Hugh B. Codding, bronzed not stuffed


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.


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
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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Sounds of a spring evening, downtown Santa Rosa, 1908: Crickets chirping, horses clopping, men blasting guns skywards into trees, blindly, with no light for aiming except for flickering candles and lanterns. It was probably a good idea to stay safely indoors that night.

The quarry was a formerly pet raccoon, who had escaped and developed a taste for caged chicken. As it wasn’t mentioned that this ‘coon was minus a leg, it presumably was another animal than the one shot out of a tree by a cop back in 1905.

The story ended with a boy selling the dead raccoon in Santa Rosa’s little Chinatown, but given that many old-timers from the Southern U.S. were quite fond of raccoon recipes, the enterprising young man might have made more by selling the carcass to a cook along McDonald Avenue.

Animal Treed and Killed in the Grounds of the Hahman Residence on Third Street

There was a coon hunt right in the heart of Santa Rosa at a late hour on Friday night and the game was treed and finally dropped into earth.

For some time the tell tale nightly slaughter in chicken roosts, particularly on Second and Third streets, and the knowledge that the animal was abroad in the land, having escaped from a pen were it had been kept as a pet, has kept householders on the qui vive and officers and civilians have been on the lookout for Mr. Coon.

About 10:30 o’clock Friday night a commotion in the chicken house in the grounds of the residence of Mrs. Henrietta A. Hahmann on Third street–a place previously visited by the animal–warned members of the family that the four-footed prowler was around making a another call. The fine Plymouth Rock hens, tasted once before, had called back an appetite for more.

A telephone message to police headquarters for Chief of Police Fred Rushmore and Police Officer I. N. Lindley to the scene. There was an exciting chase and the animal took to a tree. It was some time before the hiding place of the chicken thief could be located and then Chief Rushmore took a shot into the leafy bower and missed in the uncertain light afforded by candles and lanterns. Policemen Lindley joined in the fusillade. C. Louis Kolf who lives a little way further down the street, and is a great hunter, was attracted to the place and he brought his rifle with him. The rifle proved Mr. Coon’s undoing. Rushmore took aim and this time the bullet found a billet in the animal’s anatomy, and it fell with a dull thud to the ground. Another bullet from Kolf and all was over.

A lad with an eye to business and a recollection that Chinese make mysterious dishes with just such pot luck, came along. He shouldered the chicken-fed coon and wended his way to Chinatown. There was much rejoicing in Mongolian quarters. He found a willing purchaser and before long the aroma of cooking with doubtless a coon-chicken flavor, came floating out of the shack in which the feast was in course of preparation.

– Press Democrat, May 10, 1908

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His story sounded like something made up on the spot: Honest, officer, I was hired by Lord Rothschild to kill these birds. The Lake County game warden must have thought the poacher before him was a clumsy liar or maybe daft; why would one of the world’s richest men send some guy to Lakeport to illegally shoot birds?

Incredibly, the story was true. The man was Dr. Charles M. Harris, a renowned taxidermist who could skin fifty birds in a day. For more than a decade, he had indeed worked for Walter Rothschild, the eldest son of fabulously wealthy London banker Baron Rothschild. While other powerful bankers in the late 19th century loaned money to giants of industry, the House of Rothschild funded nations, having built the largest fortune in modern world history. Walter, however, wanted to spend money as fast as possible. He was an amateur zoologist, and a collector on a scale that made William Randolph Hearst look like a piker. He seemingly wanted one specimen of everything that flies, walks, crawls, swims or slithers, alive or dead. He was an eccentric but fascinating man, often so obsessed with his collections that his sanity was in doubt.

Before charging down the trail that led Dr. Harris to Lake County in 1908, indulge me a paragraph of rant. The story of Walter Rothschild is now my quintessential example of how unreliable the Internet can be for research. Except for a bare-bones Wikipedia page offering random facts, there are only a handful of online resources (biblio below in addition to article links) that tell even a part of his remarkable tale, and sometimes the facts are cockeyed or the rough patches are sanded flat. In a couple of my research dead-ends, Google Books blocked critical pages in “preview view” or hinted in “snippet view” that intriguing information may (or may not) be found in a book. Look, I would happily buy a digital copy of the book (or even just that essential page!) on the spot, since a scanned copy is obviously on their hard disks. But that’s not an option, even though these are books long out of print and usually can’t be obtained through inter-library loan. If I hadn’t lucked across a copy of “Dear Lord Rothschild” – a biography written by his niece and difficult to find in the U.S. – I wouldn’t have even known how to properly research his life. The takeaway lesson is threefold: Even in 2011, loads of critical information is still not available online; Internet articles – including this one – have no standing next to a real book that took years (decades?) to research and write; also, a Google Book search is no substitute for a good book index and bibliography. End of rant.

The first anecdote usually told about Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) has him announcing at seven years old that he was going to build a little museum of insect specimens in a garden shed. But an incident from age five was even more revealing. He brought a dead butterfly to his mother, which she told him was a “nice Tortoiseshell.” The little boy disagreed: “No, it’s not. It’s different.” And he was right – that butterfly really was from another, rarer species.

