker spaniel when Hugh killed it. There were glass eyes staring back at you from all directions. There were dioramas where the animals were arranged in something like their natural settings, except the animals never moved or blinked. It was like visiting a dead zoo.2

That museum at 557 Summerfield Road was shared with the Sonoma County Historical Society, which rented the front lobby from Codding for $1/year. What was displayed in their room was mostly random old bric-a-brac better suited for an antique (or junk) store, as described in the previous article. But Codding was using the Historical Society’s participation to lend his taxidermical souvenirs a measure of legitimacy. That motive was clearly on display in early 1963 when he sought permission for a 5,000 sq. ft. building at the NW corner of Hoen and Farmers Lane. He told the Santa Rosa Planning Commission it was to be charitably offered to the Society while the “remainder would be devoted to items of natural history interest.” That plan was scrapped later that year when Codding’s tenant at the Summerfield Road address moved out, making a space of the same size immediately available. The Historical Society and Hugh’s stuffed things moved in there and opened a few months later.

Having his trophies on display did not end or even slow down Codding’s hunting trips and safaris, and when the museum opened he said it would need to be expanded in a couple of years. If anything his urge to bag wild game only increased after the mid-1960s. When he was on the City Council many votes were missed because he was shooting up in Alaska or elsewhere. Wyoming was a favorite; he and a handful of buddies would disappear up there for a week or more at a time.

Although he had killed one elephant (at least), Codding bought a baby one for $7,500 and avoided paying sales tax by claiming it was livestock he was fattening up. “The city attorney threw a fit,” he told a biographer.3 He had his construction crew build an elephant house near his home, hired a trainer/handler to care for it and after awhile the animal was making regular appearances at the newly-opened Coddingtown, which was then unroofed. He kept it about six months before sending it back to the Southern California dealer.

The curator for the overall museum was Ben Cummings, a retired chemical engineer and Hugh’s brother-in-law. He had no experience with managing any sort of museum but was a conservationist, having been chairman of that committee at the Sierra Club’s big New York chapter. Ben was also a fine artist and the landscapes seen in the dioramas were his work. He quit in 1981 1984 to take up painting fulltime after declaring there was nothing more for him to do at the museum, according to a Press Democrat interview.

In truth, there was lots of work to be done. While his dioramas were realistic, that sort of static tableau was widely considered outmoded. In the photos below it’s shown the signage was just a card naming the animal(s) seen behind a plate glass window – unless visitors were being guided by a very adept docent, there was nearly zero educational content to be gleaned. By then, better museums were incorporating videos into displays or using Walkman cassette players to provide high quality self-guided tours.

Besides being over forty years younger than Cummings, the new curator was an actual scientist committed to environmental education: Paleontologist Raj Naidu. He put most of the trophy heads in storage, added new regional geology and fossil/dinosaur displays, expanded community outreach and began programs for docents and teachers. Naidu told the PD that “our visitors these days know we’re not a ‘glorified trophy collection.'” It’s said Codding did not get along well with Naidu, and it may be because of that.

Attendance was now better than ever, drawing 10k visitors a year. But once the history museum on Seventh street opened in 1985, Codding’s offering was at a crossroads. Yearly operating expenses were $100,000 and completely underwritten by the Codding Foundation. In May 1989 the Coddings gave Naidu notice they were shutting it down. Hugh told the PD the closure “has nothing to do with finances” and today Connie Codding says Hugh was crestfallen to learn people were disparaging the museum because of the wildlife trophies.

Closing the museum meant those many hundreds of wildlife trophies would need to be rehoused or liquidated. Some would be kept by the family or given away. Selling many of them, however, would be difficult or even impossible; the world had changed since Hugh’s killing spree began in the 1940s and many states now banned the sale or purchase of wildlife taxidermy, particularly when the species was endangered/threatened. California (as might be expected) has the strictest laws in the nation.4 To Hugh Codding’s great good luck, in to his newly shuttered museum walked Ron Head, who was hoping to score a Tule Elk trophy for his classroom.

