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SCHWENDEMAN’S TAXIDERMY STUDIO
“THE SIGHT OF a particularly fine animal, either alive or dead, excites within me feelings of admiration that often amount to genuine affection; and the study and preservation of such forms has for years been my chief delight.” I’m quoting William Hornaday, the famous Smithsonian taxidermist and animal-rights activist, who wrote this in his 1891 manual, Taxidermy and Zoological Collecting. But the words could just as easily belong to David Schwendeman. Schwendeman was the last chief taxidermist ever employed by the American Museum of Natural History, where he worked for twenty-eight years. Schwendeman is eighty-five, long retired, and likely to show up at the taxidermy workshop his father opened in 1921 in Milltown, New Jersey, now run by his son Bruce. Lately, he says, he’s lost his dexterity for taxidermy. Indeed, he says, he’s skinned his very last squirrel. Then I show up at Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio, and he’s degreasing a Cooper’s hawk, or sculpting a puma tail, or varnishing a boar’s nose (to give it the “wet look”), or macerating a bison skull to remove the meat. “Macerating bison’s one of the worst smells there is in taxidermy,” he says with a devilish grin.
Although Schwendeman’s simulations of nature are unsparingly sober, his own nature is curious and wry. Much to Bruce’s chagrin, women find David charming, though he is rail thin and pink-complected and he complains that his “computer” has a tendency to backfire. He has fleecy white hair and eyes that work like automatic sensors, picking up every chipmunk and groundhog that scuttles past his yard—although he’s as likely to raise them as he is to trap them in a Havahart.
With his khaki shirts and trousers, zebra-striped toolbox, and pocketknife, Schwendeman resembles the archetypal taxidermist, and that’s exactly what he is. Schwendeman grew up in a taxidermy studio, passionately devoted to the art and science of creating the illusion of life. In his prime, he strove for absolute realism, becoming the perfectionist his father never was and his son now strives to be. “I am skilled; my father is talented,” says Bruce, deferring to the old man who had no use for school after his ninth-grade biology teacher mistook a starling for a flicker. That was that; Schwendeman has sided with the animals ever since—a prerequisite, it turns out, for all great taxidermists, then and now.
Although the outside world may dismiss taxidermy as the creepy sideline of the Deliverance set or an anachronistic throwback to the dusty diorama, inside Schwendeman’s taxidermy is known as a unique talent that is generally misunderstood. “You have to have respect and intuition for the animals to bring out their best characteristics,” says David. “You have to have the delicate finesse of a watchmaker and the brute strength of a blacksmith,” says Bruce. “You have to be able to mount a hummingbird and an elephant.” Mostly you have to imitate nature with a fidelity that verges on pathological.
Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio is the oldest business in Milltown and, not surprisingly, the only place on Main Street that dispenses business cards from the jaws of a leathery old alligator. The workshop was established by Arthur Schwendeman, David’s father (Pup-Pup), a habitual truant who learned taxidermy from a female teacher who bribed him with taxidermy lessons so that he’d stay in school instead of running off to fish or hunt. He barely finished the eighth grade. David’s mother, Lillian (Mum-Mum), was a patriotic earth mother whose energy for preserving God’s creatures was infinite. She was the skinner and made all the artificial ears until she died at age ninety-four. “What you need for this kind of work is a strong stomach and lots of patience, and I have both,” she once said. A resourceful cook known to lie about her ingredients, Lillian marched in every Fourth of July parade beside the float carrying one of Arthur’s deer heads. Today Bruce Schwendeman wields the calipers and the brain spoons in the studio.
From outside, the sleepy little storefront resembles every other building on Main Street: a 1930s clapboard with two large display windows. Inside, however, the place brims with natural wonders. It’s a motionless zoo. Roughly one thousand dusty-eyed birds and exotic stuffed beasts roost on the countertops and hang from the ceiling and walls. It’s so cluttered with mounted animals (and skeletons and strange tools) that no one’s ever bothered to take an inventory. Some are faded relics from the 1920s; others are so vibrant you want to poke them to see if they will move. A great blue heron with outstretched wings held in place with long dressmaker pins sits on a table near a puma that looks ready to pounce. Intricate snake skeletons lie in long glass-fronted wooden display cabinets. A fluffy Dall sheep seems to have walked through the wall, its hind end hidden from view on the other side.
Once when I visited, 180 birds Bruce had salvaged from an old wildlife museum filled the front room. Another time I encountered a pack of deciduous-forest dwellers (beaver, raccoon, black bear, skunk, turkey vulture, chipmunk, rabbit) preserved at the request of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, which planned to transport Connecticut to Greece for the 2004 Olympics.
I first found myself drawn to Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio in 1994, when I returned from a trip to Africa to visit my in-laws, who lead safaris for Ker & Downey. The company was founded in 1946 by big-game hunters. Now it’s conservation minded and has taken Meryl Streep, Prince Charles, and other famous people on safari in discreet comfort. But not, as it turned out, me.
When I landed in Nairobi, I was informed that I was going to join a group of seasoned guides on a fourteen-day reconnaissance trek through the most barren stretch of Tanzania—an area so remote, the animals had never seen people before. The purpose of the trip was to scout out potential concession areas for future safaris. The guides called it “the real thing.” No jeeps or radio—we’d be out of range. It was all very nineteenth-century—the kind of foot expedition the early specimen hunters and museum taxidermists went on when natural scientists were building their amazing collections—only we weren’t going to shoot anything.
Coming from New Jersey, I thought it was impossible (even undesirable) to escape civilization, but we did (for a while, anyhow), and the isolation and wildlife were extraordinary, the birds too beautiful for words. On the last night, the leader, dressed in a loincloth, grabbed his shotgun and suggested we take an evening game walk. Somehow, we met up with a group of Belgian hunters who were camping nearby. They invited us back to camp for a drink. While the guides and hunters talked shop, I mistakenly wandered into the carcass room, where the hunters stored their kills. The salted pelts, hung high on pegs, were eyeless, mangled, and limp. They smelled bloody and metallic: the unmistakable stench of decay. I wasn’t sure what was more shocking: the human violence after all the tranquility or the idea that someone was going to transform these vestiges into something else. Trophies, I assumed. I wanted to know more. Was taxidermy just the creation of an ornamental souvenir? Or was there more to it?
