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The Weird Week in Review

School Drops the Word "School"

Watercliffe Meadow in Sheffield, England opened in September to replace three schools, but don't call it a school. The institution is referred to as "a place for learning" instead. Headmistress Linda Kingdon has banned the word "school" because it has negative connotations for the parents of many of the students. The decision has drawn some ridicule from parents, and from those who read the story around the world.

German Lovers Try to Elope to Africa

Six-year-old Mika and five-year-old Anna-Bell hatched a plot to run away to Africa and get married. They even took along a witness, Mika's seven-year-old sister, Anna-Lena. The children packed their bags on New Year's Eve and took off from Hanover, Germany on foot. They caught a tram to the train station. They were at the station waiting for a train to take them to the airport when a station guard noticed them and called police. The children were reunited with their shocked parents, after a tour of the police station. The children said they didn't inform their parents because they did not think they would be gone for long. See a video here.

Babysitter Shot by Angry 4-year-old

18-year-old Nathan Beavers was babysitting several children in Jackson, Ohio when he accidentally stepped on the foot of a four-year-old boy. The child became angry, retrieved a shotgun, and shot the babysitter. Beavers was hospitalized with minor injuries. Another teenager was also injured in the attack, which took place on Sunday. The child has not been charged, but police are still investigating.

Skier Suffers Exposure

120exposure.jpgA ski lift mishap at Blue Sky Basin resort in Vail, Colorado left a 48-year-old man hanging upside down with his pants pulled down (or up, in this case) on New Years Day. The seat on the chairlift was apparently in the wrong position, allowing the man to slip through the gap. His boot stayed in its binding, so he dangled upside-down instead of falling out. The Skyline Express lift was stopped and the unnamed man hung for about 15 minutes before workers could dislodge him.

Man Wins Fight To Prove He is Alive

A Romanian man had a year-long court fight to prove he is alive. Gheroghe Stirbu was officially listed as dead when civil servants mistook him for another man, then refused to admit they made a mistake. A judge granted his request for reinstatement as alive, but then ordered Stirbu to pay court costs.

"I will of course appeal the imposition of the costs but I am already beginning to wonder whether or not I would have been better off staying dead," Stirbu says.

Man Wants Donated Kidney Back

150kidney.jpgAs part of their divorce settlement, surgeon Richard Batista of Massapequa, New York is requesting the return of a kidney he donated to his wife Dawn in 2001. She filed for divorce after 15 years of marriage. He alleges that she was unfaithful.
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"As part of the litigation, we are asking for the value of the kidney that he gave his wife," attorney Dominic Barbara said. "In theory we actually asked for the return of the kidney."
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He will, however, settle for $1.5 million instead.

Mobile Meth Lab on a Mo-ped

An unnamed man in Warsaw, Indiana was arrested Tuesday when he drove up to a house on his mo-ped, a motorized bicycle, while police were issuing a search warrant. The Kosciusko County Sheriff's Department found he had a working meth lab attached to his mo-ped! The Indiana state police were called in to secure the volatile contents. Gasses produced by small methamphetamine cookers can explode without warning.

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U2’s 360-Degree Tour Stage Will Become a Utah Aquarium Attraction
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The immense stage that accompanied U2 on the band’s 360° Tour from 2009 to 2011 is getting an unexpected second life as a Utah educational attraction. It will soon be installed over a new plaza at the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium outside Salt Lake City.

The Claw, a 165-foot-tall structure shaped like a large spaceship balanced on four legs—a design inspired by the space-age Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport—was built to house a massive speaker system and cylindrical video screen for the band’s performances. Underneath it, a 360° stage allowed U2 to play to audiences surrounding the structure in all directions. To make it easier to tour 30 different countries with the elaborate system, which took more than a week to put together at each concert location, the band had several versions built.

U2 and its management have been looking for a buyer for the 190-ton structures since the tour ended in 2011, and it seems they have finally found a home for one of them. One of the two remaining Claw structures is coming to the Utah aquarium, where it’s being installed as part of a plaza at the institution’s new, 9-acre Science Learning Campus.