Ron was a hugely popular instructor at Petaluma High School, teaching environmental/natural resources classes. Earlier that same year he had taken the school’s Outdoor Activities Klub [sic] whitewater rafting on the American River and had launched the “Animals for Everyone” program, where high school students visited elementary schools and community groups to show and speak about exotic animals including pythons, a boa constrictor and a tarantula.

“Kids come in expecting Bambi, but I do my best to burst their bubble about the natural world,” Head told the Argus-Courier. “Our class is not like a Disney movie; there’s never a dull moment.” In 1976 he invited an owner of a tame mountain lion to bring it in to his classroom where it roamed around unleashed.

Codding and Head hit it off well enough, as both were outdoorsy types and especially because of their shared interest in hunting. Ron was offered a job which he turned down.5 Undeterred, Codding made another offer: Head could have the entire inventory of the museum. Free. There was only one catch: He would only give the collection to a non-profit.

For Codding this would be the sweetest deal possible. There were no restrictions on donating a taxidermied creature, even those species which could no longer be stuffed under state, federal or international laws. And since it was to be a charitable donation, there was a tax write-off for its full value – which was pegged at $1,000,000.

For schoolteacher Ron Head it would be like cliff diving into unknown waters. He would immediately have to create a 501(c)(3) corporation, convince the school board to allow that and allow him to accept the collection. He would have to find a large enough space to house it all. And he would have to fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars.


A MUSEUM LIKE NO OTHER

Behind the student parking lot at Petaluma High School can be found a most remarkable and unique place: the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, the only student operated natural history museum in the nation.

Open to the general public most Saturdays, the hour-long tour led by trained high school student docents aims to teach visitors about the importance of wildlife conservation/preservation. There are other programs including a week-long summer camp for 5-12 year-olds that sound like great fun.

The docent handbook written by Phil Tacata (Ron Head’s successor) includes this inspiring passage: “…you have the ability to change the future, and it starts by teaching the children of our community about the beauty, the power, and the fragility of this wonderful world around us. It starts with you communicating your knowledge of wildlife and transferring your passion for nature to the next generation, to inspire them to love it as you do, TO TEACH THEM THAT THIS WORLD IS WORTH PROTECTING.”

Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed
Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed

Against high odds, Ron pulled it off. Aided by an outpouring of support from the Petaluma community, a small army of volunteers and workers from the Codding construction company, an old bus garage on the high school campus was converted into the Petaluma Wildlife Museum, which opened in 1992 (see sidebar).

There are still some heads on the walls but the larger animals are no longer encased behind glass in dioramas. It is very much a hands-on experience for small kids to have memorable encounters with the museum’s living “animal ambassadors” and for the older students serving as docents to gain confidence and teaching skills.

As for questions about the dead mounted animals, the docent handbook suggests explaining honestly that Codding killed them “because he wanted trophies.” If the visitor struggles with understanding that answer, a docent can offer a carefully balanced perspective: “Mr. Codding came from a different era, one in which attitudes towards trophy hunting were different than they are today. You can also continue to explain that, today, we know that trophy hunting is usually a destructive practice, but because Mr. Codding donated these animals to us, we can use them as examples to teach you why it’s important to protect them.”

Connie Codding says she and Hugh visited the Petaluma museum many times and a child once recognized him, presumably from the bronze bust on display. The youth told them he couldn’t wait to be old enough to be in high school and learn to become a docent. “He just glowed with happiness when he heard that,” she recalls.


1“Hugh” serialized bio by James Dunn; Sonoma Business magazine 1993-4

2The “dead zoo” analogy comes from an earlier article, “HE’S HERE TO KILL ANIMALS FOR THE DEAD ZOO” which told of a taxidermist who was arrested in Lake County for killing birds during 1908. He was on a collecting expedition for Lord Walter Rothschild, a wealthy amateur zoologist who was trying to collect specimens of nearly every creature on Earth, living or dead. The British children of Hertfordshire mockingly called Rothschild’s private natural history museum the “dead zoo.”

