June 06, 2011

The Story of the Stabbing Cat

Ben Witte had always said he wanted to find a “stabbing cat.” Though trained as a classical pianist, Ben was an avid amateur fossil hound and his holy grail was the skull of a saber-toothed cat. In the summer of 1963, he was looking forward to another trip to the rich fossil beds in the Badlands of South Dakota with his wife, Bev and a small party of friends. In those days, Bev was an artist, experienced in both commercial and fine art.

When the group arrived, Ben and a friend went off to search. At that time, you didn’t need a permit to search for (or cart off) fossils. Ben and his friend split up to examine either side of a rocky ridge. Nosing along, he noticed something protruding from the ridge that looked suspiciously like the two long canine teeth of a small cat.

“There they were,” recalls Bev, “just sticking out of the rock… the teeth of his stabbing cat.” Ben had been in such a hurry to get to the search that he didn’t even have a backpack with him. He and Bev returned with enough sacks to carry off “every bit of rock that looked like it might hold a bone.” It took over an hour and a half to gather it all, but when they did, they had enough to one of the most complete specimens of Hoplophoneus ever found at that time.

Hoplophoneus fossil


It took several years for Ben's discovery to be displayed at the Burke. Bev didn’t begin to volunteer at the museum until 1964 so before she was hired as a preparator in 1968, Hoplophoneus waited at home. The large concretionary hunks of stone in which the fossil was embedded had to be removed by sandblaster and small bits needed removal with a vibrating tool. When the fossils were cast, Bev made molds of the skull and pelvis and Camille Evans and Steve Nelson helped with the rest of the bones. For assembly, the team relied on books describing cat anatomy, as well as in-house training provided by the museum. A placement challenge was a strange long, thin piece that turned out to be a piece of the clavicle. Later, they heard from well-known paleontologist Robert Bakker that the arms should have been placed elbows slightly out, given the arboreal nature of the animal. “We always meant to reposition those arms,” said Bev, “but never got around to it.”

But the biggest obstacle was Ben’s attachment to the skull. Even though he and Bev had already generously donated two brontothere mandibles they had collected, he was loath to part with this iconic piece of his fabulous find, his “stabbing cat.” Now his “stabbing cat” is on display for all to enjoy.

About Bev Witte: Married to Ben Witte, Bev worked for the Burke as a preparator from 1968 till her retirement in 1998. She said she got the job because she had already learned how to use the preparation as a volunteer. After retirement she volunteered two days a week at the Burke for many years, only recently cutting back to one.
Bev Witte with fossils at the Burke Museum

Submitted by: Peg Boettcher, Communications

We thank Bev Witte for her time, patience, and wonderful story.