Taxidermy is 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. The word is derived from the Greek roots taxis, “arrangement,” and derma, “skin,” although its usage became prominent only in the early 1800s when taxidermy began its evolution from a crude way of preserving skins to advance science into a highly evolved art form whose chief objective is to freeze motion.
The first person to use the word was the French naturalist Louis Dufresne, taxidermist at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, who wrote about it in the scientific reference book Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle (1803). Taxidermy, he suggested, differed sharply from embalming and other forms of preservation because its primary goal was aesthetic: to capture a species’ magnificence by faithfully replicating its every quirk and feature in a realistic mount. In this, taxidermy was a magical mix of science, art, and theater—an incomparable tool for displaying the wonder and beauty of animals, particularly rare bird species for natural history cabinets (the private collections of natural wonders and oddities that gave rise to modern museums). (Birds were far easier to preserve than mammals, whose musculature and facial expressions took decades to hone.)
Two hundred years have passed since Dufresne first used the term. Nature documentaries and DNA sequencing have long replaced the cabinets of curiosities and study skins (bird skins used to compare species by type). The grand era of the natural history museum diorama has come and gone. So if the Belgians’ animal skins weren’t museum bound, what would become of them? What compels people to want to transform animals into mantelpiece trophies, tacky roadside totems, or even diorama specimens? On the one hand, nothing seems as ludicrous as taking an animal and transforming it into a replica of itself. Why kill it in the first place? On the other hand, few objects are as strangely alluring as Flaubert’s parrot, Goethe’s kingfisher, or Truman Capote’s rattlesnake. Or, for that matter, as out of context as, say, Fenway Partners’ upright grizzly bear in its corporate boardroom in Manhattan.
There’s something arresting and haunting about taxidermy when expertly done by museum masters such as the Schwendemans, and something morbid and kitschy about taxidermy when it’s used to make effigies of famous animals such as “Misty of Chincoteague” (the equine heroine of Marguerite Henry’s novel; now a moth-cut tourist attraction near Virginia Beach) or Roy Rogers’s horse Trigger. It’s hard to look at taxidermy and be indifferent, and I can’t think of too many art forms (most taxidermists do want you to call it art) that stir up such pathos and bathos—as museums and artists such as Damien Hirst are keenly aware. Taxidermy makes you laugh and feel uneasy and inspired all at the same time, a powerful clash.
During the years I spent researching this book, I discovered that the most gifted taxidermists are an almost comically disparate group who argue about everything except this: nothing is either as loved or as hated as taxidermy. When taxidermy slides into one of its inevitable recessions, as it did in post–World War I England or in the ecologically minded 1970s, it isn’t merely forgotten; it is reviled. Dioramas are undone; mounts are burned in bonfires, hacked up in HAZMAT tents, stealthily donated to nature centers, or relegated to museum storerooms where no one will ever see them. By contrast, people who love taxidermy will risk imprisonment to import a polar bear or a rare spotted cat for their trophy room or will travel to some far-flung museum just to gaze at an extinct bird of paradise that now exists only in dry storage.
In the Victorian era—the age of scientific exploration and discovery—taxidermy was a faddish craze. As naturalists brought exotic new species home from other continents, armchair enthusiasts filled their parlors and drawing rooms with glass-domed birds, butterfly cases, even their stuffed pets. Back then, every claw and hoof was transformed into some exciting new object: everything from “zoological lamps” (kerosene lamps made of preserved monkeys, swans, and other creatures) to “His” and “Her” elephant heads. Soon every town in England could support a part-time taxidermist. In fact, taxidermy was a prerequisite skill for any serious naturalist—including Charles Darwin, who hired a freed Guyanese slave to give him lessons; otherwise, he never would have qualified for the position of naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle. And as I write this, animal lovers in Paris have joined forces to rebuild Deyrolle, the cherished taxidermy establishment that burned down in 2008 after 177 years in business.
Celebrities host weddings under the American Museum of Natural History’s ninety-four-foot blue whale (which, by the way, isn’t taxidermy—no “derm”—but molded fiberglass; they realigned its blowhole in 2002, so now it’s anatomically accurate fiberglass). Even Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, is a stuffed display at Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland. However, when I first met the Schwendemans, taxidermy was in one of its reviled phases, the height of the antifur campaigns of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Lynx Educational Trust for Animal Welfare. Advertisements showed beautiful women with flayed dogs draped around their shoulders. People paint-bombed fur coats. It felt creepy (and potentially unsafe) to walk through Schwendeman’s door.
Back in New Jersey, when I was telling a hippie-era uncle of mine (who has an unusual tolerance for eccentric behavior) about my trip to Africa, he told me about the Schwendemans. My mother, whose family has lived in the area for as long as the Schwendemans, said, “That dark, dreary place on Main Street that’s there year after year? What goes on in there?” Everyone knew the queer little shop, but only the most extreme animal enthusiasts seemed to venture inside. Now I had a reason to visit. More than a reason—a compulsion: the beauty of nature and the harsh reality of death were all mixed up in my mind in a way that I didn’t understand then and I’m not sure I fully understand now. More to the point, I had seen skinned animals in Africa. That taboo having been broken made it much easier for me to visit the studio.
Bruce Schwendeman (and a cross-eyed snowy owl, circa 1930) met me when I arrived. Bruce is a big, brawny guy with graying auburn hair and beard, blue eyes, and high cheekbones. He blushes easily; otherwise he looks nothing like his father. He was wearing the customary denim apron, spattered with blood and hide paste, and had a pencil behind his ear.
Bruce took over the shop in 1977 when he was twenty-six and has run it ever since, working mostly alone, although David shuffles in every day after his nap. Bruce knows the place like a sick child: the mailman’s ring at eleven A.M.; the hum of the ten-by-ten industrial freezer in the basement; the slam of the screen door that leads from the workshop to David’s house behind it, where both were raised. As a boy, Bruce was paid twenty-five cents for every deer skull plate he scraped cleaned, a 500 percent raise from what David himself had earned as a child for the same job.
