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The Art and Science of Taxidermy

Taxidermy in the most general of descriptions refers to the various methods used in creating, recreating, or producing lifelike representations of animals for display. The word taxidermy roots out from two Greek words, taxis, which means movement or transfer, and derma, which means skin. Literally speaking, taxidermy is the “movement of skin”. As far as a general description goes, this loose translation happens to be an appropriate one as most taxidermy processes involve the removal of the animal’s skin, mounting, or replacing it over an artificial makeshift body, with adjustments to make it appear lifelike. However, there are forms of taxidermy wherein the animal is reproduced without taking anything from the original specimen.

Today's practice of taxidermy does not just require the craft of hunting and tanning, but various skills as well such as carpentry, molding, and casting. Albeit all of this, the taxidermist must also possess the flair of artistry, which will be used in sculpting, painting and even drawing. This is so because only limited parts of the animals are used in taxidermy.

Even before man has been able to record histories and civilizations, hunting and taxidermy has already seeped through history. As the hunting-gathering tribes gather the meat of their hunted, they found out that the skin of their hunts can be preserved as well, and later on formed the skin over clay, mud and stone, using them as leather for protection, for hunting and rituals, eventually becoming the first ever taxidermists.

As the civilizations progressed, so did the processes used for tanning, and did the demand for quality leather. Tannery, or the tanning business, is safe to say the grandfather of modern taxidermy. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, game hunting and trophy hunting were at their peak periods. Game hunters would storm leather and upholstery shops to provide trophy skins. Upholstery shops would then be sewing the animal skin back on and stuffing it with rags and cotton. Thus the term “stuffed animals”. However, this rushed and crude form of taxidermy produced very grotesque animal reproductions, much to every hunter’s dismay.

Taxidermy did not progress much until the early 20th century, under the leadership of Carl Akeley, one of the world’s most renowned taxidermists, and other notable taxidermist such as William T. Horneday, Coloman Jonas and Leon Pray. They have pioneered the restructuring of taxidermy, from crude stuffing into a more detailed mounting, detailing every muscle in artistic poses, mostly even lifelike.

Taxidermy is becoming a growing wildlife art all over the world. Ever since the pioneers’ introduction of more detailed taxidermy procedures, taxidermists around the world have been continuously looking for more ways to create artistic reproduction of animals. Canada has been one of the countries fervently supporting the art of taxidermy. Taxidermy has been part of Canada’s rich history, as this country has been a vast area for wildlife and game. Its climate also provided the advent of taxidermy here, as the need for leather and hide is much greater. Occupying most of Northern America, Canada has been the prime spot for hunting and for taxidermy as well. Most Canadian taxidermist go out of the usual lifelike reproductions of animals, but also go into the reproduction of mythical figures, like chimeras, griffins, jackelopes (a cross breed between an antelope and a jackrabbit) and much more.

There are lots of known taxidermy associations in Canada, but the more common association is the Canadian Taxidermy Association. Its current president is Robert Goudreault. Their current office is at 35 Tanner Rd, Campbellford, Ontario. Another known affiliation for Canadian taxidermists is the British Columbia Taxidermy Artistry Association. Its current president is Arlene Gilbert. Their office is at Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. The former group, the CTA, focuses more on taxidermy as a learning art, helping enthusiasts and would-be taxidermists via conventions, conferences and workshops, while the latter, BCTAA, is an association for promoting taxidermy as a form of art.

Taxidermy has always shared it roots with hunting. Hunting is the pursuit of animals either for food, recreation or trade. Primarily hunted for food, animals also became a source of a game for hunters, thus the term trophy hunting. In this form of hunting, people hunt down animals to win their heads, horns, even teeth, as trophies of a successful hunt. As time passed, a trophy for a hunt did not just mean a single part like the head, but the whole animal itself, hence taxidermy started to boom. Two of the most common forms of taxidermy, and highly associated with hunting are fish taxidermy and game head taxidermy.

Fish Taxidermy

Fish taxidermy, or fish mounting as for most taxidermists, is the hardest branch of taxidermy, as fish skin dries up fast, and loses color easily. A taxidermist taking on fish taxidermy must be very mindful of the way he or she handles the process, and of course the type of fish undergoing the process. Artistic skills such as painting, drawing and the ability to mix colors come in very handy in fish taxidermy.

Different types of fish are handled differently in fish taxidermy. Warm water fish, who often have tough skin and larger scales, are by far the best candidates for fish mounts. Their skin can be easily mounted, or removed from the original body, and transferred to a manikin. Sometimes, too, that no mounting is done, instead, the whole fish cavity is removed of internal organs, and then filled with filling material (plaster usually), which shapes into the fish and then hardens. Since these types of fish are not greasy, the skull and the skin remain intact. So does the tail and the fins.

The coldwater fish on the other hand is a more difficult type of fish to be mounted. They are generally greasier than their warm water counterparts. They also have smoother skin and finer scales, making any lump of material paste under their skin visible. Thus, the favored method of mounting these fish is done over a smoother type of manikin. Though most taxidermists want to use the natural skulls, problems in spoilage and shrinkage, not to mention bleed-through of grease, often make them resort to using artificial heads cast in plaster, which is later on attached to the natural skin.

The trickiest of all fish mounts is the saltwater fish, as this is entirely made out of man-made materials. This is definitely the longest lasting of all molds. A mold is made out of the fish while it is still fresh. After the body, the fins and tails are molded in casts out of polyester. Photographs and measurements of the fish are made to start the reconstruction of the entire fish out of the blank fish mold.

Creating every single fish cast out these molds is not only expensive, but also time consuming. Hence, fiberglass fish taxidermy came to light. Earlier taxidermists who have made molds create reproductions of the molds via fiberglass blanks. These blanks are then sold to fish taxidermists worldwide, whose only job is to prepare the coloring of these molds.

Gamehead Taxidermy

Game heads are frequently the most mounted specimens in taxidermy. Featured almost everywhere, their popularity is ever increasing. Common game head taxidermy includes the head, neck and even shoulders of the animal. Most game head mounts are made as wall displays, but latter designs provided a pedestal mount, viewable from all angles.

In ages past, taxidermists used sub par quality molds for the game head, forming horrific animal reproductions, which did not give justice to the trophy prize. Today, mass produced plastic and foam molds are made available to taxidermists for easier game head taxidermy. In this branch of taxidermy, the taxidermist first picks a manikin or a form best resembling the animal – matching pose, size and other anatomical resemblance. Manikins are specialized, a different anatomy for a different animal type.

Next, the taxidermist carefully removes the skin of the animal and proceeds into tanning the skin. The manikin is then prepared by preparing glass eyes, and antlers or horns if there are any. Most game head taxidermy, or mounts, uses natural horns or antlers. Soft facial parts, such as eyes, nose and mouth are made with special attention and detail. They are usually made from clay or mold. The skin is then glued to the manikin carefully. The hair of the animal is groomed for a lifelike appearance as well, and finally, the mold is left to dry.

As the mount dries up, the taxidermist goes about and starts the restoration of the natural color of the animal. Tissue restoration is done through wax or clay. Remember that no two game head taxidermy mounts will look alike, as taxidermists have different approaches in restoration. Some may use colored waxes; others may use sculpting clay. Some may use airbrush paints, others use watercolor.
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