How to Bring Back the Dead (Animals)

17:37 minutes

Credit: Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato
Credit: Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato

Walk into any natural history museum, from the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, to any number of smaller institutions, and you can expect to meet with the dead. Stuffed and mounted in habitat-mimicking dioramas, taxidermied animals have been a museum staple for more than a century. Where else can lots of people go see a lion stalking its prey or the familial life of coyotes?

Tim Bovard has been a taxidermist for the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, California, for the past 30 years. There, he has stuffed and mounted everything from small urban wildlife to a deceased, beloved zoo gorilla—all in an effort to tell stories about ecosystems both near and far from the lives of museum visitors. Bovard is also one of the last taxidermists to be employed full-time by a museum, as natural history museums switch their focus from dioramas to other educational tools.

Far from being a dying craft, however, taxidermy has seen a modern revival among young artists. Divya Anantharaman, a New York City-based taxidermy artist, routinely teaches workshops to would-be hobbyists. She’s also the co-author of a new book, Stuffed Animals: A Modern Guide to Taxidermy (Countryman Press, 2016). She shares advice for how to ethically find animals to work with, and tips on avoiding common mistakes. Plus, she and Bovard weigh in on what makes their work so engrossing (and gross).

Dermestid beetles clean the tissue off a skull or other bones for use in taxidermy art. Credit: Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato
Dermestid beetles clean the tissue off a skull or other bones for use in taxidermy art. Credit: Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato
Credit: Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato
Credit: Divya Anantharaman and Katie Innamorato

Segment Guests

Tim Bovard

Tim Bovard is a taxidermist at the Natural History Museum. He’s based in Los Angeles, California.

Divya Anantharaman

Divya Anantharaman is a taxidermy artist and co-author of, Stuffed Animals: A Modern Guide to Taxidermy (Countryman Press, 2016). She’s based in New York, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. When was the first time you saw those stuffed animals in the Natural History Museum posed carefully in museum dioramas all over the country? Lions stalk prey, antelopes graze, hawks court mates, and deceased animals of all kinds find new life. But taxidermy is not just the stuff of museums or deer hunters with animal heads above the fireplace.

In the last decade, taxidermy as a hobby has risen in popularity, and for some, it’s an art form. Like this three-headed bird that is sitting in front of me right now on a two-headed animal skull. Rogue taxidermy, it has been called. And as my guests will tell you, reanimating the dead takes both an artistic sensibility and a keen eye for anatomy. And you can even try this yourself. There are do it yourself kits. We’re going to talk all about it. I have two taxidermists with me today. Tim Bovard has been a taxidermist since the 1980s for the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles, and is one of the few full time museum taxidermists left in the U.S. Welcome to Science Friday.

TIM BOVARD: Well, I’m happy to be here

You’re welcome. Divya Anantharaman, a taxidermy artist based in New York. She teaches workshops and is co-author of the new do it yourself guide to taxidermy, Stuffed Animals: a Modern Guide to Taxidermy. Welcome to Science Friday.

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: Thanks Ira. I’m happy to be here.

IRA FLATOW: Now let me talk about this object in front of me. Describe what we’re looking at.

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: All right, so this is a piece that’s made with European starling, it’s made with three of them, and two coyote skulls. The skulls are put together to look poly-cephalic, the birds are put together to also look poly-cephalic. And it’s a play on both mythology and scientific oddities.

IRA FLATOW: And why did you do that?

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: A lot of times, so, a lot of times when I’m doing taxidermy, when I’m doing stuff for clients, I’ll get lots of things that are not quite ideal for a traditional mount. They might not be– they might be roadkill specimens, they might be specimens that are just not in the best shape. So this is sort of a way to give new life to them. And it also goes with the tradition of [INAUDIBLE] making and mythology, that sort of sci-fi area.

IRA FLATOW: And Tim, you’ve been doing this for quite a while. Why was taxidermy the career for you, Tim?

TIM BOVARD: You know, fascination with nature from a very early age as a kid. My dad was a college professor and my mom didn’t dissuade me from wanting to try and take something dead and make it look alive again. And you do have to have, if you’re going to do it as a kid, of course, you have to have parents that are willing to let you play with things that you find. And the fascination has continued right up to today. Can I take that dead animal from a zoo, from a salvage situation, whatever it is, and make it look realistic or life-like. And just like Divya, I don’t always have ideal specimens. So, in this day and age, of course, I have to make the best of what we have to tell the kind of story we might want to tell here at a museum exhibit.

IRA FLATOW: Did the museums used to actually go out and kill the animals to add to their collections? Has that changed?