Bruce has a sign in front that basically sums up his attitude toward greeting people: “If you are a salesman, I’ll give you two minutes; if you are a liquor salesman with samples you can stay a little while but then you have to get out.” Bruce can be gruff at first. If he’s just spent a week mounting hooded mergansers in a heat wave without air conditioning (he had), he can also be short-wicked and curt. However, if he senses that you have a genuine interest in taxidermy, he’ll let down his guard and talk reverently about every mount. That day he was gruff. I didn’t blame him. I wasn’t his usual customer—that is to say, a museum curator, an ornithologist, a park ranger, a zoology professor, a hunter, or a roadkill picker-upper. He calls himself a “taxidermologist,” a name he uses to distinguish himself (a museum taxidermist) from the “beer-drinking fraternity” that mounts white-tailed deer assembly-line style. “Only five or ten out of one hundred thousand full- and part-time taxidermists are taxidermologists,” he said. “We operate same as a museum. Scientific accuracy must be right on. Nothing’s typical.”
He coined the term in 1980 after years of having to define what he does for people who consider his shop an animal mortuary (or worse). Lately he’s been fielding calls from people who think taxidermists drive taxicabs. “I’ve got a spider in my sink. What kind is it? Do we give fly-fishing lessons?” he says with a groan, shaking his head, rattling off more such inquiries. “How do I get rid of the squirrels in my attic? There’s a turtle crossing our yard; is it dangerous? Do you repair fur coats?” At one point, the calls got so ridiculous, he began logging them. He’s been keeping that log for about as many years as he’s been documenting his encounters with roadkill (1977), though not nearly as long as he’s been collecting the shed skins of his pet snakes.
Bruce has a striking command of animal anatomy. Even so, people are often surprised to meet a taxidermist with a master’s degree. Bruce studied zoology at North Carolina State University, with concentrations in population dynamics and parasitology. After graduation, Carolina Power & Light advertised a job researching the effects of its power lines on migrating bobwhite quail. His mother (who banned taxidermy from the family home soon after she married David) encouraged Bruce to apply for the job so that he’d have some financial stability. Instead, he put on a denim apron and took over the shop.
Since then, father and son have preserved everything from three-toed sloths to fireflies. Seventy-five percent of the Schwendemans’ work is for museums, nature centers, and zoos, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Philadelphia Zoo. Not long ago, they gave the Explorers Club’s polar bear a pedicure (artificial claws), and they restored the Harvard Club’s elephant head (by sealing its cracked trunk with Yale paper napkins saturated in Elmer’s glue). Mostly they are known for their work at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), to which they have an unshakable loyalty. That loyalty does not lie primarily with the curators and exhibition staff, which have sent laughing gulls, sea otters, galagos (bush babies), lemurs, and hornbills to them for mounting since the late 1940s, but with what they call the “stars of the show”: the animals. And, naturally, with the taxidermists in whose footsteps they proudly walk.
Because of this, they tend to know every mount that’s ever been taken off exhibition or altered and every exhibition hall that has been dismantled to make room for something new— something undoubtedly louder and with more special effects and automatronics—the direction museums have been going since the 1960s, when taxidermy displays gave way to IMAX theaters and robotic dinosaurs. “When I was a boy, you went to the museum to see the animals,” says David, groaning as if in pain. “You went to see the elephants. Nowadays everything’s getting gimmicky.” They fondly remember, for instance, the old bird halls filled with unadorned glass-fronted wooden cabinets. They blanch when they recall how the museum dismantled Dogs of the World, a gallery of stuffed canines. And they smirk with delight when they describe gory displays sanitized by the museum, such as a vulture picking at a zebra’s exposed entrails. “It seems to me that they didn’t want the public to see blood and guts,” David says, laughing. Often they will try to convince a museum that its old mounts are treasures worth conserving, even if the mounts were preserved by naturalists who knew little about the species (compared to what biologists know today) and are anatomically outmoded: the AMNH’s primate hall’s aggressive lemurs and monkeys, for example, or the Vanderbilt Museum’s thirty-two-foot-long whale shark. (Bruce spent four years restoring William K. Vanderbilt II’s megaspecimen, which he believes is the world’s largest mounted animal.) At Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio, the AMNH’s very first mammal mount—the ferocious African lion it purchased from the famous Parisian firm Maison Verreaux in 1865—is referred to as it is in the mammalogy department: “Specimen Number 1.”
Bruce jokes that one day he’ll write a book about the AMNH called Skeletons in the Closet. Until then, he is happy to point out all the fabulous artifacts that David has retrieved from the museum’s dumpsters or was given on indefinite loan. “Their garbage forms the nucleus of the treasures of our museum,” Bruce said, leading me back to the workshop through a corridor of wooden display cases, which contained, among the bronzes and death masks, two huge condors (Andean and California!) and a passenger pigeon.
Most of the animals are uncanny replicas. Others have been transformed into tiny people, inkwells, or whatever, and he called these items “novelty mounts.” A frog strumming a banjo and boxing squirrels were displayed on a glass shelf; Arthur mounted them years ago. Above the cash register, a yellow-eyed jackrabbit looked crossbred with a pronghorn (antelope). “Every taxidermist worth his weight has a jackalope!” Bruce said, beaming. Jackalopes are the weird invention of Wyoming taxidermist Douglas Herrick, who one day in 1932 tossed a dead jackrabbit onto the floor of his workshop. It landed under some deer antlers, spawning the gaudiest icon of the American West. “We have two types,” Bruce boasted. “That one came with a certificate of authenticity!”
From a taxidermological perspective, you might think Bruce finds novelty mounts unseemly. But he views them as part of taxidermy history. Victorian homes contained an omnium-gatherum of such artifacts, including anthropomorphic mounts, as viewed through the eyes of Beatrix Potter fans. That said, the most novelty Bruce is willing to offer his clients is bear rugs, which he believes demean bears. “It’s disrespectful to, you know, vacuum [a bear rug],” he says. “It’s like man’s dominance over nature.”
