Posts Tagged zoology

Taxidermy

The animal is lost from us, has been taken out of us.  I don’t just mean in our city lives.  I also mean in nature.  You go out there, and they’re gone, the ordinary and the unusual, they’re two-thirds gone.  True, in some places you still see them in abundance, but these are sanctuaries and reserves, parks and zoos, special places.  The ordinary mixing with animals is gone.

People object to hunting.  That is not my problem.  Taxidermy does not create a demand; it preserves a result.  Were it not for our efforts, animals that have disappeared from the plains of their natural habitat would also disappear from the plains of our imagination.  Take the quagga, a subspecies of the common zebra, now extinct.  Without the preserved specimens now on display here and there, it would only be a word.

There are five steps in preparing and animal: skinning, curing the hide, preparing the mannequin, fitting the hide onto the mannequin, and finishing.  Each step, if well done, is time-consuming.   Fruitful patience is what separates the amateur from the professional taxidermist.  Much time is spent on the ears, eyes and nose of a mammal so that they are balanced, the eyes not crossed, the nose not bent, the ears not standing unnaturally, the whole giving the animal a coherent expression.  The body of the animal is then given a posture that reflects this expression.

We do not use the word stuffed anymore since it is simply not true.  The animal that meets a taxidermist is no longer stuffed like a bag with moss, spices, tobacco, or whatnot.  Science has shed its practical light on us as it has on every discipline.  The animal is rather “mounted” or “prepared”, and the process is scientific.

Fish are hardly done these days.  That part of the business has died faster than the rest.  The camera can preserve the prize catch quicker and cheaper than the taxidermist, and with the owner standing right next to it, for proof.  The camera has been very bad for the business of taxidermy.  As if the forgotten pages of a photo album were better than a wall holding up the real thing.

We get animals as a result of attrition in zoological gardens.  Hunters and trappers are an obvious source of animals; in this case, the supplier is also the customer.  Some animals are found dead, killed by disease or as a result of an encounter with a predator.  Others are roadkill.  The by-products of food-making supply us with the skins and skeletons of swine, cattle, ostriches, and the like, or with stranger fare from more exotic parts of the world – my okapi, for example.

Skinning an animal must be the taxidermist’s first perfection.  If it is not done well, there will be a price to pay later.  It is like the gathering of evidence for the historian.  Any flaw at this stage may be impossible to fix later on.  If the subcutaneous ends of a bird’s tail feathers are cut, for example, they will be much harder to set in a way that looks natural.  Mind you, the animal might come to the taxidermist already damaged, whether when it was killed by a hunter or by another animal in a zoo or in a collision with a vehicle.  Blood, dirt, and other spoilage can be dealt with, and damaged skin or feathers can, within reason, be repaired, but there are limits to what we can do.  The evidence can be so ruined as to prevent a proper interpretation of the event, to use the language of the historian.

The mannequin, the form upon which the skin will be placed, must be built.  Any number of frames and fillings can be used, and have been used, or better yet, a mannequin can be made from balsa wood.  For more elaborate projects, a mannequin is made of clay on a wire armature, a mould is built around it, perhaps in several pieces, and then a cast of fiberglass or polyurethane resin is made, resulting in a mannequin that is light and strong.

Sewing thread must match the colour of the fur.  The stitching is done close and tight, with care being taken that the amount of skin taken from each side of the stitch line is the same so that the skin is not stretched unevenly.  A figure-eight stitch is used because it brings the edges of the skin together without forming a ridge.  Linen thread, which is strong and does not rot, is the best.

The advantage of retaining the skull of an animal in its mounted version is that it can then be displayed open-mouthed, with its real teeth showing.  Otherwise, on a mannequin head, the mouth must be sewn shut, or an elaborate mouth must be constructed, with artificial gums, teeth, and tongue.  The tongue is the hardest animal part to get right.  No matter the effort we put in, it always looks either too dull or too shiny.  It’s generally not a problem to keep the mouth shut – but what of the snarling tiger or the snapping crocodile, whose mouths are so expressive?