TIM BOVARD: Well, back– for many years, I would say, that was a very common practice because we also built our research collections that way. Museums across the country, the larger museums with big collections, have a lot of material that they collected over years. And today, at least here, we don’t collect that much because we regularly get stuff in from what we call a salvage situation.

So that could be– we have a large marine mammal collection, and that comes in from national marine fisheries, that’s whales that wash up on the beach, all that kind of stuff that comes in for our research collection. For birds, we have all kinds of sources there. They come into rehab centers, they’re injured, they fly into windows, whatever. Those can either become part of our research collection or, if I need them for a taxidermy exhibit, I can use them for that.

But way back, I mean prior to my being here at least, there were, I’d say fairly regular, trips out to collect material to support our diorama program. So this might be, not just animal specimens, it might be rocks, it might be plant molds. Everything to try and recreate. Because when we’re doing a diorama we’re trying to recreate an actual place. So we need all the reference possible, but even back then, rare animals, endangered animals, that wouldn’t have been collected. Those would have come from some zoos, if they were in captivity, for instance.

IRA FLATOW: Divya, you didn’t work for a museum. How did you get involved in this?

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: I got involved– my mom was a biology teacher, and so, from a young age I’ve always loved art and science and I’ve loved anything that combines the two. Because art and science are both ways of making sense of the world. And, you know, especially animals and anatomy, those have been things I have been passionate about.

IRA FLATOW: And how easy is it for someone to get involved in this? In your book, Stuffed Animals: a Modern Guide to Taxidermy, it is a course, basically. It shows you how to do all these things.

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: Yeah, it does. I mean, I don’t think I don’t think it’s safe to say taxidermy is easy. It’s not something that you’ll get an instant return on. It requires a lot of patience and a lot of study, and it’s a constant journey. You’re always, always looking at– even if I’m making something fantasy-like, I’m always looking at reference. I’m always researching the habitat of the animal or trying to create that illusion of something being real.

You’re always studying, but I do think that once you get the hang of it, the payoff is great. And it can also– doing it yourself, it can also serve as sort of a citizen science, too. Like, taking something into your own hands. And a lot of times after classes, students will say that they’ve never looked at a bird that way before. They’ve never, you know, they’ve never thought so much of a lowly mouse or a rat.

IRA FLATOW: So they start off with some rodents to begin with? And how do the students take it? They actually have to dissect it, right?

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: Well, you’re skinning it. So you’re not really dissecting it where you have to take out individual organs. You’re taking the carcass out as one piece. So a lot of them say it’s not any worse than preparing a turkey on Thanksgiving, or something like that. It’s a little more visceral because you see the animal’s face, whereas with a turkey from the grocery store, you’re not face to face with it. But I’ve not had– I think people know what they’re getting into when they come to a class, and I’ve not had anyone– I’ve not had anyone have an extremely bad reaction or anything like that.

IRA FLATOW: Tim Bovard, when we say an animal is stuffed, is that an accurate thing to say? What’s really going on?

TIM BOVARD: Well, there is a technique by where you literally sort of stuff the skin. Generally, it’s just done on smaller, very small mammals or birds to end up with a realistic– that’s if you’re trying for a realistic mount.

In most cases though, for me at least, stuffed animals were refers to stuffed animal toys, which really are stuffed with cotton. In most cases for me, I’m making an armature or an artificial body that I’m going to go glue and sew that skin to, and that’s going to be pretty close to what the original animal looked like, ideally, before I put the skin on. So when I’m done, I end up with something that looks realistic.

IRA FLATOW: You once made a polar bear, I understand, not from a bear but from a very old bear skin rug?

TIM BOVARD: That is correct.

IRA FLATOW: What kind of challenge was that?

TIM BOVARD: –a polar bear that’s in our Age of Mammals because I didn’t have– once again, we have to go with what we have. Unfortunately, the only skin I had during that period of time when I needed to create a bear for that Age of Mammals exhibit was a 1960s polar bear rug. So that rug, and that rug was already degrading because of acid that’s left in the skin from old tans, and literally falling apart.

So I took all those pieces, and pieces from another falling apart bear and glued them onto that form to create that particular final, what I consider more of a replica, bear. Because I did not start with a whole skin, I mean, it was just pieces. But our public seems to like it, and accept it as a polar bear, so that’s OK.

IRA FLATOW: What is it that goes on in the tanning process? Everybody’s heard about it, but what is going on physically, chemically, in that process?

TIM BOVARD: Well, multiple steps, and there’s all kinds of different kinds of tanning. So in general for taxidermy, the skin is salted first. That helps to take the natural moisture out of the skin and prevent it from rotting. And in my case here, I’ll even do very small animals like mice or rats or squirrels or whatever, I’ll tan those skins.