Beyond the museum, swinging double doors flanked with the sail of a sailfish and the saw of a sawfish had stenciled on them NO ADMITTANCE. I followed Bruce past the sign and into the workshop: a large cement room, poorly ventilated, with three small windows that let in barely any light. Hanging from a chain above the sink was a woodchuck pelt, and lying upside down on a chair was Arthur’s old stuffed terrier, a rental prop for TV commercials. Mostly the shop was full of strange tools with frightfully descriptive names: toe probes, lip tuckers, tail splitters. In the center of the room what looked like a dissection was taking place on a large worktable, which was lit by a single bulb that dangled from a ceiling strung with antlers. That day Bruce’s friend Kurt Torok, who helps out in a pinch, was preserving a bald eagle for a nature center.
Kurt’s fingers were bloodstained from the pile of fat, brains, and leg muscles he’d been extracting from the bird like a hell-bent surgeon. Now he was scraping meat off the skin—“fleshing” to a taxidermist—so the skin would absorb borax, a preservative used to soak up fat and repel insects. In taxidermy, an animal starts out looking like the animal, gets mangled beyond recognition, and then ends up looking like the animal again. This eagle was mangled beyond recognition. Kurt pointed to a bald patch on its belly where its feathers had been ripped out by a truck, then he extended its long yellow talons. Its purple carcass dangled from a skinning hook near Bruce. A fan sent the stench of rotten meat circling around the humid workshop.
Kurt went over to the skinning hook and took down the carcass. He set it on the worktable, then began cutting into it with poultry shears. It still had the skeleton inside, which seemed odd; I had always thought taxidermists used skeletons as armatures to support the skin, but I was wrong by about three hundred years. In the 1700s, when taxidermy manuals were useful only to specimen collectors who wanted to know how to preserve birds for transport, people did use skeletons as armatures. In fact, they had all kinds of convoluted ways for preserving animals. One of the first people to describe his methods was the French naturalist R.A.F. Réaumur. In 1748, Réaumur offered four ways to preserve birds for travel: he stuffed their skinned bodies with straw, hay, and wood; he soaked them in spirits, then packed them in barrels of oat or barley chaff; he essentially mummified them with preserving powders; and, of course, he baked them. E. Bancroft’s method for preserving Guyanese birds for natural history cabinets (1769) resembles a recipe for coq au vin: after he stuffed the skinned birds with salt and alum, he marinated them in rum for two days, then baked them. When death came knocking for George Washington’s golden pheasants (a gift from Louis XVI), Charles Willson Peale (portraitist, naturalist, and fossil hunter) desperately wanted the skins for his Repository for Natural Curiosities in Philadelphia. In 1787, he sent Washington these instructions: “If the weather should be warm, be pleased to order the Bowels to be taken out and some Pepper put into the Body, but no Salt which would spoil the feathers.” Washington agreed: “He made his Exit yesterday, which enables me to comply with your request much sooner than I wished to do.”
Some taxidermists steamed wings, talons, and webbed feet to make them supple. Others coated bodies in liquid varnish or preserved skins with sal ammoniac (ammonium chloride), corrosive sublimate (mercuric chloride), or mixtures of wine, turpentine, and camphor. In 1771, Captain T. Davies described how he extracted bird tongues, brains, and eyes through the mouths of his eviscerated creatures. Then he stuffed their heads with camphor-soaked cotton and inserted black eyes that he had made from candle wax.
If these methods sound nothing remotely like taxidermy, that’s because the first taxidermists were not taxidermists. One of the earliest documented taxidermy collections was preserved in the early 1500s by chemists. A Dutch nobleman’s prized cassowaries, which he had brought home from India, suffocated in an overheated aviary (his furnace door had been left open and baked the birds). Distraught, the owner had the leading local chemists devise a method for preserving them. They treated the skins with spices, crudely mounted them using wires, and affixed them to a perch, frozen in time.
For the next three hundred years, the practice of taxidermy was, in a nutshell, a series of attempts to animate nature while preventing it from taking its course. Before arsenical soap was used as an insecticide and preservative, most mounts lasted no more than thirty years before they became moth-eaten or began to decompose. Except for the duchess of Richmond’s African grey parrot in Westminster Abbey and George Washington’s pheasants at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, few specimens predate the 1830s. This would all change when taxidermists—notoriously secretive—began to divulge their private formulas.
Kurt glanced up. A sly smile spread across his face. He considered the purple carcass. “Wanna sex it?” David, who was sitting in his rocker, snickered. I reached for my car keys.
“Quit showing off!” Bruce shouted. Although he knows that scientific specimens are always identified by their sex, age, and location where they were collected, he wanted me to view taxidermy as dignified and had no patience for taxidermy jokes. “Look at what their [people’s] exposure is: Psycho, Jeffrey Dahmer. And all of the horror movies, like Dracula, always have taxidermy on the walls. Disney has a problem with taxidermy. In 101 Dalmatians, taxidermy was evil—they wanted to make a coat out of puppies. Even The Simpsons had a runaway parade float, and someone almost got speared by a mounted swordfish! So it’s perpetrated as a weird thing, not necessarily a bad thing, just unusual and creepy.”
Taxidermy does have a creepy reputation, but taxidermists can blame only so much of it on Hollywood. Taxidermy was considered shady even in its heyday. In fact, except for five years in the 1880s, when taxidermists banded together to form the Society of American Taxidermists (SAT), the first professional taxidermy association (whose members would eventually revolutionize museum displays), again in 1972, when the National Taxidermists Association was formed (followed by Britain’s Guild of Taxidermists and others), taxidermists, who tend to be solitary workers, purposely cut themselves off from the outside world. No other profession has so steadfastly barred visitors from its dreary workshops, a decision that makes sense if you’ve ever seen someone flesh a bald eagle with tweezers.
Before refrigeration, it was even worse. Back then, taxidermy workshops were vile. Gruesome dissections took place in dark, smelly rooms that were stifling hot in the summer. Arsenic, formalin, carbon tetrachloride, and other dangerous chemicals that taxidermists used as preservatives were stored in open containers and filled the workshops’ stagnant air with carcinogenic dust.