A four-legged, industrial-looking video-and-sound-projection rig rises over a crowd at a concert
The Claw at a Dublin concert in 2009
Kristian Strøbech, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

As the only Claw in the U.S., the alien-looking feat of engineering will be "preserved and sustainably repurposed as a Utah landmark and symbol of science exploration and learning," according to the aquarium's press release. As part of the expansion project, the 2300-square-foot stage system will play host to festivals, movies, and other special events in two venues, one with 7000 seats and the other with 350.

The $25 million Science Learning Campus hasn’t been built yet—construction is starting this fall—so you’ll have to wait awhile to relive your U2 concert experience at the aquarium.

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klonoaxero, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
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7 Mythical Beasts Created With Taxidermy
klonoaxero, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
klonoaxero, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1842, New Yorkers were lured into P. T. Barnum's American Museum by a banner depicting three mermaids with shapely bare chests and long hair. Inside, the creature that greeted visitors was not a beautiful siren at all, but a grotesque half-monkey, half-fish, its face seemingly frozen in a blood-curdling scream. While Barnum’s animal mash-up was not the first “Fiji mermaid," as he dubbed the creature, it sparked a frenzy for them in the 19th century. You can find surviving examples among the treasures of the British Museum in London, and lurking in the rafters of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop in Seattle.

Legends of animal hybrids and chimeric beasts date back to antiquity, but for proof, we want evidence. And over the centuries there have been many taxidermists happy to supply it. Whether it's the North American jackalope or Icelandic fur-bearing trout, the colorful history of mythical creatures made from taxidermy is full of imaginative—and disturbing—concoctions that stretch belief, and sometimes fool even the best of naturalists.

1. JENNY HANIVER

Jenny Haniver

If you’ve ever watched a ray or skate fish and thought that its nostrils and mouth looked like a flat face swimming by, you were on the same wavelength as the fabricators of the jenny haniver. In the 1976 book Animal Fakes & Frauds, author Peter Dance explains that the jenny haniver is “a manifestation of that terrible monster, the basilik or cockatrice.” He adds that the basilik was long depicted as a venomous snake, but by the 13th century “it had become a frightful monster and had acquired several more equally absurd attributes.” Among these was the fact that it was said to be born from a perfectly spherical egg “laid by a seven-year-old cock bird during the days of Sirius the dog star.”

Needless to say, these parameters gave a monster-maker a lot to work with. In 1558, Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner published a woodcut of a jenny haniver, adding that the medicine peddlers “are accustomed to dry rays and fashion their skeletons into varied and wonderful shapes.” Fabrication of jenny hanivers continued well into the 20th century; while researching his book, Dance was able to buy one in a shop in London's Soho. They are still occasionally made today, although conservation efforts have made their production and sale more difficult.

2. FUR-BEARING TROUT

Fur-bearing trout
LongLiveRock, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

How do fish survive in frigid water? Disregarding the facts of scientific biology, some tall tales have declared that fish in the coldest climates grow fur. In the 2003 book The Beasts That Hide from Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals, Karl Shuker cites an example in the Royal Museum of Scotland that arrived with a label declaring that it was captured in Lake Superior off the coast of Ontario, and that its dense fur was probably an adaptation to "the extreme penetrating coldness of the water."

The woman who brought the specimen to the museum was told, of course, that it was a fake. There are no furry fish; the fur-bearing trout is merely covered with white rabbit fur. Nevertheless, the myth has reach, from the hairy Icelandic Lodsilungur—purported to be an inedible torment by demons—to the supposedly furry trout of Montana. Conveniently, the North American variety obliterates itself if caught: As explained in a 1929 issue of Montana Wildlife, the change in temperature when taken out of the water "is so great that the fish explodes." However, there may be some reality behind the lore: The fungus Saprolegnia can cause fish to grow a cottony mold on their flesh.

3. WHITE-RUSSIAN SHORE-MUDDLER

The scientific name for the Vitrysk Strandmuddlare, or White-Russian Shore-muddler, is Lirpa lirpa. Flip those two words around and you’ll get a hint that this animal—with a wild boar piglet head, alligator tusks, squirrel tail, and duck legs—is a bit of tomfoolery.

