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Adam and Skye Rust celebrate life and death at their antique shop Woolly Mammoth in Andersonville. The shop prominently features taxidermied animals.


Taxidermy getting trendy for nature lovers and reality TV

by Alan Yu
Dec 05, 2012


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Alan Yu/MEDILL

Tom Gnoske of the Field Museum trains Onesmus Kioko how to prepare a seagull specimen. 

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Alan Yu/MEDILL

Onesmus Kioko, a visiting research technician from the National Museum of Kenya, prepares a seagull specimen.

Once in a while, Tom Gnoske spends his nights at Chicago’s Field Museum.

No, he doesn’t host the sleepovers where children can listen to bedtime stories with Sue the T-Rex. As the museum’s assistant collections manager and chief preparatory, he maintains and prepares animal specimens, and that takes some time, especially when the carcasses need a long time to thaw. He  does the taxidermy for animals and birds that grace museum displays.

“I stay a lot of the times overnight if I’m working on something that I can’t be interrupted with, like dissections of some of the mammals for my research,” Gnoske said. “Sometimes I've got to stay 18 hours straight to do something, and in the middle of the week I’ll take a few days off because I need to sleep.”

Gnoske is the only staff member at the museum who prepares display specimens, and his counterparts at New York's American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History have retired. Faced with smaller budgets, natural history museums hire private contractors to maintain their collections rather than keep staff taxidermists.

But, Gnoske has seen taxidermy making a comeback outside of museums. Discovery’s Animal Planet started showing the reality show Animal Stuffers this January. It features a taxidermy shop in Arkansas, where people bring their dead pets to be immortalized. The History Channel’s Mounted in Alaska features a shop in Alaska that prepares animals such as camels and caribou. It first aired last April. AMC has a taxidermy competition show planned for release next year on Valentine’s Day.

People are becoming interested in taxidermy because they realize nature is disappearing quickly due to environmental problems, said Melissa Milgrom, a journalist who wrote "Still Life," a book about the work of taxidermists two years ago. Although scientists reached different conclusions as to how fast the Earth’s species are becoming extinct, all research shows that ongoing extinction rates are higher than would be expected from the fossil record, according to a review of research published by the journal Nature last year. If all currently threatened species were to go extinct, we would be halfway towards a mass extinction, such as the one that happened after a meteoroid hit the earth.

“Now that we’re seeing the effects of global warming and we have more extinctions than ever before; animals are exotic again,” Milgrom said. “I think it’s really a Victorian fascination, and everyone can own a little bit of nature in their home. “

But, the TV shows can sensationalize the work of taxidermists without showing them as the animal experts they are, she said.

“I wandered into a taxidermy studio, and I was expecting them to be [like] Norman Bates (the killer in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho). But in fact the old guy who worked at the studio was a gentle birder and the shop looked like Darwin’s study,” Milgrom said. “What was most astounding of all was how much they knew about wildlife and animals and how much respect they had for them, and yet they were labeled in the public eye as animal killers.”

Milgrom describes them as perfectionists working obsessively to make a mount look exactly like the animal before it died. Paul Rhymer, the data specialist and taxidermist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History for 25 years, said he was learning something at his job every day, because he works with such a wide variety of species.

 

Taxidermy can involve replicating an entire animal as a wooden mannequin with the tanned hide restored to the surface. It can mean preserving delicate bones, such as those in the wings of a bird, while removing muscle and fat but keeping the feathers and skin intact.

“A lot of people are interested in buying old taxidermy and new taxidermy. It’s really quite the fad these days. I don’t know how long it’ll last,” said Rhymer, who retired in 2010. “You’ll find that a lot of decorators and designers are incorporating taxidermy into extremely contemporary designs.”

Brooklyn-based artist Divya Anantharaman designs shoes for a living, but she also does taxidermy sculptures, combining taxidermy specimens and other art elements, in her free time. For example, her work “Butterfly” uses a skull, two baby bird heads and feathers to make a butterfly form.

She taught herself taxidermy, and she also meets other enthusiasts in New York to discuss techniques and share tips. She got started in taxidermy because she always liked collecting shells and other objects from nature as a child. Once when she was five, she saw a dead lizard inside an electric mosquito killer, felt sorry for it, and decided to collect that too. As it decomposed, she wanted to know how she could keep collected animal specimens without them rotting away.

She echoed Milgrim’s comments about why people are suddenly interested in taxidermy again.

“(People) don’t realize that taxidermists and scientists and naturalists, at one point in time, would all work together because they were trying to find out the way the world around us worked,” Anantharaman said. “We’re always looking to the past, and we’re curious about the different methods of learning. I think that’s where a lot of the revival of interest is coming from.”

The U.S. is also the world leader in the taxidermy industry, said Larry Blomquist, editor and publisher of Breakthrough Magazine, the trade magazine for taxidermists. The magazine organizes the annual World Taxidermy Championships, and Blomquist, who judges most categories, said he has recently seen many more interested overseas participants, particularly from China and Japan. He attributes the global interest in U.S. taxidermy to the domestic industry for producing quality supplies, such as mannequins used to mount the tanned skin.

“I just visited a taxidermist up in Wyoming that is shipping thousands of mounts [of animals] to China supplying museums over there,” Blomquist said. “They have to make the mannequins themselves, whereas here in the U.S., you could get a supply catalogue.”

Blomquist doesn’t keep track of how much the industry has grown, but he estimates that the U.S. has 5,000 to 7,000 professional taxidermists. Many aspiring taxidermists are also coming here for apprenticeships, such as Onesmus Kioko, a research technician who came from the National Museum of Kenya to study taxidermy at the Field Museum with Gnoske.

The National Museum of Kenya and most other natural history museums in Africa have no taxidermists to maintain the collections, and no one to train the staff in taxidermy, Kioko said.

“A museum without a taxidermist is like a vehicle without wheels,” Kioko said. “These skills are not taught anywhere in Africa. Most of our specimens there, they were prepared by whites during the First and Second World Wars.”

Although it is easier to find an apprenticeship with a taxidermist now compared to the past, fewer people are learning the craft, said Blomquist.

“You got to be dedicated to it for 10 or 20 years to be as good as you need to be to do well financially,” Blomquist said. “It’s a much more difficult to get into.”

In the meantime, Chicagoans interested in taxidermy can apply for volunteer positions at the Field Museum or the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museums, where they can learn how to make animal specimens.