Our house has too much stuff: cabinets of dishes we don't use, shelves of books we no longer read, and because my husband is an artist, stacks of paintings and drawings stored in the basement. I could catalogue more inventory, but you know what I mean. What is it about human beings that makes us—like squirrels or gray jays—stashers, cachers, collectors of things? Of course, those wild ones have survival in mind. Maybe we do too.
Despite the development of farming and availability of food, people have retained a natural urge to hunt and gather—and to preserve. Taxidermists display a direct connection to these urges—going into the field to study wildlife; shooting, catching, or salvaging an animal; and then preserving its form as a lifelike facsimile. In this issue, "Man Behind the Scenes" introduces you to the work of a master of preservation, avian taxidermist Peter Getman.
When wildlife biologist Carrol Henderson calls Getman "the best taxidermist I have ever known," his praise comes not only from his knowledge of wildlife but also from his own experience doing taxidermy. Growing up on a farm, Henderson was an outdoors kid fascinated by wildlife. As a young hunter, he saw the opportunity to extend the use of a harvested game animal beyond food on the table to preservation as a taxidermy mount. He wanted to take a taxidermy correspondence course, but his parents said it was too expensive. Still determined to learn, he asked a neighbor who kept rabbits if he could have one of the skins. His first attempt at taxidermy had a short shelf life.
Henderson tackled taxidermy again in college when he found and mounted a road-killed great horned owl. With dutiful study of Russell Tinsley's classic book on taxidermy techniques, he honed his skills. For 20 years or so, he worked at his hobby, mounting hundreds of specimens, including bear, deer, ducks, and geese.
With a basement full of mounts and encouragement from his wife, Henderson eventually developed a new hobby. Today, he's more likely to take photographs to capture wildlife images.
Methods and motives for doing taxidermy have been evolving for a long time. In her book Still Life, Melissa Milgrom presents taxidermy history as a cast of characters in an ever-changing subculture. Milgrom defines taxidermy as "the art of taking an animal's treated skin and stretching it over an artificial form such as a manikin, then carefully modeling its features in a lifelike attitude." She briefly recounts one of the first attempts at taxidermy: In the early 1500s, a Dutch nobleman employed chemists to preserve his deceased cassowaries (large, flightless tropical birds). The chemists "treated the skins with spices, crudely mounted them using wires, and affixed them to a perch, frozen in time."
In the 18th and 19th centuries, European and American expeditions collected plants and animals worldwide. Private collectors displayed specimens in cabinets of natural curiosities. Milgrom calls taxidermy a "prerequisite skill" for Victorian-era naturalists, including Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle.
As Jonathan Weiner tells in The Beak of the Finch, Darwin shot and preserved 31 finches on the Galapagos Islands. When the expedition returned to England, scientists began examining the collections. Darwin did not realize how interesting his ground finches were until ornithologist John Gould identified them as "an entirely new group containing 14 species."
The educational value of specimens emerged as museums created dioramas, "three-dimensional time capsules of vanishing landscapes," Milgrom says. "From 1890 to 1940, dioramas were the primary way American museums educated the public about the ecological interdependence of species and their habitats." The exhibits featured bird mounts, yet most taxidermists worked behind the scenes without public recognition.
Before binoculars and cameras, ornithologists and amateur naturalists alike relied on collections of skins, mounts, nests, and eggs for closer study of birds. In recent times, some collections have proven important in surprising ways. For example, egg collections from the 19th and early 20th centuries helped researchers unravel the mystery of declining populations of bald eagles and other raptors. They found raptor eggshells were thinning due to ingestion of the pesticide DDT.
Though no one can determine the future value of our collections, we can bet that something we deem worth keeping is likely worth preserving as best we can.
Kathleen Weflen, editor