3 “Hugh”, op. cit.
4 The best summary of state laws regarding the sale of taxidermy can be found at EstateSales.org.
5 Details of the interactions and agreements between Hugh Codding and Ron Head are drawn from the History of the PWM slideshow. Slides 11 and 13 describe the terms of the donation.

Photos of the Codding Museum exhibits courtesy the Petaluma Wildlife Museum

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courtroom

OUR VERY OWN PERRY MASON

There’s a tale Bill Soberanes loved to tell in his Argus-Courier columns that went something like this:

During Prohibition a lawyer was defending a man accused of bootlegging. When the prosecutor introduced a bottle of the moonshine as evidence the lawyer picked it up, put it to his lips and drank it dry. “That wasn’t whiskey,” he told the court. Case dismissed for lack of evidence.

Odds of that story being true are probably nil (or at least, I can’t find anything close to it in the newspapers of the day) but it’s the kind of thing people liked to say about Gil P. Hall. Most often he was called some riff on being “a colorful character” and people meant that in a nice way. During the 1910s and 1920s he was the top defense attorney in Sonoma county and rarely lost in court, particularly if it involved a jury trial. He was such a legal hotshot that courtrooms were packed when he defended a high-profile case. “There was only one Gil Hall, and I don’t think there will ever be another like him,” said the last surviving pre-Prohibition Petaluma bar owner in 1967. “Some of his cases would make Perry Mason look very tame.”

In the 1920s Hall defended so many liquor scofflaws that he had a reputation as being the bootlegger’s lawyer, but that’s not really fair – it seems he took on any and all. While he’s best known for high-profile cases his bread and butter was mundane legal work – representing people seeking a divorce, handling probate paperwork, and arguing a farmer had a right to dig a culvert under a county road.

He won an acquittal for Fannie Brown, who was charged with running a “house of ill-fame” at First and C streets in Petaluma. In the murder trial of two doctors charged with the death of a woman from an abortion (“the illegal operation”) the courtroom spectators burst into prolonged applause when the jury found them innocent. Even when he lost he usually managed to salvage some kind of victory. The owner of Speedway Hotel in Cotati was caught red-handed selling 72 proof jackass brandy (“with a trace of fuel oil”) and had to pay a fine, but Hall blocked the government from shutting down his business – which continued to be busted for selling hootch year after year.

A man who knew him, Petaluma Justice of the Peace Rolland Webb, said “he won most of his cases by outsmarting the young lawyers who came up against him,” so it’s a pity the newspapers didn’t write up some of his Perry Mason-y courtroom arguments. The one sample we have comes from an unusual case – the county election of 1926.

gumpA recount was ordered because the votes for sheriff were almost tied. Hall and lawyers for the other candidate went over the ballots carefully, agreeing to toss three for being “scurrilous” – the voters had added an obscenity next to a candidate’s name. Then they found someone had written in the name of Andy Gump for Justice of the Peace. Andy Gump was an ultra-popular comic strip character who was a lovable idiot; in the 1920s the storyline had him running silly campaigns for the senate and the presidency. But the name was written on a ballot for Hall’s candidate, so he made a fine speech why it should be accepted:


…Andy Gump is one of the best loved characters in the United States. His name is a household word, and of loved memory. All of his actions have been those of a gentleman… Therefore, I cannot conclude with counsel that the writing of Andrew Gump created an atmosphere of scurrility about this ballot. Whether there is an Andrew Gump in Sonoma county I do not know. If there were more Andrew Gumps, in character and thought, Sonoma county would probably be a better county than it is…

His candidate lost the election by 16 votes, but the Andy Gump ballot was counted.

Gil Hall was in his heyday during the Roaring Twenties although he was past 60 years old (b. 1859 in Missouri). He was president of the County Bar Association 1924-5 and threw lavish, four-hour dinner parties for judges and fellow attorneys on his large houseboat named “Ark of Peace” (!) which was moored on the Petaluma River and was connected to permanent buildings on the wharf. When he would rehearse his courtroom arguments on the boat he was loud enough to frighten passing boaters, so reread the Andy Gump speech and imagine lots of shouting.

