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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Stiff Competition

Air Date: Week of June 4, 2004

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The science of stuffing animal skins has been around since the days of hunting and gathering. With new and improved technology, the field of taxidermy has evolved to an art form. Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu visited with some artisans of the craft at the annual Maine Association of Taxidermists’ convention and competition, and found that taxidermy is alive and well.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Generally death is the end of the line for most creatures, but not if their skins fall into the hands of a taxidermist. Taxidermy is the art and science of stuffing and preserving animals. It’s been around since the days of hunting and gathering. A good stuffed specimen should look every bit as life-like as the real McCoy.

Now it used to be that all one needed was a good eye and a weak nose to work the craft. Those are still needed, but these days taxidermy has gone high tech with plastics, and the friendly competition among practitioners has gotten stiff. Recently the Maine State Association of Taxidermists gathered in Newport, Maine, for it’s annual convention and taxidermy competition. Living on Earth’s Jennifer Chu was there and has our report.

[sound of setting up display, nailing coyote to a rock]

YORK: Mitch, run over and ask somebody if they got a three-quarter inch socket.

CHU: Larry York is doing some last-minute fluffing and combing. He’s just hauled in a vanload of turkeys, deer and wild boar that he’s preened and perfected over the past year. Right now, he’s setting up his piece de resistance – a North Carolina bobcat that’s leaping towards a baby fawn.

The Maine Association of Taxidermists’ President Mark Russell crouches by his black bear entry. (Photo: Jennifer Chu)

A North Carolina bobcat in mid-leap towards a baby fawn. (Photo: Jennifer Chu)


YORK: He’s gonna be hanging right from that leg. Like he’s jumped off the top of this rock and this is lunch going by.

CHU: York is one of two dozen taxidermists who hope to take home a trophy from this weekend competition. It’s also a chance for normally solitary artisans to swap some stories and get some tips.

RUSSELL: Don’t move the bird that’s on the leaf there. (right.) Last thing I wanna see is breaking it.

CHU: It’s Mark Russell’s last day as head of the Maine Association of Taxidermists - a title he’s held for the past three years.

RUSSELL: Yah, we’re not a tight-knit group, but you know we’re friends, and we talk with each other and the stories will be flying. Generally it’s hunting stories and the piece that you mounted and how you did it, but generally we’re all a good group of guys, and we’re all here really to have a good time.

CHU: Tomorrow he’ll hand the presidency over to his friend John Wardwell, a fellow taxidermist who’s been in the business for 15 years. But for now, they’re just two guys checking out the competition.

RUSSELL: This is a muddy pig, what did you bring in a muddy pig for? (laughter) It’s kind of a neat idea.

WARDWELL: yeah, work like hell to get him clean and look nice and everything and then you splatter mud all over him. What’s up with that?

CHU: Just behind this pig is Wardwell’s sparkling clean entry: a boar’s head that, if seen from the right angle, looks like it’s got a secret. Wardwell has a few secrets of his own that he says puts him ahead of the game.

WARDWELL: The last and final cleaning when I do a fur-bearing animal, especially the bear, I use Windex. Wash them with good with Windex and then fluff them with a hairdryer, and it makes them look just like they come in out of the woods…all freshed up after a rainstorm.

CHU: Did you do that with your boar, too, today?

WARDWELL: He got washed with Fantastik, believe it or not. And he smells pretty. He’s a handsome boy (laughs).

CHU: Many of these taxidermists have worked on their pieces for months, and some even up to a year. It’s a craft that takes infinite patience, and many spend days fitting glass eyes or flaring nostrils just right. For Wardwell, it was the boar’s dental work that kept him up nights.

WARDWELL: I think the biggest problem I had was the gums that show along his teethline – that really flesh-toned inside of the mouth and then as they move up to the hairline they gradually get darker and darker and darker, so you kinda gotta blend your paints from flesh to a burnt umber color.

CHU: It’s at this moment that the taxidermist sounds like any suffering artist - frustrated by the chasm between his subject and his work. For early taxidermists, it was even harder to bridge that gap. As Wardwell and Russell wait for more entries to file into the showroom, they chat up their friend Steve Gilboe, who recently got his hands on a taxidermic relic.

RUSSELL: Y’know, you gotta to be careful with some of them old mounts--

GILBOE: Oh, I bet.

RUSSELL: --cuz some of ‘em were pickled in formaldehyde.

GILBOE: It was, it was very powdery, once you cut it open it was all real powdery. And this guy had wrapped it, there was some chicken wire in it, and they had wrapped some newspaper and everything. And it was nice!

CHU: Back then, taxidermists improvised with anything they had at hand, from cotton balls to wood shavings. And according to Mark Russell, they’d even employ Nature herself.

RUSSELL: Well back years ago, before there were forms, they’d put the skull out on an anthill or something and the ants or the bugs would clean it out, or they could boil the meat membrane off and they would actually reuse the skull and the lower jaw.