The next vignette from Walter’s youth finds him at 13, when he met Albert Günther, head of the zoology department at the Natural History Museum in London. Walter quickly attached himself to Günther and made him a mentor, writing through his teenage years hundreds of letters to the man ten years older than his father. Günther was cautious in encouraging the boy, aware that the powerful family was expecting Walter to become a financial Napoleon instead of a hunter of bugs.

Walter had no formal childhood education, but attended colleges in Germany and at Cambridge for three years (at the latter, he brought along a flock of brown kiwis, which can grow as large as a big chicken). When he turned twenty-one in 1889, Walter and his father came to an understanding; he would join the bank to learn the trade, and his father would give him a plot of land on the outskirts of “Tring Park,” the family’s six square-mile country estate where he could build a museum to house his collections. In truth, his father probably wanted the museum to be built as much as Walter; the manor house, sheds and rented buildings were overflowing with boxes stuffed with hundreds of thousands of mounted beetles, butterflies, moths, and things larger.

If Baron Rothschild hoped his son’s interest in zoology would wane as he grew older, he was quite wrong. From his banker’s chair over the next twenty years, Walter would fund over 300 collecting expeditions, including Dr. Harris’ bird-hunting trip to Northern California. If anything, his collecting mania grew out of control, and some thought he was mad. When Walter ordered Dr. Harris to the Galápagos islands with the mission to capture every single giant tortoise they could find, Harris first secretly told Albert Günther about the planned trip, giving him the opportunity to intervene (he didn’t).

The Galápagos expedition is well-documented, and shows that these trips came with considerable risks. Four men died and Harris was nearly killed by yellow fever. Walter found his expedition budgets swelling with payments to doctors, widows, morticians, and collectors seriously injured – on another trip, a man had his arm ripped off by a leopard. But Dr. Harris managed to bring sixty live giant tortoise to England. (Capturing a giant tortoise is the easy part, as it turned out. When Harris and the others would find one, they turned it onto the back of its shell and weighted it down with a rock before going off to search for more. But when they returned, they would sometimes find the animals had shaken the rocks off and flipped themselves back over. Thus the mission became not the hunt for rare tortoise, but the search for nice heavy rocks.)

(Images courtesy of Natural History Museum at Tring)

Walter’s herd of giant tortoises became the signature part of his menagerie; one of the most famous photographs of him is the one at right, wearing a proper Edwardian morning coat and top hat while riding on the back of a tortoise being coaxed along with a leaf of lettuce on a stick. The other best-known picture has Walter driving a four-in-hand carriage pulled by zebras, a stunt he performed in a courtyard of Buckingham Palace to demonstrate they could be tamed – although he later admitted he was terrified of what might happen when a young girl in the royal family tried to pet one of them. Also roaming the grounds of his museum were kangaroos, ostriches. wild horses, emus, deer, turkeys, cassowaries, a tame wolf, a monkey, an anteater, and an opossum, which slept under his desk during the day. And when these pets died, he had them skinned and stuffed for his museum, which became known by local children as the “Dead Zoo.” (His ‘evolution of the dog’ exhibit is particularly creepy.)

Although there was a trench separating the museum grounds from the rest of the estate, escapes likely added to the tensions between Walter and his father. The kangaroos would regularly tear up the flower beds surrounding the manor house, causing the Baron’s staff of gardeners to often have to replant daily. One of the cassowaries – a flightless bird that can grow taller than an adult human – attacked the Baron’s horse when he was on a morning ride, and a dingo bit several horses in the stables.

The crisis came in 1907-1908, when it became clear that Walter’s spending had gone off the rails. Most of the property he owned had been mortgaged, and the museum was deeply in debt. The Baron disinherited his son, and Walter resigned from the bank. The estate would go to his younger brother Charles, who remained in banking. (Charles, by the way, was also a lifelong entomology buff, building the world’s top collection of fleas and discovering the identity of the plague flea.) Walter would inherit the title (becoming the Second Lord Rothschild) and £1,000,000, more than enough for him to continue expanding his museum and funding new expeditions.

The one thing that Walter desired most he could not buy: Membership into the scientific community. He had pissed off everyone at the Natural History Museum except Günther with his fits of pique; once he threatened to break his promises of specimen donation when the curator named one of “his” giant tortoises without Walter’s permission. Rarely would a scientific journal publish his letters or studies, and when his work was questioned or rejected, he responded with tirades insulting the editor. And despite having amassed the most significant collection of bugs on the entire planet, he wasn’t even allowed to join the Royal Society until 1911. Stymied in gaining any foothold in this fraternity, he gave up and launched his own scientific journal, with himself as editor.

In many ways, Walter Rothschild was like Luther Burbank. Both expected (demanded, really) due respect as scientists even though they ignored the basic precepts of the scientific method, such as keeping good notes on your research. More than once, Walter mistakenly claimed to have discovered a new species when the creature was actually still a juvenile or only had individual variations in color or markings. And of the millions of butterflies in his collection, he liked to boast, “I have no duplicates,” a claim that defies belief.