In his younger days it was expected he would someday be a Congressman; he was well-connected vis his father-in-law (Petaluma banker Dan Brown) and said to be politically ambitious, being appointed as Petaluma’s postmaster at age 27. But Gilbert P. Hall had a closet with skeletons ready to spill out during any campaign for public office; he was wise not to crack that door open.

The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897
The San Francisco Examiner, January 18 1897

This is the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! portion of the article, and not just because of some deed by Gil Hall; it’s also because this chapter of his life was so quickly and utterly forgotten and forgiven. Nothing about it was mentioned in any obituary or by 20th century Hall aficionados like Bill Soberanes – in fact, I don’t think this story’s ever been fully told before; I only stumbled across it while researching the previous article about the county treasurer who may have faked a robbery.

In 1890 Gil P. Hall was elected County Recorder/Auditor. The job was a perfect way for a novice politician to take off his training wheels – all it required was staying out of the way of the desk clerk and accepting payment of the recording fees. He was reelected in 1892 but lost the election of November, 1894. Take note that starting in January 1895 someone else would be running the office.

Every two years the county had used an outside auditor named Baldwin to examine the books of all offices, but in 1895 they hired someone else and he found something strange – there was a huge gap in Hall’s accounts. Except for a few entries made after he first took office, there were no fee payments listed until he lost reelection. Specifically, an entire ledger was missing: “Fee Book 13”.

The Grand Jury heard testimony that sometimes months went by without Hall making a deposit to the county treasury. Also, Baldwin looked at the books only during evenings when Hall was also there. Meanwhile, accounting experts were combing through all transactions during Hall’s four year tenure. Their audit showed that for his second term alone, $10,199.50 had been received but only $5,651.75 was deposited. That meant there was a missing $4613.38 (about $140k today).

County officers were held personally liable for any funds found missing during their term in office, and Hall had Petaluma businessmen who backed him with bonds for significant losses. The county sued them for about $1,200, which represented only the last few months of Hall’s first term – it was now March, 1896, and the clock was ticking down on the four-year statute of limitations for this type of suit.

A few months later the county filed a second lawsuit to recover the $4613.38. That was followed by a third lawsuit for $4.5k to pay for the cost of reconstructing Fee Book 13.

Gil P. Hall was now indicted on two counts of felony embezzlement and free on $1,500 bail bonds.

The story grabbed the laser-like focus of San Francisco’s yellow press, and the Examiner did a full page story on him with the subhed, “Rise and Fall of an Able Man.” According to their story, the formerly mild-mannered Hall had become “a high-riding swashbuckler, who cavaliered it through Petaluma to the astonishment of the wondering townspeople” and was known for throwing dinner parties that “endeared himself to a certain class.”

I will spare Gentle Reader details of the grinding legal gears during 1897-1899, which consumed a week of my precious life as I labored over a spreadsheet in a futile attempt to track all the doings. The Grand Jury found him guilty of embezzlement; the location of his trial was moved to Ukiah and there was a hung jury and a retrial; Hall insisted he didn’t remember anything (including the names of his clerks); his lead defense attorney, ex-Congressman Thomas J. Geary, embraced a strategy of continually barking “objection!” like a yappy dog. The big surprise came in November 1897, when Fee Book 13 was discovered and reportedly was in the Auditor’s office the whole time. This was, of course, conveniently after the facsimile had been reconstructed.

By the turn of the century there was remorse in some corners that the county had pursued restitution instead of just sending him to prison. It was now approaching the statute of limitations from the time of the indictments. Appeals were made to the state Supreme Court to extend the deadlines which the court first denied – then a few weeks later reversed itself and said the county could indeed reopen the case. Oh, law.

Over objections from the District Attorney, the Board of Supervisors finally threw in the towel in 1901, proclaiming there would be no more litigation because it was costing the county too much. That was followed by another Supreme Court ruling that the statute of limitations had indeed run out, and Hall and his bondsmen were not legally bound to pay back any money he allegedly stole.

