Taxidermy is a bit of a strange subject. The act of preserving life after death, it is a process which goes back centuries. These days, it’s less of a common art, particularly as many people find the process distasteful! However, taxidermy has been used to help support science and research over the years, and what’s more, it’s still possible for you to spot stuffed animals and creatures at museums all over the world.
Despite current attitudes towards taxidermy, it still makes up a large portion of our history. Do you know how much you can make per day from taxidermy? Which wild creature belonging to French royalty was preserved to the extent that you can still see its skin on display today? Warning – if you are an animal lover, make sure you really want to keep reading – as some of the albeit interesting facts about taxidermy are not for the faint of heart!
Taxidermy is described as an art – it involves preparing the body of an animal prior to ‘stuffing’ it before it is used for research, study or as an ornament.
Taxidermy can be a hobby from home or even used as part a business. The end result of the procedure is to make the subject look as though it is still alive if the entire body is displayed.
Frequently, just a head is mounted – for example, a deer’s head and neck might be displayed on a crest of wood.
Dead animals are usually frozen before the procedure begins.
Tools needed to carry out a taxidermy project include knives, scissors, a preservative (for example alcohol) and material to stuff the body with.
The taxidermy of humans is illegal – even if you demand it in your will, it won’t happen!
In areas popular for fishing and hunting, hard-working taxidermists can earn between $5,000 and $10,000 dollars a month in the US.
The taxidermy and mounting of a deer’s head and shoulders is said to involve approximately 20 hours’ work!
The word ‘taxidermy’ is based on Greek words ‘taxis’ (which means ‘arrangement’) and ‘dermy’ (which means ‘skin’).
Skin stuffed with cotton
In taxidermy, only the skin of an animal is left intact. Skeleton molds anchor the skin.
Almost all vertebrate animals can be used as subjects for taxidermy. Fish are usually descaled and mounted on a fiberglass mold as their skin is thin and usually extremely delicate.
To maintain a smooth, seamless finish, fiberglass provides a suitable base to which the skin can be fixed. Many ‘trophy’ fish are mounted in this way, sometimes in glass boxes with pictures of rivers or oceans behind!
History suggests that preserving bodies first took place in ancient Egypt. However, taxidermy also has roots in France, Britain, and the US. In more recent times, other countries have started developing in the art.
Louis Dufresne was a French taxidermist of considerable acclaim. He was known for using arsenic soaps to prepare the bodies of subjects! He famously worked for the National Museum of Natural History.
John Hancock, of England, became known as the ‘Father of Taxidermy’. A keen ornithologist, Hancock shot and mounted birds – before using plaster for casting and modelling them with clay.
In 1851, Hancock was invited to present a display of the birds he had worked on at the famous National Exhibition in London. Queen Victoria had several birds which had been through the process!
Hancock’s display was so successful, artists and collectors were keen to start or add to their own collections. In particular, scientists found the authentic displays ideal for research.
The Victorian era was, therefore, known as the ‘golden age’ of taxidermy.
In the Hintze Hall at the Natural History Museum in London, you will find one of the tallest taxidermy exhibits in Europe. It’s a giraffe, and it’s 4.6 meters tall!
The giraffe exhibit was examined by x-ray fluorescence to establish how it was made. Inside, arsenic, mercury and lead were found. These were generally used for the practice going back decades.
In 1892, the Natural History Museum of Tring was opened to the public. Many exhibits are of extinct birds and mammals. It forms the largest private collection acquired by a single person, as it all once belonged to Walter Rothschild.
In 2017, a pheasant broke taxidermy auction records – it sold for £1,800! It was created by Peter and Spicer Taxidermists in London in 1936. It’s depicted in a glass case with Cotswold countryside scenes behind it.
As a result of changing attitudes, taxidermy may not be seen as the art form or practice it once was. ‘Trophy hunting’ is seen by many as an abhorrent act, and many people who would previously cherish a statue of their pets now make do with photos and videos instead!
Many chemicals used in taxidermy pose health risks. These days, careful measures are taken. Formaldehyde (or formalin), which is used to preserve bodies from decay, is especially dangerous. It can cause respiratory problems if inhaled.
It’s thought that initial taxidermy creations were once stuffed with old rags. Over time, the process certainly became more refined!
There’s a difference between a ‘specimen’ and a ‘trophy’ when talking about taxidermy. A specimen is a replica, whereas a trophy is a mounted head. It’s called a trophy largely as it’s seen as the mark of a successful hunt.
Kings Louis XIV and XV once owned a rhino that was once the biggest animal ever put through taxidermy.
You can still see the rhino’s skin to this day at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Oddly enough, its skeletal remains are shown off elsewhere!
Large and small animals require the same preparation and technique! While smaller animals weigh less and may seem easier to handle, their smaller bones and tissues can be tricky to deal with, and their skin can be easily damaged.
Do you know any interesting facts about taxidermy? Share them in the comments below!