The pose given to the animal, at least the mammal or the bird, is a crucial matter.  Standing straight, skulking, leaping, tense, relaxed, lying on its side, wings out, wings tucked in, and so on – the decision must be made early on since it will affect the making of the mannequin and will play a crucial role in the expressiveness of the animal.  The choice is usually between the theatrical or the neutral, between the animal in action or the animal at rest.  Each choice conveys a different feel, the first of liveliness captured, the second of waiting.  From that, we get two different taxidermic philosophies.  In the first, the liveliness of the animal denies death, claims that time has merely stopped.  In the second, the fact of death is accepted and the animal is simply waiting for time to end.

The difference is immediately grasped between a stiff, glazed-eyed animal that is standing unnaturally and one that looks moist with life and seemingly ready to jump.  Yet that contrast rests on the smallest, most particular details.  The key to taxidermic success is subtle, the result is obvious.

The layout of animals in a habitat setting or diorama is as carefully thought-out as the blocking of actors on a stage.  When done well, when professionals are at work, the effect is powerful, a true glimpse of nature as it was.  Look at the crouch of the animal at the river’s edge, look at the playfulness of the cubs in the grass, see how that gibbon hangs upside down – it’s as if they were alive once again and nothing had happened.

There is no excuse for bad work.  To ruin an animal with shoddy taxidermy is to forfeit the only true canvas we have on which to represent it, and it condemns us to amnesia, ignorance and incomprehension.

There was a time when every good family brightened up its living room with a mounted animal or a case of birds, some representative from the forest that remained in the home while the forest retreated.  That business has all dried up, not only the collecting but the preserving.  Now the living room is likely to be dull and the forest silent.

Is there a level of barbarism involved in taxidermy?  I see none.  Or only if one lives a life entirely sheltered from death in which one never looks into the back room of a butcher shop, or the operating room of a hospital, or the working room of a funeral parlour.  Life and death live and die in exactly the same spot, the body.  It is from there that both babies and cancers are born.  To ignore death, then, is to ignore life.  I no more mind the smell of an animal’s carcass than I do the smell of a field; both are natural and each has its attaching particularity.

And let me repeat; taxidermists do not create a demand.  We merely preserve a result.  I have never hunted in my life and have no interest in the pursuit.  I would never harm an animal.  They are my friends.  When I work on an animal, I work in the knowledge that nothing I do can alter its life, which is past.  What I am actually doing is extracting and refining memory from death.  In that, I am no different from a historian, who parses through the material evidence of the past in an attempt to reconstruct it and then understand it.  Every animal I have mounted has been an interpretation of the past.  I am a historian, dealing with an animal’s past; the zookeeper is a politician, dealing with an animal’s present; and everyone else is a citizen who must decide on that animal’s future.  So you see, we are dealing here with matters so much weightier than what to do with a dusty stuffed duck inherited from an uncle.

I should mention a development of the last few years, what has been called art taxidermy.  Art taxidermists seek not to imitate but to create new, impossible species.  They – that is, the artist directing the taxidermist – attach one part of an animal to another part of another, so the head of a sheep to the body of a dog, or the head of a rabbit to the body of a chicken, or the head of a bull to the body of an ostrich, and so on.  The combinations are endless, often ghoulish, at times disturbing.  I don’t know what they mean to do.  They are no longer exploring animal nature, that is clear.  I think they are rather exploring human nature, often at its most tortured.  I cannot say it is to my taste, it certainly goes against my training, but what of that?  It continues a dialogue with animals, however odd, and must serve the purpose of some people.

Insects are the eternal enemy of taxidermy and have to be exterminated at every stage.  Our other enemies are dust and excessive sunlight.  But the worst enemy of taxidermy, and also of animals, is indifference.  The indifference of the many, combined with the active hatred of the few, has sealed the fate of animals.

I became a taxidermist because of the writer Gustave Flaubert.  It was his story “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitator” that inspired me.  My first animals were a mouse and then a pigeon, the same animals that Julian first kills.  I wanted to see if something could be saved once the irreparable had been done.  That is why I became a taxidermist: to bear witness.

Excerpt from Beatrice and Virgil

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