As was permissible under the law. Hall then presented the county with a bill for his lawyer’s fees and court expenses. The Board agreed to pay him $850, which was the legal max.

Thus: Gil P. Hall not only got away with allegedly filching a small fortune from the public, but the county paid him for the pleasure of having done so. Believe it or Not!

An older – and presumably wiser – Gil Hall was behind the defense table again in 1927, this time accused of bribing witnesses.

The charge this time was that he had paid two 16 year-old boys $30 each to deny they had bought homemade wine from a Petaluma farmer. The Grand Jury handed down two indictments against him, although one was thrown out on a technicality.

On the witness stand the boys contradicted their earlier statements and each other. Hall had/had not given them money; Hall had promised one of the boys he “would take care of him” if he lost his job, or he hadn’t promised anything at all. And then, in true Perry Mason fashion, there was a shocking courtroom confession: One of the boys had a vendetta against Gil Hall because he had defended an auto driver accused of causing the death of his baby brother. “His admission that he had for years had a bitter feeling against the accused Petaluma attorney caused a profound stir,” reported the Argus-Courier.

The Grand Jury retired to the jury room and returned to court six minutes later with a verdict of innocent. It was the shortest jury deliberation anyone could recall.

Although Gil Hall’s professional life centered around the county courthouse in Santa Rosa, he grew up and lived most of his life in Petaluma. Besides Soberanes, fellow A-C columnist Ed Mannion sometimes tipped his hat to Gil for being among the most colorful residents in the city’s history. Mannion wrote, “he once entered the door of a Main Street pharmacy and was met by a fusillade of shots from the druggist’s’ pistol.”

Mannion told a couple of other stories that can be dated to 1913. The Maze Department Store on the corner of Washington and Main had an art department and was selling prints of “September Morn,” a wildly-popular painting of a nude woman standing in a lake – the sort of artwork someone buys while thinking, “this will really class up the joint.”

augustmornThe store had a copy in their window display until “the good ladies trying to protect the town’s morals” (Mannion’s words) protested. Their taking offense apparently offended Hall, who talked the store into placing the picture with its back to the window – but in front of a mirror, so the image was plainly in view from the street. Selling at $1.75 each, the store had trouble keeping up with demand.

(RIGHT: Dressed statue of the goddess Hebe. Courtesy Sonoma County Library)

But Gil was not done with tweaking Petaluma’s blue noses. Outside the department store on the Washington street side was the WCTU water fountain, which had at its top a 5-foot bronze statue of the nude Greek goddess Hebe. With two co-conspirators Gil placed a Mother Hubbard dress over the statue. Wags promptly dubbed the censored statue “August Morn.”

That pre-Prohibition barkeep also said, “if I were a writer, I’d do Gil Hall’s life, and I’d have a best seller on my hands.” Well, get in line, bub – Soberanes and Mannion both wanted to write The Legend of the Fabulous Gil Hall and asked readers to send in Hall stories (apparently no one did). Justice of the Peace Webb had a number of stories so if any member of the Webb family recall an old manuscript up in the attic, contact me.

Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library
Gilbert Pine Hall (1859-1932) in 1924. Courtesy Sonoma County Library

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chickencrisis

THE PETALUMA ROOSTER CRISIS OF 1951

All Bernice wanted was a good night’s sleep. She didn’t mean to throw the town into an existential crisis. At least, I don’t think so.

On July 2, 1951, she went to a City Council meeting. “I am complaining about roosters that wake us up,” she said. “I think we should get rid of these birds.”

It was a shocking proposal. The birds in question were chickens and Bernice Gardner lived in Petaluma, a town which had long shackled itself to the Leghorn and its skill at reliably cranking out lovely white eggs – which sometimes pop out fuzzy baby chicks, hence: Roosters.

“We must consider the poultry business,” Councilman Walter Brown said, adding helpfully “all roosters crow.” Perhaps he was wondering if Mrs. Gardner didn’t understand she was complaining about chickens. In Petaluma.

The acting City Manager pointed out there was no prohibition on keeping animals within city limits and presented a thumbnail history of an earlier tussle over the issue that limited the animal kingdom to dogs and cats. This was useful, as it gave the Council members a moment to recover from shock and gather their political wits about them.

