SOUTH LOOP — Bill Stanley, the mammal collections manager for the Field Museum, is watching over a colleague hard at work dissecting a sea lion when he offers some words of advice:
"Do not chop up the front flippers. Back flippers are OK," Stanley said.
It's not normal workplace conversation around Chicago, but it's pretty standard for Stanley, a Hyde Park resident who oversees the 221,176 mammal specimens in the museum's collection. They date back to a duck-billed platypus that arrived on Oct. 31, 1893, but also include a new species of African shrews identified by Stanley this summer.
Stanley, a Field Museum zoologist since 1989, is in charge of making sure all of the museum's specimens are cleaned and cataloged.
"I'm not adverse to walking with a wet chipmunk in my hand," Stanley later tells a colleague who is readying animals for transport to another part of the museum. Referring to additional specimens, he mentions: "Did you see the trays? A lot of them are pickled."
"Pickled" refers to the state of many of the dead animals that are kept in alcohol-filled jars at the museum to keep them from decomposing.
Only about 1 percent of the specimens are on display. The rest are stored in high-security vaults underground and on the museum's top levels, where Stanley's office is located.
Scientists from around the world visit the Field to conduct research on the various mammals, from cougars, red foxes and mice to much-lesser-known hammerhead bats, aardwolfs, rhynchocyons and pangolins.
"Bill has boundless energy and enthusiasm for the museum’s scientific collections, for increasing what we know about the natural world based on those collections, and for the real-world conservation that results," said Larry Heaney, the Field Museum's curator of mammals.
Said Stanley: "I don't make a lot of money doing this, yet I feel like I'm incredibly lucky to enjoy my work. I spend a lot of time here. This is my life."
It seems an appropriate life for Stanley, who was born in Beirut, moved to northern California, spent eight years in Kenya — graduating from a high school in Nairobi — lived on a Kibbutz in Israel, went to Virginia to remodel an old farm house and attended college back in northern California. He graduated with a bachelor's and master's from Humboldt State University.
It was his time in Africa that truly shaped Stanley's life, he said. While in Nairobi, where his father, Bob, worked for Bank of America, Stanley hunted on safaris and became fascinated with animals.
"Our best times were on safari, living in tents, cooking over a campfire and surrounded by animals," said Stanley's mother, Jo, a retired teacher who lives in Virginia. "Bill was raised with all kinds of animals by a family that loved animals."
When Stanley was 11, he captured a butterfly he thought was a new species, and his mom took him to the National Museum of Kenya, where she was a volunteer. There, Stanley met researcher Mike Clifton, who walked Stanley into a "huge, giant room with cases stacked three high." And when Clifton opened one particular case, it was filled with hundreds of the same butterfly Stanley had found.
"To this day, I can close my eyes, and I can feel the switch turned on," Stanley said. "I knew then this is what I wanted to do. I was so hooked into it."
Perhaps appropriately, he met his longtime girlfriend, former Field Museum fish collections manager Mary Anne Rogers, while dissecting a pygmy hippopotamus at Lincoln Park Zoo.
His latest obsession is discussing the skeleton of a new species of Hero Shrew that Stanley identified as new this summer after it was discovered in Africa. Stanley named it after a former professor at Humboldt State.
The "Thor's Hero Shrew" has a spine so unique and strong, a grown adult can stand on it without causing any damage. The Field has possession of the shrew's holotype — which will be used as the standard to identify additional members of the species in the future.
"People are shocked when we're finding new species of animals," Stanley said.
Stanley visits Africa for two weeks each February, leading a Field Museum-sponsored tour of the Serengeti, where 1.5 million wildebeest birth their calves. He still takes great joy in photographing the plethora of mammals there, including zebras, lions, rhinos and the ultra-rare African wild dogs.
He brings that same passion to his daily routine at the Field, either during his unusual banters with other employees or the endless hours of alone time underground with thousands of skeletal companions.
"I'm not gonna retire," Stanley said. "I'm going to do this until the day I die."