That said, the ghastly workshop is only one reason for taxidermy’s insularity. The other reason is that taxidermy is an incredibly time-consuming handicraft. Few have ever prospered by stuffing other people’s animals. “You don’t become rich as a taxidermist,” says Bruce. For this reason alone, it seems, taxidermists have always been incredibly suspicious of one another—citing the first law of nature, self-preservation, as the cause. Before 1972, taxidermists hoarded information, passing it down strictly from father to son, master to apprentice. Countless recipes for saline pickle (a tanning solution) and arsenical soap have died with some stingy taxidermist. When the French apothecary Jean-Baptiste Bécoeur, for instance, invented arsenical soap in 1743, he refused to share the recipe with other naturalists because he wanted a job with the Cabinet du Roi, the royal collection that became the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle after the French Revolution. He didn’t want to help his rivals because their birds might outshine his own. (He didn’t get the job.) Exceptions existed, of course. William Hornaday found his colleagues’ behavior exceptionally puerile and said so in an 1880 issue of Science: “If painters and sculptors had always been as narrow-minded, jealous, and absurdly exclusive of their knowledge as we have ever been (with but few exceptions) their art would stand no higher to-day than ours.”
Now Bruce wanted to dispel some misconceptions. He started with the popular notion that taxidermists derive pleasure from killing animals. The Schwendemans never kill animals for taxidermy, acquiring their specimens from natural death or roadkill—except for a Norway rat that Bruce’s sister drowned for the AMNH’s exhibition on epidemics. (“They didn’t send us a decent specimen,” he explained. “Central Park has the smelliest old rats.”) Other fallacies are that taxidermists start the day off with a beer (David drinks only after five); that nothing repulses a taxidermist (Bruce faints at the sight of human blood, especially his own; he also thinks it’s gross to preserve dogs and cats); and, most important, that taxidermists “stuff” animals.
Before taxidermists made careful studies of animal anatomy, they did stuff skins with sawdust and rags, making for lopsided and disfigured specimens. Even John James Audubon, who shot and preserved thousands of birds to use as models for his illustrations, failed to mimic life until he invented a way to wire wings in naturalistic poses. Today highly skilled taxidermists mount animals with unerring perfection using an astonishing range of prefabricated manikins and fake animal parts—rippled tongues, plastic claws, colorful glass eyes—that used to take pioneering taxidermists years of careful field observations to sculpt by hand (which is why the Schwendemans sarcastically call it “modelmaking”). However, much like store-bought Halloween costumes, store-bought anatomy means limited choices of species and poses. “You can’t buy a manikin for a dwarf galago from a supply catalog!” Bruce says. The best taxidermists still insist on sculpting their own forms, trusting their own articulations even over those at museums, whose models vary from era to era.
Bruce practices what he calls “good taxidermy”: respect for the laws of nature and conservation. For David, whose work had to meet the imposing standards of renowned mammalogists, herpetologists, and ornithologists, that’s a given, and therefore he loves to provoke Bruce. Whenever Bruce says an animal was “liquidated,” “collected,” “culled,” or “dispatched,” David thunders, “Killed!” When Bruce says “sportsman,” David groans “hunter.” David also prefers “workshop” to “studio.” “Oh, we could get fancy and call it a studio,” he says, rolling his eyes.
David is extraordinarily unpretentious. People from the AMNH remember him as a humble, hardworking naturalist with an uncanny intuition for animal forms. For example, when Rose Wadsworth, the museum’s former exhibition coordinator for living invertebrates, brought him a flying lizard from Asia that he had never seen, he positioned it with the sensitivity of a local who had grown up with it in his own backyard. Indeed, to understand David you have to understand his deep devotion to wildlife, especially birds.
David is a purist: a birder’s birder. He loathes the term “bird watcher,” for instance, because it implies lists and rarity. David would rather observe a common species a million times, just to see the sunlight hit its covet feathers as it banks into a salt marsh, than to glimpse an exotic species for a nanosecond and then race off to see the next one. For David, the walk counts more than the birds. In this, he’s the definition of the old-school taxidermist—a field naturalist who believes the only way to replicate an animal faithfully is to study it in its native haunts.
The first day I met him, however, David wanted to talk about eating bald eagle. (Taxidermists love to joke about eating specimens, especially if a specimen is rare, endangered, or politically charged.) So what does it taste like? I asked.
“Like bald eagle!” he said with a chuckle.
Then he went over to the eagle carcass, glanced at it, and said, “Looks like ovaries. An adult female.”
He sat back down and rocked in the afternoon heat. The rocker is the center of David’s universe, the focus from which all the significant places in his life radiate, like the points on a compass: “up there” (the AMNH), “back there” (his house), “in here” (the workshop), and “the cabin” (the log house his parents built by hand and lived in until they died). Dressed in khaki from head to toe, worn leather work boots, and a leather belt with a brass buckle, he looked like a safari guide who got lost and ended up in New Jersey. He had folded paper for jotting field notes in his breast pocket and a small jackknife in his pants pocket, and he was smoking a pipe. He handed me a business card that said DAVID J. SCHWENDEMAN, CHIEF PREPARATORY TAXIDERMIST, AMNH, RETIRED.
“I was in my teens when I did my first mount. I mounted a starling,” he said.
“Mine was a grackle,” said Bruce. “Pup-Pup’s was a pigeon. Mum-Mum’s was a blue jay.”
“My mother was really a skinner; she could skin anything,” enthused David. He puffed on his pipe and continued. “She used to bake those pies. Is that what you’d call a blackbird pie?”
“Four-and-twenty blackbirds,” said Bruce as he fastened antlers to a deer head manikin he was filing into shape.
“When the blackbirds migrated, we’d get a bunch. We used to eat grackles by the hundreds. During the Depression, we’d eat anything,” said David.
“Heck, we do now,” said Bruce. “But we’re not a butcher shop! It’s a fringe benefit, not the norm.”
