Breathing life into dead animals
Peeking inside the Super Bowl of taxidermy.
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
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.