One of the first questions I get when I tell people I do taxidermy is "will you stuff my cat?"
NO…I won't stuff your cat, or your dog. No pets, no fish and you would have to pay me a lot of money to make you a rat in a hat or a bunny in a waistcoat!
I'm a skill junkie. I thrive on learning new skills, techniques and processes. As a kid I pestered my dad and my brother to teach me how to make stuff, whether it was wood working or tanning fish skins. Now, I pester my friends and people with mad skills to teach me.
Taxidermy is an art that takes so many forms. There is always an avenue for learning, for figuring out new and better ways to do things...perfect for a skill junkie.
I think I enjoy the mindfulness of taxidermy the most – being engrossed for days at a time, remaining careful and ultimately producing something beautiful that will last a long time is very rewarding. I also like that taxidermy uses all of an animal, with little waste, and that the animal is preserved instead of buried.
The other thing I like about taxidermy is that I'm really flipping good at it! I’m an absolute gun, ‘a natural’ at skinning birds and can have a bird skinned, cleaned and turned inside out, without any holes faster than you can say “will you stuff my cat?"
My initial introduction to taxidermy was through my job at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery as a technical officer in the Vertebrate Zoology department. As part of my work I got to do fantastically interesting stuff like preparing animal study skins for reference, pickling specimens in alcohol, pinning insects and macerating skeletons. I was also lucky enough to be working with one of Australia’s best taxidermists employed at the museum and he very generously, patiently and thoroughly trained me in preparation and taxidermy.
I would have to say most taxidermy is challenging. Big and heavy animals like wombats, kangaroos and eagles are difficult because it takes considerable strength to peel them. Tiny animals like wrens and micro moths are challenging because they are so delicate and fiddly that if you sneeze they disintegrate.
Anyone can skin and clean a bird, but to put it back together and have it actually resemble the animal takes considerable skill. For me, parrots are the trickiest. Thin skinned, not very thickly feathered, difficult legs, big jaw bones…I’m no good at parrots, I hate parrots.
I generally only make a small number of animals at home. I’m restricted by availability of specimens and protected wildlife legislation, which is fine and how it should be but I can only really mount domestic animals and species for which I can get permits. I had to build a little studio in our backyard because the kids got sick of me skinning birds on the dining table!
About four years ago, a small group of taxidermists formed an association called Australian Association of Wildlife Artists. We started with twenty members and now we have upwards of one hundred. It’s a really interesting group of like-minded and passionate people, professionals and amateurs alike, who get together to share ideas and generally geek out about taxidermy.
We have an annual competition in which we enter taxidermy pieces in different divisions - novice, open, masters and different categories such as fish, reptile, bird, mammal, reproduction. Members come from all over Australia and New Zealand to compete and international judges give critique and awards.
I started by entering a novice bird, and because I got a first place and best of division I had to move up to open bird
division the following year. This year I entered a reptile for the first time, a little saltwater crocodile. It was the first time I've made a crocodile let alone entered a reptile.
He turned out pretty well - I got a first place, best of division, best reptile and highest scoring novice.
In the past, the taxidermy industry has been a very male dominated arena. However, recently there are many more women, particularly young women making taxidermy. The joke used to be that you wouldn't see three taxidermists in a room together and if you did they wouldn't tell each other their secret techniques.
One of my abiding memories from the last competition is watching an animated conversation between a lifelong professional
taxidermist gentleman and a 22 year old up-and- coming taxidermist chick about the intricacies of carcass casting.
At the moment, I am inordinately excited about the little crocodile skin I’ve just put in to tan. I’ve had it in the freezer for about six months. I like to tan with wattle bark which is a process using a pickling liquor made from Acacia bark. It gives leather a beautiful natural red brown colour and produces nice soft skins and pelts without chemicals.
To tan my little crocodile I had to remove the epidermis of hard scales using a lime solution. Being the first time I used this process I was a bit nervous but when the scales started slothing off I was literally wooting and dancing in the back yard.
My biggest dream or goal would be to mount a full body large saltwater crocodile. A huge three meter long monster! Maybe one day. More realistically though, I just dream about having more time to make animals, practice more, learn more……up my skills!
Photography by Rebecca Thomson.