David got up and shuffled out of the workshop and into the yard. He checked his cage of promethea moths, then went over to see if his bamboo garden was producing. When he lifted a capful of O’Doul’s out of the soil to see if it had attracted any slugs, it was impossible to picture him in any city, much less New York. As far as David is concerned, the AMNH is a city itself. He simply bypassed Manhattan by riding the C train directly into the museum, commuting the thirty-five miles with a briefcase concealing dead beavers and shrews and the occasional poison dart frog. In twenty-eight years, the only city sidewalk he ever touched was the one he had to cross to go birding in Central Park.
Sometimes when David is feeling wistful, he grabs an old binder labeled “Taxidermy Notes and Formulae” and flicks through its yellowing pages. Whenever he does this, his eyes sparkle and it’s as if he’s back on the fifth floor of the AMNH in the exhibition department’s rich art studios. One day he grabbed the binder and with trembling fingers showed me his secrets for making lifelike plants and animals. It was astonishing to see his range of skills. The book was filled with handwritten recipes and experiments, things that evoked chemistry equations or a wizard’s book of potions. One entry had his “starfish solution” (equal parts formalin, water, and glycerin); another, “how to clean an oropendola nest” (make a spray from ten ounces of water, Elmer’s glue, and one and a half ounces of glycerin). There was his “formula for bleaching bones” (a paste of hydrogen peroxide and magnesium carbonate), his method for hatching snapping turtle eggs (Mortimer lived for fifteen years), and an entry called “how to make artificial frog eggs.”
He pointed to a section called “scorpion experiments,” then to “how to anesthetize a lizard” and “relaxing bat study skins.” There was a section called “how to make a Plexiglas water line for wading wood storks,” his “snake-tanning formula,” and instructions for how to fasten a diving cormorant to the wall so that it looks as if it’s flying. And there was more: How to “clean live coral. How to make “slushy snow”: combine clear resin, a touch of white pigment, and cabosil (a thickening agent); add enough small glass beads to create the consistency of cream (gives it luster); add ten drops of catalyst; let it set up for fifteen minutes). How to “set up earthworms for casting”: inject the worms with vinyl acetate before molding. How to “make artificial algae”: boil Angora goat hair with yellow-green fabric dye. And on and on.
David was born in 1924, three years after his father sold his first deer head and Lillian skinned her first pheasant. The original workshop was in the family home, in what is now David’s kitchen. It sold bait and tackle and was open 24-7. People would ring the buzzer at three A.M. looking for shiners, and David would trudge down in his pajamas to fill orders, sarcastically mumbling, “I’ve been waiting up all night for you.” In the early years, their customers were local hunters who wanted their pheasants and small mammals mounted, and the place took on the seasonal rhythm of a farm: rails, grouse, quail, and pheasants in early fall; deer and ducks in mid-fall; turkeys and bears in spring; fish and woodchucks in summer. Before they had a freezer, Lillian would skin the birds while the hunters waited, and she’d hand back the meat wrapped in paper. (Now Bruce tells his customers to get two: one for mounting, the other for dinner.)
As a boy, David hung around the shop, cleaning deer skulls and getting in his father’s way. He loved to wander outdoors to listen to spring peepers (little frogs), green frogs, and katydids. Mostly he trapped foxes and went frogging, birding, and hunting for tree stumps. Sometimes he’d grab a camera and wade into the swamps behind the house, looking for red-winged blackbird or least bittern nests and grebes. He’d come home sopping wet, and Arthur would scold him by saying it was okay to watch birds now, but as a man it would be a problem. He never stopped. Once, when he was fourteen, he sat by the old dirt road that ran by their house sketching a little green heron. A man rode by on horseback and took him for a Boy Scout. David was infuriated. “You had to be a Boooooy Scout to look at birds!” he says with a mock whine. “Now it’s strange here,” he says reflectively. “I think they spray. I haven’t seen a bat all summer. Used to see them flying around. Now it’s all houses; it’s all gone now.”
Birds are the workshop’s specialty. However, the first animal the Schwendemans mounted for the AMNH was a venomous lizard: a Gila monster. Gila monsters are classified as Heloderma suspectum. They have forked tongues and scaly bodies that are typically two feet long. Arthur’s brother boxed up the live lizard and mailed it to Milltown from Arizona. Arthur put it in a cage and kept his distance, in case it spit poison. “Boy, did I want to touch that thing, but we weren’t allowed, because we didn’t know if it was alive or dead,” David recalls with boyish enthusiasm. It was dead, so Arthur mounted it, and the uncle called up the museum and asked if they wanted it. They did—and then they offered Arthur a job. Arthur hated cities and said he would work from home. But when David turned eleven, he begged his mother to sign him up as a museum member. It was 1936—the heyday of the diorama—and that year “members day” fell on the museum’s most momentous occasion: the ribbon cutting for the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.
For taxidermists and curators alike, African Hall represents taxidermy’s highest merger of science, art, technology, and institutional support. Carl Akeley, the taxidermist whose dream it was to build the hall, was also a hunter-naturalist, whose adventures in Africa had made him an American legend. For young David, whose parents hadn’t begun to use manikins yet, African Hall—with its startling dioramas and eight trumpeting elephants—was the taxidermic equivalent of shooting a rocket to the moon. The taxidermists who had worked on the exhibits had actually gone to Africa to collect the flora and fauna, which they painstakingly preserved over twenty-five years. David rode home from the opening dazed. “What we did wasn’t like that,” he says. He began dreaming about becoming a big-game taxidermist, just as other boys dreamt about becoming Babe Ruth. A while later, a local butcher gave him a calf head so that he could pretend to be Carl Akeley. But when he pulled the head out of the burlap sack, it had been bisected and was rotting. David dug a hole and buried it. He also buried the museum taxidermy idea.
During World War II, David joined the Marines, and from 1943 to 1946 he was stationed in Guam. “Should I tell her what I did?” he asks Bruce. “Big, bad Marine!” Bruce chides. While other soldiers admired pinups, David watched butterflies. He wanted to preserve a few spectacular species, so his parents sent him his collapsible butterfly net and cyanide killing jar. But when they arrived, David was too embarrassed to run around the military base waving the butterfly net.