Councilman Norwood suggested they could write an anti-noise ordinance. A zoning ordinance might be the thing, Councilman Shoemaker thought. Norwood added that they could make it a nuisance ordinance. “We would do something about a howling dog. It’s the same thing, only a different noise.”

City attorney Brooks offered his two cents, although I’ll bet he billed the city at a considerably higher rate. He said the Council could write a general ordinance or a specific rooster ordinance – but if roosters were being kept with malicious intent, a special specific ordinance could be enacted. With that said, the council voted to hold the item over for the next meeting.

Note there was no thought of restricting – much less banishing – chickens within city limits.

Bernice and husband Ralph, both in their early sixties, lived in the 600 block of Baker street, a Westside neighborhood off of Bodega Ave. where many homes have big backyards and plenty of room for a hen house. She told the Council, “at 5AM it’s anything but trivial. There are two across the street from my house, and another large one nearby which crows every five seconds. I have called the neighbors at 5AM to complain but nothing has been done about it.”

She seemed to make a valid point but at the next Council meeting, a woman named Clara Perry said she represented the neighbors and they had something to say – and not about chickens, but about Bernice. This was an eccentric thing to complain about, Clara charged, and surely the Council had more serious matters to consider. The record does not reveal whether she was, or was not, in possession of a rooster.

Again punting on a decision, the Council decided Bernice should next visit the Planning Commission. She also needed to file a complaint with the police signed by six other persons. It’s likely they now believed she was an isolated crank – although there was always a risk the rooster fight could turn into a replay of 1948.

That was the year of the petition against “fowls and livestock within the city limits” (Bernice was one of the three ringleaders in that effort). Petaluma was no longer a rural community the petitioners argued, and animals were both a nuisance and health risk, specifically “chicken raising in residential areas [is] an insurmountable source of rat nuisance.” About 300 signed the petition and a draft ordinance was hammered together. At the first Council meeting of 1949 the room was packed with protesters and a counter-petition with 900 signatures was presented. Their lawyer made a 15-point argument against the ordinance; #7 was that seized animals would be denied due process. The Argus-Courier headline the next day was, “Livestock Ordinance Beaten Down by Opposition Barrage.”

Alas for Bernice, her 1951 appearance before the Planning Commission didn’t go so well, either. Commissioners were only willing to discuss future considerations on the “subject of nuisances.” Nor could she muster even six people to sign her noise complaint. All the city had received was a single letter which condemned all “roosters, hens, flies, rats and odors” within the city. It was anonymously signed, “A Petaluma Citizen.”

Petalumans, it seems, were a remarkably tolerant bunch when it came to barnyard noises; a quick search of mid-century newspapers turns up surprisingly few police blotter items. In 1952 a woman on I street called the police over her neighbor’s cow, who “mooed all night and was still making a noise the next day.” A couple of times the Argus-Courier joked that rooster complaints were resolved via a dinner table. In fact, there’s only one other occasion that can be found where a resident thought roostering was serious enough to merit the government’s attention.

The year was 1945, and a woman complained to the City Council that roosters were waking her up each morning at 4:30. At the next Council meeting five of her neighbors showed up to defend the right to crow. “Mostly all the speakers felt the situation could be amicably corrected by the neighborhood itself,” the A-C reported. Note the article implied at least one of them thought the matter couldn’t be settled peaceably.

So here’s the obl. Believe-it-or-Not! reveal: The warring neighborhood in 1945 was Baker street, same as in 1951. One of the neighbors fighting the complaint in 1945 was again Clara Perry, who lived three door away from the woman who was so bothered by the crowing. The woman who said she couldn’t sleep in 1945 was again Bernice Gardner. And Bernice – who apparently couldn’t stand to be around chickens even though she was living in the most chicken-y town in America – knew well what roosters do, having spent about twenty years of her early married life on chicken ranches in Vallejo and Cotati. Familiarity breeds contempt, as they say. In her case, lots.

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