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Odd Wisconsin Archive

A Capitol Fish Story

Considered ugly by some and revered by others, sturgeon boast a rich history in Wisconsin. After having survived whatever killed the dinosaurs, they evolved into a robust fish that can enjoy a lifespan of more than a century. In 1932, one sturgeon proved its lasting power in a particularly fragrant way.

For years, state law required that confiscated fish and game had to be sold for the state's benefit. Game wardens applying conservation laws, however, were sometimes lax about complying and enforcement was haphazard. Many a confiscated goose or deer was consumed privately at the local level. But in the early 1930s, lawmakers decided to hold wardens accountable for the proper disposal of confiscated animals. A new provision was inserted in the legal code requiring that seized fish and game be sent to the state Capitol. And so there a capturede sturgeon was soon deposited, unpreserved, in a basement storage room.

Ever dignified, members of the Supreme Court intially ignored the stench rising up the elevator shaft from below. But as it intensified, the justices decided that laws about abating a public nuisance trumped those about confiscated game. Capitol custodian Tony Pickarts — already celebrated in Madison for capturing and skinning a skunk near the Capitol two years earlier — was called in to locate and remove the odor.

Pickarts' investigation led him to a subterranean vault in the east wing. There, much to his dismay, he discovered a cache of decaying venison and sturgeon. After removing these, he was still faced with the problem of the lingering smell rising from the concrete floor.

Many lawmakers were said to be so scarred by the stench that they swore off sturgeon alogether, even giving up caviar. In an effort to avoid another incident, the law was changed and conservation wardens were once again entrusted with selling confiscated sturgeon locally.

To read more about Wisconsin's sturgeon—illegally poached and otherwise—check out the Wisconsin Historical Society Press's new publication, People of the Sturgeon: Wisconsin's Love Affair with an Ancient Fish.

:: Posted in Animals on November 12, 2009

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