After the war, when he got married, his wife said she hoped he didn’t expect her to do what his mother did. He didn’t. “Most men wouldn’t do what my mother did,” he says: skin a bear with a single-edge razor blade; shoot blue jays from the kitchen window; wade into ponds in a long dress and chest waders to collect geese that she was raising and selling; chip ice off the roof of her log cabin at age ninety-one; use her skinning knife to stab an apple slice after the knife had been in arsenic and minimally wiped off on her apron. The Schwendemans credit her longevity to arsenic exposure: they say she stored it in her fatty tissues and reabsorbed it as she aged. When they told me this, I shot Bruce a sidelong glance, and he said defensively, “Arsenic is an overrated poison!” by which he meant that people who are not taxidermists tend to view arsenic myopically: nothing more than a deadly carcinogen.
Taxidermists typically overcompensate when defending their maligned profession, but arsenic as elixir was exceptionally suspect—at least to me. To Pat Morris, a retired University College London zoologist and taxidermy historian, it had some merit. In 1982, he compared the life spans of thirty-two nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century taxidermists with their civilian counterparts. The taxidermists outlived the civilians by forty-two years. According to Morris, the average taxidermist in 1901 lived to 76.4, whereas the average male lived to be 34. The alleged reason: metabolized arsenic. Also, as Morris surmises, job fulfillment. The Schwendemans, who resist change, used arsenic until the mid-1980s.
One day in the late 1940s, a local taxidermist showed up at the workshop with a bag of pheasants and grouse. Arthur mounted the birds in Milltown, and the taxidermist brought them to the AMNH, which hired Arthur to preserve study skins for its ornithological collections. Soon Arthur and David were delivering batches of birds to Seventy-ninth Street and Central Park West every month. “Just like we do now,” Bruce says.
On one delivery trip, the head of exhibitions offered David a summer job. Work was generally slow in the workshop during the summer, and his parents said they could manage, so he took the job. He went “up there” for two months, and he stayed for twenty-eight years.
It was 1959, “the beginning of the end” of the old-style natural history museum. Back then, displays were permanent, mostly dark galleries of dioramas, not the blockbuster traveling exhibits popularized during David’s lifetime. Dioramas are perhaps the most laborious form of exhibition design, and therefore they cost millions of dollars to make. In the 1950s, museums had to compete with new sensations such as television and air travel for the public’s attention. When David showed up at the AMNH, the major halls were undergoing renovation, and only two taxidermists remained on staff. They were making artificial plants. One of them greeted David by saying, “Quit while you’re ahead! Taxidermy’s lousy.” David changed out of his commuting clothes (a suit and tie), put on his khaki uniform, and got busy preserving study skins.
“It was the heyday of ‘quality comes first,’” Bruce recalls. Up there, David quickly learned the difference between a commercial taxidermist’s trophy and a museum taxidermist’s scientific specimen. A trophy is a generalized depiction (it could be any zebra), whereas a museum specimen is a specific individual (that zebra). A commercial taxidermist must work quickly to turn a profit; a museum taxidermist must bring the latest phylogenetic information to life and receives all the time and scientific data he needs to achieve his goal. A museum taxidermist must know how to mount the rarest and most exotic species—even extinct prehistoric creatures. He has to “relax” (soften and rehydrate) one-hundred-year-old study skins and articulate intricate skeletons. A museum taxidermist’s mounts must last indefinitely and will be seen by millions of people.
David relished every moment of every job. Mostly he loved the stimulating atmosphere. Up there, he met famous scientists and artists whose fidelity to nature was even more extreme than his own. One of those people was the landscape artist James Perry Wilson, who worked at the museum from 1934 to 1957 but never stopped visiting it after he retired. Wilson was a Columbia University–trained architect, an amateur meteorologist, and a self-taught artist who painted thirty-eight diorama backgrounds at the AMNH. He was so talented that people at the museum said that he could paint atmosphere. “He could paint the feeling of the temperature of a hot climate,” says David. One day David experienced Wilson’s exactitude. David was installing bobolinks (small, sparrowlike birds) in a diorama when Wilson showed up to have a look. The diorama depicted the birds migrating south through a night sky illuminated by a crescent moon. Wilson asked about three things: the locality, the time of year, and the direction of migration. The diorama artists told him the birds migrated east of the Great Plains and wintered in South America. Wilson thundered, “Well, the crescent is facing the wrong way! It should be reversed!” They reversed the crescent.
At the museum, David got to open all the doors of the most amazing cabinet of curiosities in the world. He got to visit the museum’s gargantuan freezer (“As big as this whole building!”) to select, for instance, penguin skins from the quarry collected on one of Robert E. Peary’s polar expeditions. While inside, he’d steal a glance at the huge stacks of folded elephant skins and the full-mounted tigers and pandas. Soon he befriended the collections manager of ornithology, who let him select his own skins from the vast storerooms filled with more than a million preserved birds.
His primary pleasure, however, was learning how a diorama is made. Dioramas are three-dimensional time capsules of vanishing landscapes. Like meticulous stage sets, they simulate reality with dreamlike precision. Dioramas depict places in the world that are no longer as beautiful or as “natural” as they used to be. From 1890 to 1940, dioramas were the primary way American museums educated the public about the ecological interdependence of species and their habitats. The AMNH’s dioramas were (and still are) considered the most magnificent in the world, and David has repaired and restored them all.
His favorite diorama is the Yosemite Valley Group in the Hall of North American Mammals. It’s not the coyotes or the Anna’s hummingbird that draws him to it, but the background painting of the meandering Merced River as it flows through Bridal Veil Meadow on a bright June morning. The river winds down from glacial mountains and forms a clear pool in a landscape of azaleas, rhododendrons, and mariposa lilies. Wilson painted it in 1946 after he spent two days in Yosemite searching for the perfect spot. “By God, it looks like if you walked in there, you’d get wet!” David exclaims. “I mean, you can see through it! You can see the bottom! The effect is so fantastic!”
The first diorama David worked on was the Japan Bird Group in the Hall of Birds of the World. One day he described the process for me. As taxidermist, David was an integral part of the exhibition team, which included a background painter, a foreground artist, and an ornithologist who oversaw the scientific accuracy of the display, selected the species, and approved the final mounts. Most of the work took place directly inside the diorama shell, as they installed the exhibit from the curved back wall to the front window.
