Breath­ing life into dead an­i­mals

Peek­ing in­side the Su­per Bowl of taxi­dermy.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Hobbies - By CHRISTO­PHER BORRELLI

THE World Taxi­dermy Cham­pi­onships, a Su­per Bowl for handy peo­ple ob­sessed with bring­ing the dead back to some sem­blance of life, hap­pened in mid-May. It has been held ev­ery other year since 1983, and at­tracts about 1,000 taxi­der­mists from sev­eral coun­tries, vy­ing for US$36,000 (RM154,800) in prize money.

This year, there were more than 400 en­tries of dead wa­ter­fowl, dead cougars, dead bluegill, dead etc. If you are pic­tur­ing hun­ters speed-stuff­ing squir­rels with wood chips and crum­pled news­pa­per, you couldn’t be more wrong; like­wise, if you are pic­tur­ing pageantry and hype.

As the event opened, the streets around the Peo­ria Civic Cen­ter in Illi­nois, the United States, were zom­bie-apoca­lypse silent.

Larry Blomquist, the event’s or­gan­iser since 1994, said the cham­pi­onship has been held seven times in Illi­nois be­cause the state is less than a day’s drive for twothirds of the na­tion’s taxi­der­mists. Also, Illi­nois laws re­gard­ing an­i­mal skins and horns are agree­able.

Rick Hum­mel of Marengo, who brought a speck­le­belly goose, said: “It’s like your prom date. You pull out the tweez­ers and the mag­ni­fy­ing glass.”

If gym­nasts have a lean, sinewy grace, and foot­ball line­men are anvils on legs, then com­pet­i­tive taxi­der­mists, broadly, re­sem­ble bells, in cargo shorts, T-shirts and cam­ou­flage caps. They are white, bald­ing, mid­dle-aged; they have rich ru­ral and South­ern ac­cents. They tow along deer, minks and tur­tles, in flocks, schools, herds and crates.

To com­pete in such com­pany, they are also good at what they do: their skunks per­form hand­stands; their be­zoar ibexes surf cas­cad­ing avalanches; their crows wran­gle over snakes; their squids strug­gle to free them­selves from jaws of King Eider drakes.

Their an­i­mals come in wholes, halves and thirds, heads and shoul­ders, or sim­ply heads, chew­ing, nuz­zling, bel­low­ing. Their owls, ut­terly still be­cause they are ut­terly dead, nev­er­the­less, project the watch­ful pa­tience and po­ten­tial for move­ment of live owls. Their bears are damp from trout, their mal­lards bal­ance on feath­ers.

Though there are dozens of hy­per-spe­cific di­vi­sions of com­pe­ti­tion – the “turkey (strut­ting)” cat­e­gory, for in­stance – the goal is gen­er­ally the same: make a crea­ture look alive. Other rules ap­pear more ar­bi­trary. Shell­fish are frowned upon in the “Best All-Around” cat­e­gory. Do­mes­tic pigs are OK; do­mes­tic cats are not.

Bad taste is a no-no, yet one en­try was a “Char­lotte’s Web” dio­rama, with a real piglet and mouse. Also, each piece is judged with­out an artist’s name at­tached, but judges, them­selves pre­vi­ous win­ners, zero in on artsy sig­na­tures: New­port, “Old No Legs”, splits his deer hor­i­zon­tally – zo­o­log­i­cal iron­ing boards, ba­si­cally.

Skip Skid­more, judge and as­sis­tant cu­ra­tor of ver­te­brates at Brigham Young Univer­sity, took notes in a fold­ing chair, ex­am­in­ing a red panda, an en­dan­gered species.

“I’ve seen them alive, so I ap­pre­ci­ate the char­ac­ter in the face,” he said.

Taxi­dermy sug­gests a three-di­men­sional an­i­mal. It doesn’t mean your an­i­mal has to be made from the same an­i­mal. The red panda was cre­ated with a coy­ote tail and the dyed hides of fish­ers (a kind of weasel). In­deed, ex­tinct an­i­mals such as di­nosaurs are of­ten fea­tured.

Cary Cochran, 69, of Ohio, a taxi­dermy judge for decades, left the bust of a white­tail he was study­ing and, sidling up as if to con­vey a se­cret, said: “When I was young, peo­ple who knew how to do this would not tell you any­thing. In­for­ma­tion was slim to none. Now, to win at the World Cham­pi­onships, you got to be good at paint­ing, mould­ing, sewing, cast­ing, zo­ol­ogy. You got to know that an­i­mal. Don’t put him on a mount with a habi­tat he doesn’t ex­ist in.”

Once the taxi­dermy is set up and artists es­corted out, the doors to the ex­hibit hall are closed. A se­cu­rity guard stands out­side, re­fus­ing en­try to any­one but judges, who pick over the pieces in si­lence for a cou­ple of days.