CHU: These days, instead of stuffing a skin with newspaper, you can order a plastic form of any number of species, and choose from a variety of poses. You can then use a custom glue to fit your hide over the mold. Though it may seem like all this technology only makes the work easier, some say it’s served to raise the bar in terms of workmanship. A recent issue of the popular trade magazine Taxidermy Today is chock full of ads for hide paste, critter clay, and Styrofoam mannequins. There are also notices of apprenticeships and special trade schools. And just a floor above the competition’s showroom is the country’s only high school taxidermy class.

MCAVOY: Oh I wasn’t sure when I first come into the program, I was kinda, “I don’t know if I can do it,” but as I went on, I got used to it. Sometimes the smell, mmmm, it’s a little gross, but you get over it.

CHU: Mallory McAvoy is a junior at Nokomis High School. It’s her first year in this classroom, which, from the outside, looks like any other high school science lab. Except that inside, the tables are filled with plastic animal parts, and boxes of furs and skins.

(rustling in freezer)

MCAVOY: See this is one of our freezers, pretty full of animals. Usually the projects we’re working on we put in here.

CHU: Mallory fishes out her current project: Hector, her recently-deceased pet pheasant.

Mallory McAvoy with her current project: Hector, the family pheasant. (Photo: Jennifer Chu)

MCAVOY: He’s nice and fat, and I think he died of old age, but we’re not sure. He’s pretty, so I’ll be doing him sometime, getting some ideas from downstairs to see how I wanna pose him.

CHU: Mallory’s teacher is Howard Whitten, a man dressed in blue overalls, with a habit of picking up roadkill for possible student projects. He started the class ten years ago, and says he’s taught every kind of kid there is.

WHITTEN: I will say this, in ten years the girls are the best. They kick butt (laughs). For instance, if I brought a girl and boy and had them look at a deer, first thing out of the boy’s mouth would be, “Look at the rack, look at those horns, look at the antlers.” The girl, it’s usually, “Aww, look at the eyes. Look at that mouth.”

CHU: But take a look at the two dozen or so taxidermists who have come to compete downstairs, and there’s not a woman among them. And even though Whitten says there’s no gender barrier in his classroom, history of the field was very exclusive.

WHITTEN: Historically, taxidermy has been a real secretive clique of men that won’t invite anybody into their shop, they don’t want to divulge any secrets. Historically, museums only employed men to do all the taxidermy displays.

CHU: There are few requests for such elaborate displays today. Places like Harvard’s Natural History Museum have sizeable collections, mostly acquired decades ago. Judy Chupasko is a curator in the museum’s mammal department. She says that some exhibits are starting to show their age.

CHUPASKO: The giraffe is incredible (walks down stairs), it’s a huge giraffe. But you can see he’s kinda busting out of his seams here…poor guy looks like he’s out in the savanna, doesn’t he? And he needs water really bad (laughs).

CHU: Chupasko estimates this giraffe was stuffed 150 years ago, when the country’s museums and the public couldn’t get enough of taxidermy.

CHUPASKO: I think back in the 1800s when a lot of naturalists were trying to describe and define species, and new species, and they were traveling all over the world, it was a whole different mentality than probably now, but that’s because it was a different place and time.

CHU: It was Darwin’s “Origins of Species” that really vaulted the field into its Golden Age. When the book hit shelves in 1859, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of nature; the educated elite more so than anyone. Perhaps the pinnacle of taxidermy came in 1916, when one of its most famous students, Carl Akeley, was accepted into the National Institute of Social Sciences. The occasion was for, quote, “making taxidermy one of the arts.” Judy Chupasko says today’s science of animal stuffing is quite a different field.

CHUPASKO: I don’t think we’ve had a taxidermist on staff in the museum for probably 50 years. I’m pretty much as close as you get to that and I’m not a taxidermist (laughs). But we could figure out who to talk to, to get things done if we needed to.

(phone rings)

FOURNIER: Creative Taxidermy.

CHU: Brad Fournier occasionally gets calls from local schools and museums, but as with most taxidermists, the work that pays the bills comes from hunters.

FOURNIER: Sportsmen have big egos a lot of times, and if they bring in a fish or a deer, they’re having it mounted because it’s was a large one and they’re trying to display how big it was. Usually with a fish, the fatter you can make the belly, or the larger you can make the neck on a deer mount makes a customer pretty happy.

CHU: Fournier took up taxidermy as a kid. It started with a how-to book from the library. He later enrolled in the Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy, and now has a full-time business in Haverhill, Massachusetts, at the back of his parents’ house, where he also lives upstairs.

FOURNIER: The commute’s great. Can do it in slippers.

CHU: Right now, he’s fitting a deerskin over a foam mold - a popular form that’s known as the "right-turn semi-sneak." He’s sewing up the back of the animal, and watching him work is a little like watching a tailor.

(cranks stand)

FOURNIER: Needs a little oil on that thing.

CHU: At a certain point, do you kind of forget that you’re working on an animal?

FOURNIER: Yeah, I think so, yeah, I guess it is almost like doing upholstery at some point, especially when you’re sewing up the leather like this. And, uh, you can almost do it without really thinking about it. This one’s pretty much ready to fly.

