Skin and bone
Local taxidermists breathe life into the dead
Wednesday, Apr 13, 2011 06:00 am
The Lac Ste. Anne resident has no ordinary rec room. A Siberian tiger prowls in a corner, ready to pounce on anyone foolish enough to sit on the nearby couch. A Louisiana alligator swims through the air nearby, about to take a bite out of what looks like a muskrat. A great horned owl swoops out of the wall. A female coyote, its eyes flashing in the light, sits upright near the door, curious.
It would be utter chaos down here if they weren’t all dead.
“The thing about that little coyote that everyone talks about is that it looks alive,” says Walker. “It has expression. You can almost tell what it’s thinking.”
Walker, 49, is a three-time world champion taxidermist whose work graces many homes around St. Albert. He’s one of several skilled artists in Alberta that specialize in bringing life back to the dead.
Taxidermy is the art of skinning and mounting animals — the word means, “moving the skin” in Latin, says Walker. “You’re moving the skin from one medium to another.”
Walker, a laid-back sculptor with a ready laugh and a wicked Roy Orbison impression, says he got into taxidermy through hunting with his dad. “It was like the world opened up for me the first time he took me with him.”
The experience instilled in him a love of nature he still has today. When he was 13, he says he came across a sparrow that had been struck dead by a car. “I thought that [the bird] was beautiful.” He went to the library, checked out some books, and learned to skin and mount it. He’s since done thousands of animals, some of which are in the prestigious Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.
“I’ve worked on everything from shrews to elephants,” he says. “No two jobs are the same. It’s all troubleshooting.”
Taxidermists tend to have an intense interest in animals, Walker says, especially their looks and behaviour. “I’d say 99 per cent of taxidermists are pet owners.”
It’s an interest he traces back to prehistoric times when hunters would hang animal skins on walls. “It’s a very instinctive thing to collect animals,” he says. “Man is a hunter and wants to preserve the things he captures.”
Jasper Keizer, whose work now graces the Royal Alberta Museum and the Musée Héritage Museum, says he got his start back in the 1950s. “I was interested in birds and animals,” he says, so he took a correspondence course in taxidermy. He ended up spending five months in B.C. as part of a team working on the book Birds of Canada, preparing study-skins for later reference. (They’re kind of like bird popsicles, he says.)
Most of the people who hire taxidermists are trophy hunters, Keizer says, looking to commemorate a hunt. Others simply like animals and get permits to mount wildlife they find dead in the field. “An owl’s nice to look at, alive or dead.”
Flesh to life
Keizer, 69, steps into his basement workshop in Parkland County. There’s a snowy owl, a lynx and an eagle hanging out on the table and moose heads sticking out of the wall. Look out the window, and you can see live deer feeding in the backyard.
There are also two fresh deer heads on the floor and a bucket of skinless foxes wrapped in bloody newspapers. This isn’t a place for the squeamish.
A typical job starts when a customer brings in all or part of an animal, Keizer explains. It’s usually just the head with moose and deer, since you eat the rest. For birds, you often get the full body.
There are several ways to skin an animal, says Walker — dorsal, ventral or from the rear — and each species is a little different. “Some animals just don’t let go of their skin. Others you can peel like an orange.” You generally try to get the skin off as a single piece.
It’s not as messy as you think, he says — the bodies tend to be self-contained and you’re not eviscerating them. Some stink, but most don’t. “If I have someone bring in a wolf, there’s no worse smell in the world.”
Taxidermists must then scrape off the fat and tan the skin to prevent spoiling. Keizer holds up a finished skin of a great horned owl, which looks like a deflated balloon. The bird’s body will go out back to feed the coyotes, he says. “Nothing goes to waste around here.”
Some clients just want the skull of the animal, he says. “I know some hunters that have hundreds of these hanging in their garage.”
For those, you put the head in a vat and boil the meat off. It stinks, and takes about five hours. “It’s just like making soup.” The bare bone is then bleached with hydrogen peroxide and is ready for delivery.
Others want a mount. Taxidermists would just stuff the skins in the past, notes Marcel Houle, a retired taxidermist in Edmonton, but that lead to ugly, lumpy recreations without shape or muscle tone. “They looked stuffed,” Nowadays, artists will cast the body of the animal to create a realistic mannequin.
For birds and mammals, the taxidermist will stretch the skin over the mannequin, making sure to sew up any holes. Ear liners, eyes, tongues and other pliable bits are replaced with plastic replicas. Nostrils are often touched up with paint. Horns get mounted to a wooden skull plate — they’d flop around otherwise, Keizer says. Comb the hair and your head’s ready for hanging.
Fish are a special case, Houle notes. It’s very tough to preserve fish scales and their iridescence, so many artists paint scales on fake bodies instead of skinning the fish. He’s got a big blue sailfish on his wall, for example, and the only real part of it is its bill.
Artsy or creepy?
Taxidermy has evolved from a craft to an art over the years, Houle says, with modern mounts featuring elaborate poses and dioramas. “Your basic goal is to recreate the natural appearance of the animal.”
Realism is essential if you want to avoid creeping people out, Walker says. “The anatomy has to be right [and] the expression has to be right, otherwise you’ll elicit a negative response from the viewer.”
That means hours of study with reference photos and videos, as well as meticulous planning. Champion-level pieces can take months. “It’s an exhausting job.”
Take the Siberian tiger, for example, which a zoo put down because it was epileptic. “If you stand right in front of this tiger, you’ll notice that its head is not centred.” That’s because cats tend to move their heads to one side when they turn a corner. He’s also positioned its legs, tail and back so it looks like it’s about to leap down off its display.
A well-done diorama resembles nothing less than a 3-D photograph. Take this ring-tailed cat, for example, frozen in mid-air as it leaps off a rock away from a brown tarantula. Tarantulas will rub or kick urticating hairs off their bodies as a defence mechanism, Walker notes, which is why this spider has its forelegs raised in warning. Those hairs can hurt the cat, so it’s jumped back, legs splayed, tail flared, mouth wide and eyes locked on the dangerous creature.
“The ring-tailed cat was running around on the rock, encountered the spider and jumped off the rock backwards,” Walker says. “This probably the best piece I’ve ever done.”
Not everyone likes taxidermy, Walker says, and he runs into the occasional critic. “It comes across as not being politically correct.” To him, it’s another way to get in touch with nature. “I’ve had blind children run their fingers over that alligator and this tiger, and you should see their faces.”
It comes down to personal preference, Keizer says. “Rather than seeing [an animal] go to waste, you can get it [mounted] and look at it for the rest of your life.”