In The Impossible Zoo: An Encyclopedia of Fabulous Beasts and Mythical Monsters, author Leo Ruickbie says that the sole taxidermied specimen, created in the 1960s, was "at one point exhibited every year at the Natural History Museum in Göteborg, Sweden, on 1 April.” According to Dance, it was created by museum director Dr. Bengt Hubendick to increase attendance, and the museum “benefited considerably from the annual display of its strangest inmate.”

4. BARE-FRONTED HOODWINK

In the 1950s, ornithologist Maury FJ Meiklejohn theorized that there was a reason for all the creatures that befuddled birdwatchers with ambiguous calls and obscure feather patterns: an unidentified species. As Rachel Warren-Chadd and Marianne Taylor relate in Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend, the Bare-fronted Hoodwink was imagined as "a representation of all birds that cannot be properly identified by the birdwatcher."

In a 1950 journal article about the species, Meiklejohn named it Dissimulatrix spuria and noted that it was most frequently seen by beginner birdwatchers. (Not everyone was amused: In a 1951 issue of Auk journal [PDF], one H. G. Deignan lamented: "One could wish that articles of this nature be omitted from the pages of serious journals.") A taxidermy version mixing together parts from a crow, duck, and plover was created by William Stirling, and is part of the collections of National Museums Scotland. It was exhibited in 1975 with photographs of the bird, all blurred.

5. JACKALOPE

Popular as postcard fodder in the American West, the jackalope is a portmanteau of jackrabbit and antelope. Its creation is often credited to Douglas Herrick of Wyoming, who in the 1930s returned home from hunting with a rabbit, which he put down next to a pair of deer antlers—and an idea was born. The fateful collision eventually led to the town of Douglas, Wyoming being nicknamed "Home of the Jackalope," with jackalope hunting licenses available one day a year.

Although Herrick may have been the first to create taxidermy “proof,” the idea of a horned hare has roots that go much deeper than American folklore. The Lepus cornutus can be found in medieval manuscripts, and a rabbit with antlers can be seen among the animals in Jan Brueghel’s 17th-century "The Virgin and Child in a Painting surrounded by Fruit and Flowers." In a 2014 article for WIRED, Matt Simon investigated the proliferation of this imagery, noting that back in the 1930s, perhaps around the same time Herrick was hunting rabbits, an American scientist found that the "horns" on some so-called jackalopes were actually tumors caused by a viral infection. Incredibly, the papillomaviruses that caused them—related to human papillomavirus, or HPV—first took root in a 300-million-year-old shared ancestor of birds, mammals, and reptiles, making truth indeed stranger than the jackalope fiction.

6. WOLPERTINGER

Wolpertinger

James Steakley, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

The wolpertinger is like an extreme jackalope. It has the head of a rabbit and the body of a squirrel, as well as antlers, vampiric fangs, and wings, although the recipe for the abomination is far from standardized. It’s similar to the skvader, a winged Swedish hare made in 1918 by taxidermist Rudolf Granberg.

At the German Hunting and Fishing Museum in Munich, visitors can see taxidermy “specimens” of these creatures said to be from Bavaria. These wolpertingers prowl a diorama of an alpine forest, displaying fangs, antlers, wings, duck feet, and all manner of freakish augmentations. The exact origin of the wolpertinger is unclear, although stuffed versions date to the 19th century. According to Germany's The Local, those who want to witness these beings in the wild, supposedly born from unholy love between species, "must be an attractive, single woman" and "visit a forest in the Bavarian Alps during a full moon, accompanied by the 'right man.'" Surely the most romantic of first date options.

7. WILD HAGGIS

Wild Haggis
MyName (StaraBlazkova), Wikimedia // CC BY-SA 4.0

Ever wondered how haggis, that most famed and feared of Scottish dishes, is made? Some claim you must first catch a wild haggis, a small mammal shaped like a sausage that has shorter legs on one side of its body than the other, the better to walk in the steep Scottish Highlands. Depending on which side is more stunted, the haggis can supposedly only run clockwise or counter-clockwise, so it’s hunted by sprinting in the other direction.

There is of course no such creature—haggis is a concoction of sheep innards—but taxidermists have long pranked gullible tourists. The Guardian reported that when the haggis maker Hall's of Broxburn polled 1000 American visitors, 33 percent believed haggis was an animal (and 23 percent boasted they could catch one). And if you believe that, someone has a haggis whistle to sell you.

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