The Jon C. Pigage Natural History Museum is stuffed with learning opportunities

Hidden away in the Osborne Center for Science and Engineering is a comprehensive collection of wildlife specimens. Bison, bats, squirrels, deer, big cats and many other creatures lounge on the shelves at the Jon C. Pigage Natural History Museum.

The museum is a great place to observe and view specimens, but acts as much more than that. Classes are held there and meetings conducted. Master’s students defend their theses to an audience of both humans and attentive critters. The space is also used for the Cool Science Festival, an organization that provides hands-on student outreach for STEAM curriculum for local kids.

Cottontail rabbit skeleton.

The animals provide a valuable firsthand method of studying and learning, and allow students to see subtle differences in similar creatures. It’s named after the late Jon C. Pigage, mammalogist, mentor and UCCS biology professor who passed in 2018.

The collection is part donations, part labor of love. It started with Pigage bringing over 250 pieces with him in 1994 from Illinois to UCCS. Between more additions from him and his wife Helen, who still teaches biology at UCCS, and donations from students, institutions and private donors, the collection has grown to nearly 900 pieces of about 136 species. Pigage was often on the lookout for new additions or scouring websites for skulls and skins, and contributed many of the museum’s photographs in frames that he personally constructed and cut the glass and mats for.

For Jon, Helen says, “The museum was a work of love for the university and community. He loved to ‘collect’ so this endeavor fused his interests and those of the broader community.”

“Sally” the bison.

Specimen types in the collection vary, from fully taxidermied and posed models to skeletons and skins. While Pigage compiled much of the collection himself, others have contributed over the years. Institutions and private donors, along with Colorado taxidermist Larry R. Daily, who serves as the museum’s primary taxidermist, have helped add to the assortment.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife donated several pieces, including a mountain lion, black bear and ringtail (a type of small mammal), while the Turner Foundation gave the museum “Sally,” a bison that broke her neck falling into a chute on Turner’s ranch.

The collection also boasts a few rarities, like the hippo skull of “Maggie” on permanent loan from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, or the black-footed ferret taxidermies from the Fort Collins breeding program donated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Another unique specimen comes from a staff member who lent a hand and then some by donating his own leg. After health complications led to a necessary amputation, chemistry lab technician Chuck Simmons brought his leg in and he and Jon de-fleshed it themselves. Years later, Kathleen Collier, a UCCS graduate student and 2019 museum endowment recipient, helped assemble it for display.

Talk about giving the museum a leg up on collection content.

Professional-grade specimen cabinets.

Like Collier, other students have helped keep up the assortment and some have also received endowments. The legacy was enacted by Ellen P. Elliot, Jon’s sister, in July 2018 and has been awarded to three students since. The students usually help with the maintenance of collection as well.

The collection is kept pristine in part because of the professional-grade cabinets – the same type used at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. The powdered stainless steel containers come with tight seals that keep the stuffed vermin in and the live vermin out.

Now managed by Helen Pigage and biology assistant professor Aaron Corcoran alongside the endowment students, the museum serves as a tribute to Jon C. Pigage and as a testament to his passion for his work. Those interested in visiting can reach out to Helen or Aaron to set up a visit, or join the Cool Science Festival day on Saturday, Oct. 1 at UCCS.

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