While the background artist painted the scenic backdrop (using a grid system devised by Wilson for translating two-dimensional studies and photographs onto rounded contours), David was up in the fifth-floor studios animating pheasants and sparrows in a way that brought the ornithologist’s vision to life. After the background was painted, the foreground artist added layers of wire, burlap, and plaster to mimic the surface of the land. As the artist carefully put his mosses, grasses, and shrubs on top of his topographical stage set, David installed his birds in batches, as specified by the ornithologist. Finally, after everything, including the intricate lighting, was adjusted to suggest sun and shadow, the case was tightly sealed with a thick plate-glass window, tempered to reduce glare. “It was a beautiful exhibit, a beautiful diorama,” he says.
Museums often credit their patrons, scientists, curators, and artists by posting their names in their grand galleries. For the Japan Bird Group, the museum listed, among others, the background painter, the foreground artist, the person who collected the birds—everyone, it seemed, except David. “They didn’t have my name! You know, the taxidermist!” he says. “And you look at the damn thing—I’m sorry—and you look at the diorama, and you see the birds. Who cares about what kind of moss they have? . . . I complained to the birdman—the ornithologist, who I worked with more closely than anyone else, . . . and after a while, they did change it and put my name on the group.”
While David was telling me this, Bruce flushed, then said, “Can I interject? This points to a couple of things. One is that the taxidermist was overlooked. They did admire his expertise, but he wasn’t the scientist, and he wasn’t asked to go on the collecting expedition, and his name was often left off of the diorama. And yet the birds were the stars of the show!”
Other bird groups followed, including the Chilkat River Bald Eagle Group in the Hall of North American Birds. David had to create the illusion that the eagles were soaring down into the river to catch salmon. To capture the drama of eagles in flight, he devised a method for inserting threadlike steel wires into their pinion feathers, so the birds would appear to be resisting the wind.
In the late 1960s, he worked on the first renovation of what is now called the Millstein Hall of Ocean Life. When the hall first opened in 1933, its dioramas depicted the fragile marine habitats of walruses, elephant seals, and other large mammals hunted to near extinction for their fur, their environments decimated by the petroleum industry. In 1969, the museum gutted the hall, replacing its original seventy-six-foot great blue whale model (designed in 1908 by the legendary paleontologist Roy Chapman Andrews) with the ninety-four-foot fiberglass model that dominates the hall today. David made the replacement whale’s huge fake eye. Mostly, however, he recast plaster fish in lightweight fiberglass so they’d be able to hang from a boom. (Taxidermists don’t use actual skin for fish mounts anymore, because the skins curl, ooze grease, and ruin the paintings.) By the early 1980s, David’s taxidermy jobs at the museum had dwindled, and he was mostly restoring faded old mounts. For the Hall of Biology of Birds, he had to revive five hundred birds preserved in the 1930s. The heron’s wings had snapped, the Andean condor had shriveled, and ultraviolet light had discolored the crimson breast of the trogon and turned the pink flamingo white. “Capturing the iridescence of the colors with paint is the most difficult part of the work,” he said at the time in the employee newsletter. Other jobs followed: tail extensions for Carl Akeley’s elephants; feather cloaks for the Hall of Pacific Peoples; and gardens and gardens of artificial plants. When he retired in 1987, his colleagues threw him a big party and baked him a cake in the shape of a muskox. “And they did a nice job on it, too!” says Bruce.
After he retired, David put on a denim apron and joined Bruce in the family workshop, mounting specimens for the AMNH, which no longer had a taxidermist on staff. In 2002, they preserved cormorants and a sea otter for the second renovation of the Hall of Ocean Life. Bruce had to implant 120 monofilament whiskers into the sea otter by hand, something he calls “a cold-sweat job.” They also preserved the laughing gulls in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. The gulls sway above the maniraptor case like a fantastic mobile. If you walked into the hall and gazed up at them, as I have done many times, you’d realize that taxidermy is indeed magical. When the birds arrived in Milltown, they were frozen and bloody; missing feathers, feet, and eyes; and marred with bullet holes (airports shoot down nuisance birds before they fly into airborne planes and cause crashes).
In 1995, Bruce mounted forty West African mammals and birds for the Hall of Biodiversity, a new-style diorama that takes you through an African rain forest. Some of the primate skins were one hundred years old and arrived at the shop without reference. “Reference” is the scientific data taxidermists use to make their replicas. It can be photographs, skeletons, diagrams, even DNA sequencing, anything that helps them sculpt forms that support the biological narrative. Every detail of the animal’s anatomy must be convincing in order to pull off the trick: a jaguar’s whiskers can purr or roar; a hunting dog’s perked ears can sense danger or sniff prey. Taxidermists call this “translating reference.” They translate reference all the time. Without a skeleton, however, they have to improvise. When taxidermists improvise, they often turn to the natural world. David walked over to his garden, clicked open his jackknife, and chopped down bamboo stalks of varying lengths and widths to mimic primate femurs and tibias. Then father and son sat side by side and made skeletons out of homegrown bamboo.
At first I just liked to hang around Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio and listen to David and Bruce banter back and forth. Then I started to notice that each time I visited, they were working on a different species that required an entirely new set of skills and anatomical knowledge. During these visits, I began to realize that these two taxidermists, often stereotyped as “animal killers,” were teaching me to see the infinite variation in all living things. I figured that if I hung around the Schwendemans long enough, maybe they’d open up to me, and eventually they did.
Soon it was evident that taxidermy was a thriving subculture that extended far beyond Main Street. Some 100,000 taxidermists, mostly commercial practitioners, exist, and they come alive in Taxidermy Today, Breakthrough, and other trade magazines. I wanted to meet them. I wanted to find out if they shared the Schwendemans’ extraordinary skills and fascinations. So in April 2003, I left Milltown and the cloistered world of these taxidermologists, with their eagle dissections and stories of Mum-Mum the skinner, and booked a room at the Crowne Plaza in Springfield, Illinois, where taxidermists from across the globe were gathering to strut their stuff as celebrated animal artists.