Walter also had a career as a Member of Parliament, and played a key role in the movement to establish modern-day Israel, a topic explored in depth on many other web pages. He continued to expand his museum, set back only by the 1931 purchase of his entire stuffed bird collection by the American Museum of Natural History. That Walter sold anything – particularly one of the crown jewels of his life’s work – seems antithetical to his nature, and it was. But he needed to raise $225,000 because he was being blackmailed by a former mistress, said to be a peeress and her husband. While he could have tapped the family coffers for the sum, he couldn’t bear the thought of his elderly mother learning of his indiscretion.

In the end his collection included 300,000 bird skins, 2,000 stuffed birds (presumably stuffed after the blackmail sale) and over 2 million butterflies and moths. He left it all to the UK Natural History Museum, and exhibits are still on display in his museums. If you visit, skip gallery six with the creepy dogs, all of them with glass-marble eyes sadly looking at you as if they want someone to explain why their old companion did this to them. (UPDATE: There was a dog cemetery at Tring, so few, if any, of these animals were actually pets of the family.)

Whatever his failings and foibles, what Walter Rothschild created was simply incredible, never attempted before by an individual and rarely by nations. A member of the Rothschild Archive summed it up well:

It is hard to absorb the scale of these numbers, but the logistics of collection which lie behind them is, to me, still more staggering. Walter was employing collectors and arranging expeditions, as we have seen, from the time he was up at Cambridge. He continued throughout his life. The journey for each one of his specimens, ending in a drawer in Tring, begins in some remote part of the globe and involves, in each case, a collector, a packer, a sequence of transporters, in some cases a dealer, a taxidermist or setter in the case of insects and, finally, one of the Tring trio to identify, label, record, file and perhaps publish. All of this repeated millions of times. And at the heart of this, one man’s drive, organizational ability and finance…. It was equally significant that, perhaps for the first time, the man with resources could conceive a scheme on a global scale and actually have a chance of pulling it off. As a Rothschild, Walter would have been used to hearing his relatives in business talking in such global terms: their day-to-day business involved resources and finance for virtually every corner of the globe. And as a Rothschild, he had access – or so it seemed – to unlimited resources.

But wind the clock back to 1908, the crucial year that Dr. Harris found himself under arrest in Lake County. What a loss that neither Press Democrat editor Ernest Finley nor other local newspapermen knew who he was, or his link to one of the most eccentric and interesting persons in the world. What a story it would have made to sit down with him and ask, “tell me about your boss. Tell me what it was like to sail a ship with a cargo of sixty giant tortoises around Cape Horn. Tell me about all your other adventures hunting for the great Dead Zoo.”


Something in the Genes: Walter Rothschild, Zoological Collector Extraordinaire
A sheltered life: the unexpected history of the giant tortoise
The Aurelian legacy: British butterflies and their collectors
Introducing Walter Rothschild (interesting but whitewashed video from The Natural History Museum at Tring)

Deputy Lea Lands a Man Who Claims He is Securing a Collection for the Rothschilds

In order to provide the Rothschilds, the wealthy London bankers, with a collection of California birds of all descriptions, Charles N. Harris says he went gunning in Lake County. When arrested he already killed about 140 birds. Deputy Game Commissioner A. F. Lea made the arrest in Lakeport the day before yesterday, and Harris is awaiting trial.

Deputy Lea stated yesterday that Harris was in the habit of killing the birds and then take them back to San Francisco where they were stuffed and mounted. The Rothschilds are to pay a big sum for the collection when it is completed, according to Harris’ story. Some of the birds he secured in Lake County are said to have been Mountain Quail.

– Press Democrat, March 25, 1908
Case is Unique in Annals of Prosecution of Violations of the Game Laws

Mention was made in the Press Democrat Wednesday morning of the arrest in Lakeport of Charles N. Harris, who is securing an exhibit of stuffed birds for the Rothschilds of England, on a charge of killing birds out of season. The Lakeport Press adds these additional details of the case:

“Game Warden Alonzo Lea and A. M.. Fairfield dropped into town Thursday and yesterday arrested Charles M. Harris, a cousin of Jack Wilson, who has been in the county about five weeks. The charge against the man was that of killing quail out of season. He appeared before Justice Bruton, pleaded guilty and was released on $150 cash bail, and April 4th was set as the date for pronouncing sentence. Seventeen charges are held pending against him but will probably not be prosecuted.

“The case is an interesting one and unique in the annals of the prosecution of violations of game laws. Harris is an expert taxidermist and has traveled over much of the world in his business, and is said to have been in the employ of the Rothschilds, the millionaire bankers of Europe, preparing specimens for their private collection. The Sunday Examiner a short time ago had a page account and pictures of some of his work. Here he has been making a collection of the native birds of this county, and the Wardens seized 148 specimens of various bird skins, particularly prepared for mounting. The killing of protected birds is permitted by law when they are taken for public institutions of science on a regularly authorized permit but Harris admitted that he was collecting for private sale and had no permits.

The collection was a revelation of the wealth and beauty of bird life in this county. The confiscated skins will probably be presented by the Game Commission to the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, which lost all his collection in the big fire.”

– Press Democrat, March 26, 1908

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