The hall is large and chilly, the scene is oth­er­worldly, a hap­haz­ard zoo sus­pended in time, bald ea­gles perched be­side African lions re­clin­ing be­side wild tur­keys stand­ing be­side trunk­fish swim­ming along­side Cape buf­falo and snow leop­ards.

A judge hov­ered be­fore a Labrador duck.

It’s an ex­tinct bird, metic­u­lously recre­ated from feath­ers of other birds. “Pretty damn weak,” the judge said. “That tail, way too high – do I even have to score this thing?”

Three wolves – two spoon­ing, one lolling on its back – pa­tiently stud­ied three judges. The men cir­cled them, ex­am­in­ing their ear canals with flash­lights, prod­ding the con­sis­tency of their fur with pens.

“Noth­ing wrong here,” one judge de­cided. “Noth­ing right, ei­ther.”

Watch­ing them judg­ing taxi­dermy is like watch­ing most sports cham­pi­onships: dif­fer­ences be­tween win­ners and the merely great is in­vis­i­ble to the naked eye.

While wait­ing, taxi­der­mists oc­cu­pied the ho­tel bars of Peo­ria at night or watched trade shows dur­ing the day. Be­tween ses­sions, they talked shop, ar­gu­ing about the proper “tran­si­tion points” in a bi­son bust and the “vir­tual flow of mo­tion” for a cougar de­scend­ing a moun­tain. They philosophised on the “idea of the an­i­mal”, and sweated whether their work suf­fi­ciently “told a story”.

They were mu­seum cu­ra­tors, car­tog­ra­phers and home­mak­ers. But mostly, they were pro­fes­sional taxi­der­mists who ran small stu­dios in far-flung cor­ners of the globe.

Jeremy Mir­a­cle of Ten­nessee, a moun­tain in over­alls, said his black bear, curled on a wood pedestal, sur­rounded by Joseph Cor­nell-like ar­ti­facts (an­tique eye­glasses, pen­cil shav­ings), meant to “cap­ture the essence of the species”.

Meet Ash­ley Friend­shuh of Min­nesota, who is 29, has three chil­dren and sev­eral more dread­locks: “I have a ball python in the show. Some­one’s pet died. They gave it to me.”

Meet Gene Smith of North Carolina, two-time world cham­pion, whose white­tail in com­pe­ti­tion was in­spired by a Bi­ble verse: “It’s so hard to do some­thing orig­i­nal. There is an in­dus­try at­tached now, of­fer­ing tools and an­i­mal moulds, say­ing there’s one way to ap­proach this work. I cre­ate from scratch and sculpt my moulds. You are cap­tur­ing a mo­ment in time for this an­i­mal. I be­lieve we hon­our these deer more if we be­lieve they are with us now.”

Wouldn’t you be hon­our­ing them more, I asked, by not hunt­ing them? He couldn’t an­swer.

He’s far from alone.

The his­tory of taxi­dermy is a his­tory of wrestling with pur­pose. The medium was pop­u­larised by Vic­to­ri­ans as a way for wealthy classes to keep a piece of the un­tamed world in their sit­ting rooms. Taxi­der­mists were tai­lors, up­hol­sters. Then, as na­ture mu­se­ums were founded in the 19th cen­tury, the form had a re­newed goal. Carl Ake­ley, the Field Mu­seum taxi­der­mist in the early 20th cen­tury (whose sig­na­ture fight­ing ele­phants re­main a draw), the god­fa­ther of con­tem­po­rary taxi­dermy (who has a top award at the cham­pi­onships named for him), stressed sculp­ture over stuff­ing an an­i­mal, anatom­i­cal pre­ci­sion over kitsch.

De Vil­liers, the taxi­dermy wun­derkind, the sort of ruggedly hand­some com­peti­tor any sport would pro­mote as its fu­ture, sounds like a de­scen­dant. He brought a still­born ze­bra and set out to cap­ture a life it never lived. His ze­bra, which looked slightly wet and a lit­tle bloody from its birth, didn’t stand tall but rather, its knees knocked at odd an­gles and seemed to strug­gle for foot­ing.

“My per­sonal be­lief for do­ing this,” he said, “is that a lot of an­i­mals won’t be around in the fu­ture. You want peo­ple to un­der­stand the na­ture they have. So I just don’t get the more far-fetched pieces here. Na­ture doesn’t need their mod­i­fi­ca­tion.” – Chicago Tri­bune/ Tri­bune News Ser­vice

— Pho­tos: TNS

Right out of the wild, a ze­bra and other an­i­mals await­ing judg­ing at the World Taxi­dermy Cham­pi­onships in Peo­ria, Illi­nois.

A King Eider drake gorg­ing on an oc­to­pus.

Wendy Chris­tensen ex­am­in­ing a taxi­der­mist’s hand­i­work on a wild boar.

Dale Selby, an 11-foot Ko­diak brown bear be­ing moved through the floor, draw­ing cu­ri­ous at­ten­tion in the process.

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