A long time ago, the Placerita Canyon Nature Center needed some work done on our taxidermied animals. A search by Nature Center board member Bob Moss searches led him to an interesting young man.
Bob came back from his first visit full of mixed feelings but also amazement about the talent of this new taxidermist. When the time came for a second visit, about 20 docents came along, intrigued by this new discovery.
I will try to explain the situation: This taxidermist worked almost exclusively for a big-game hunter, mounting all of the trophies, full size. He explained to us what his work was, and why, and showed us many details about his techniques.
While the horror of all of those kills weighed heavily on our hearts, we had to appreciate the art of the taxidermist who took care of so many details to make his work look as close to reality as possible.
One young woman volunteer at Placerita, Olivia Miseroy, came along on this visit and was walking starry-eyed, feeling something stirring in her mind and understanding that she could do something like this – but with a different purpose: Nature education at its best. It was the beginning of a love story.
Olivia has taken many classes since then. She is at the master level of taxidermy. She keeps on learning with the most renowned taxidermists in the world and has earned many awards in the most demanding competitions.
Olivia does taxidermy only on animals that have been killed in an accident or succumbed to illness. She is in contact with many other nature centers that have freezers filled with dead animals, and she has a license to pick up roadkill. Long gone are the days where everyone could do that.
Sometimes you will need two animals to be able to use the best parts of each to perform a full and high-quality taxidermy, so it is important to have an ample supply.
It was fundamental to Olivia that taxidermy should be used for nature education. You have to admit, that it is the best way to be able to observe an animal up close in every little detail – something that is not possible even with the best photograph.
When you ask people what taxidermy is, the response is often, “dead animals. I could not have that in my house,” with a shudder of horror.
Actually, taxidermy comes from the Greek and means “arrangement of skin.” All that means is that a skin is stretched on a form that resembles the animal that had the skin.
Taxidermy started in Europe around the year 1748. The shape inside the skin was made of clay and was quite heavy. In the 18th Century, almost every town had a tannery business, and the skins were stuffed with cotton. This is where the term “stuffed animals” comes from.
The next step was to include a wire body inside the stuffing to try to give them shape. The problem was always that those skins would be eaten by insects – but in 1793, soap made with arsenic helped to preserve bird skin.
Often, those skins were handled by taxidermists who had never seen the live animals, and the position decided for each animal was far from reality.
We would have to wait for the 20th Century to see taxidermists looking to reproduce animals in accurate detail and in realistic settings as a way to educate the public or to record a threatened species.
With a modern awareness, hunters understand that hanging a trophy on a wall is not the best idea and are looking for more humane ways to validate their hunting or fishing expedition. Reproduction mount is one answer. When a fish is caught, for example, catch-and-release is becoming common practice. Photos and measurements are taken of the animal so an exact replica of the fish can be made in resin or fiberglass, so no fish is killed. That can also be done for mammals that are shot with tranquilizer darts. Photos of the hunter and the unconscious animal can be taken, and all of the details are recorded so a fiberglass head can be made to commemorate the hunt.
Most of the public is not aware of what “study skins” are. I have learned about them mostly during bird classes at the Nature Center.
We also call them, not very reverently, “lollypop birds.” It is a bird skin with all of the feathers on, of course, stuffed with cotton and mounted on a stick. It allows you to look closely at the feather arrangement and the differences in beak shapes. Those are typically used for in-depth study of different animals within the same family. Museums keep collections of study skins to compare various animals, and the public does not usually have access to those collections.
OK, all of this is nice and good, but what are the basics of taxidermy? How is it really done?
You start with a dead animal, let’s say a mountain lion (let’s start big). You have to remove all internal organs and scrape every bit of flesh and tissue from the skin. Then the skin is left in a bath with chemicals to treat it, both to guard against insects and to keep it supple.
You have to check your catalogue and buy a Styrofoam shape to put inside, looking at the different positions you want to work with. This is where knowing the skeleton and muscles of the animal becomes important. Anybody who has seen a mountain lion walking will tell you that seeing the muscles rolling under the skin gives an incredible feeling of power. The taxidermist must know where those muscles are, how they would react to the animal’s movements, and thus how to give this feeling of power. The taxidermist also must carefully study the position to make sure it is a true reflection of reality and beauty.
It is a teaching tool, so accuracy is most important. Olivia recently did a gorgeous mount of a mountain lion, but it was a juvenile – so the Styrofoam shape inside had to be cut a few times at specific locations so the skin would fit the shape and the whole body would have proper proportions.
The muscles are molded with a paste on the Styrofoam shape. The wet skin is adjusted on the body. After the skin dries in the right place, the fur is fluffed up with a blow dryer. You can buy appropriate glass eyes for all possible animals, but reptiles are usually painted because they are so small.
Reproductions of claws are easily found – which we were glad to learn when the claws from our taxidermied grizzly bear were stolen one sad day. Since then, our beloved bear resides in a glass cage for protection.
We are extremely proud to have seen the path Olivia has chosen. We have seen her interest as a young volunteer change and evolve until she has now become a world-renowned taxidermist. We are grateful that she helped us enter her world; her interest has taught us so much about an art form not very well known or properly understood.
We have seen wonderful creations taking shape under her expert fingers, and we are full of wonder and admiration for her knowledge that makes this possible.
While wiring a bird wing with a metal wire, she kept saying, “You do much by feeling where it should go.” We could translate that as, “I know how this small bird opens its wings, I know its specific way, I can feel how this bird reacts and how it should look if it were alive.”
It is always wonderful to see a dream come true or a love story like it was for Olivia. It is even more wonderful when this love story comes from a deep knowledge of nature and a commitment to sharing this knowledge in a wonderful art form at the same time.
If you want to see many examples of taxidermy, visit the Placerita Canyon Nature Center. Many of the taxidermied animals are used to educate the school groups and our visitors and are a part of the animal presentation program on Saturdays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. Come and ask all of the questions that this article could not cover.
Evelyne Vandersande has been a docent at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center since 1986. She lives in Newhall.
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