CHU: In fact, every year he files his taxes, Fournier says he has to list his business under upholstery. And while the IRS may not recognize the trade, there are some 70,000 taxidermists in the country today. Ten percent are fulltime, and the other ninety could spend up to 40 hours a week on the craft, even while holding down another job. There seems to be growing interest in the field -- you can even find a taxidermy show on cable television. (fade music before)

John Wardwell gives a final cleaning to his boar’s head. (Photo: Jennifer Chu)

Brad Fournier shows off his showroom at Creative Taxidermy. (Photo: Jennifer Chu)


(TAXIDERMY TRAILS THEME SONG) Have you seen the show about the guy that travels woods and lakes? He teaches how to taxidermy everything he takes. He paints a fish so lifelike that it could swim away, just so you remember that very special day.

CHU: Taxidermy Trails made its debut on the Outdoor Channel this past January. It’s aired on a network that primarily focuses on hunting and fishing, and the show’s producers say it’s the first time the ins and outs of taxidermy have been shown to a national audience.

(BANTLEY TEACHING TAXIDERMY ON SHOW) After the skin dries, the thick and plumpness of the nose pad dries down. So most often the taxidermist can rebuild the texture, and make the nose nice and full, just like a live deer.

CHU: Dan Bantley is the show’s host and creator. Speaking in a recent phone conversation to Living on Earth, he said while much of his fan mail comes from fellow hunters, other letters are from fans he didn’t expect.

BANTLEY: We’ve got a lot of emails from people’s wives saying, “I’ve been watching the show with my husband.” It didn’t set out originally to be like that, but we wanted to appeal to a broad scope of viewers.

CHU: Bantley’s show might just be the thing to bring husbands and wives closer together – that is, if one is into stuffing animals. Living with a taxidermist could present certain tests of loyalty. There’s the smell of chemical preservatives, and the inevitable clutter of accumulated mounts. Back at the competition in Maine, Tom Berube is known to his friends and colleagues as "The King of Birds." But his wife might have a different opinion.

BERUBE: She’s gotten mad a few times, like the time she walked in and I was taking a bear out of the washing machine. You know, I guess I had gone too far. But I still use the family washing machine to spin-dry bird skins.

CHU: Fluffing a bird’s tail feathers through the spin cycle may seem excessive and a bit eccentric. But it’s this technique that’s earned Berube his title. He also has the trophies to prove it. Today, he’s just here to offer moral support, as his friends await their final scores.

BERGANE: Number 45… ok, correct use of paints…hmmm, I don’t know what you call it, he’s got like scratches in his paint.

CHU: Mike Bergane is one of two judges at this competition. For the past two hours, he’s brandished a flashlight on dozens of birds, making sure each feather is in place. He’s even sniffed a few of them, to make sure no rot has taken root. As for deer…

BERGANE: It has to have the accurate nostril shape of the interior of the nose, coloring, texture, inside the ears, down where the ear canals meet the skull has to be accurately reproduced. We’ve taken it to a level now where, some of the judges like to joke that you could bring in a live deer and it wouldn’t do very good in competition (laughs) because some of these judges are looking for such detail.

CHU: While the judges make their final decisions, a few taxidermists pace outside. It’s Gordon Foster’s first time competing. As he awaits his score, he mentally lists all the things he could have done better.

FOSTER: A lot of guys here, like myself, already know their mistakes. But it’s like a carpenter. You can go into a house and see the finished job and it’ll look great to you, but the person who did the carpentry work knows the little cut here he made here, or a little mistake there, so…I let the dice roll where they gotta.

(door opens, paper crumbles)

RUSSELL: We’re open.

CHU: As the competitors file in, the judges steady their stance. It’s the moment Mike Bergane calls "the fun part”: when the judges get to tell the competitors what they could improve. At the moment, the other judge, Mike Vickerson, is evaluating Gordon Foster’s work.

Judge Mike Bergane makes sure each turkey feather is in place. (Photo: Jennifer Chu)

Judge Mike Vickerson gives more than a once-over for this muddy pig. (Photo: Jennifer Chu)


VICKERSON: Ok, on your nose, you’re pretty good on the inside. You’re a little short, I don’t know how to explain it. Janey, wanna grab my freeze-dried nose? The nose on top of my bag? And look here too, you see where the leather is? That leather should be right on the edge. He’s a big freakin’ animal, I’ll tell ya that.

A stuffed moose takes first prize at the Maine Association of Taxidermist’s annual competition. (Photo: Jennifer Chu)

CHU: It’s not a bad review, and Foster says he’s happy with his second-place white-tail deer. With a little feedback from his fellow taxidermists, he might just snag first prize next year.

For Living on Earth, I’m Jennifer Chu in Newport, Maine.

VICKERSON: Uh, if you wanna straighten these edges they get like that, you can always take a steamer. You know a little hand steamer? (fade out)

[MUSIC]

 

Links

Maine Association of Taxidermists

National Taxidermists Association

Taxidermy Trails

 

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