And then after being salted it’s going to go into a pickle solution. And then after being in a pickle solution for a few days, or it might be a matter of a couple of weeks in the case of a bigger animal, in which case that skin is cleaned during that process. And in the case of a large animal, shaved down to a uniform thickness, is finally put in a tanning bath overnight.

Then oiled with a tanning oil so that when you’re done you have this fairly durable, literally you’ve turned it into a type of leather, so you’re going to get usually less shrinkage than you would have if you were working with a raw skin. And it’s usually less attractive to various pests, so that means insects, other things that might want to chew on that final product that you produce.

IRA FLATOW: Divya, as someone who teaches classes, what are the most common mistakes that beginners are making?

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: I think one of the most common mistakes is over look the study of reference. To sort of try and rush into it, and try and just, while we’re carving our forms or while we’re making the bodies in class, I think a lot of times, yeah, the biggest mistake is to just rush into it and not really closely look at the anatomy.

IRA FLATOW: And one of the chapters in your book talks about how we can use beetles to clean the bones of animals. If you want to incorporate that. What kind of beetles are they? Is that something you do?

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: Yes, those are Dermestid beetles, and I don’t– because I’m in New York City, I don’t have a colony of my own because I don’t want them to be that close to my home and to my personal collection. But I do have a friend who lives upstate that has lots of land, and she has beetles. The co-author of our book, actually. And so those beetles are, they’re domestic beetles. They require their own care and maintenance, keeping the right humidity, keeping them fed, feeding them what they like. Sometimes some colonies can be pickier than others.

IRA FLATOW: We actually have a sample of how they sound. And working on an owl carcass, a never-before-heard performance by the Beatles.


Those are the beetles.


IRA FLATOW: Right here on our stage.


TIM BOVARD: –as well. Yeah, we use them here to clean–

IRA FLATOW: I think the first time I heard about them was in the novel in Gorky Park. An old, I think from the 60s, they talked about using beetles in a case in Russia. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday, from PRI, Public Radio International. Talking about dermatology with and Divya Anantharaman and also Tim Bovard. It’s fascinating. Is this, Divya, growing? Is this a growing hobby, a growing art form now?

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: I do think so. I mean, I think it’s growing mainly because it’s something that just can’t be digitized. You can’t digitize human observation and creating something with your hands. I don’t think, yeah, I don’t think it will ever be totally digital. I do think the interest is growing.

TIM BOVARD: I agree with Divya here. It’s really gotten more and more popular, especially, at least the fastest growing numbers that I see, and I think other people see this across the country, is women, is growing in taxidermy. I sort of wonder if it definitely has to do with– this is a real thing. And dealing with something real, as opposed to most of our lives, where you’ve got your smart phones and various video games and whatever, that have almost nothing to do with reality. Well, when you’re looking at this dead animal, or you’re working with this real skin or real part of an animal, a skull. It’s the real thing. You know, that’s always a fascination with museums anyway.

IRA FLATOW: Well, you know, speaking of the real thing. I’ve got to ask this question because it’s sort of an obvious one. And people have been asking me about it. You know, there are these exhibits of the body, where we see real bodies of people, of dead people. Is it possible or desirable to do that? A stuffed person? See a stuffed human? Has anybody talked about that? Are there laws against it?

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: I think one of the– only case I know of is Jeremy Bentham, who was in– I think that was the closest thing I’ve heard of human taxidermy, where taxidermy means mounting a skin onto a form. I think he was the only case I know of. And I think, I mean, I forget which school it was, but it was a place in London around the 1800s and that was his last will and testament. But the Bodies exhibit and all of that, that’s plastinated. So that’s a process where the tissue is replaced with plastic.

IRA FLATOW: Is there a– is there a term for taxidermy? Do you taxidermy something? Or is it, what is the word?

DIVYA ANANTHARAMAN: I like to say mounted. You know, I like to say mounted. Tim, what do you like?

TIM BOVARD: Yeah, mounted skin over. The issue you have with any skin, the biggest challenge I think for a taxidermist in a lot of ways, is that that skin, when we’re finally done with it, it’s all dried out and really shriveled up. And so we have to do something to it to give the illusion that that’s a plump skin.

And so primates, for instance, are difficult to do, meaning apes and monkeys and things like that have naked parts. Because that can look, if you just use tanned skin for that, unless you do some very specialized techniques, or you replace that, it does not look like life-like skin. OK, and so that I think is, when you look at the Body exhibits that were the plastinated —

IRA FLATOW: I’ve got to interrupt, Tim. We’ve run out of time. Tim Bovard, taxidermist at the Natural History Museum, Los Angeles, California. Divya Anantharaman, is a taxidermy artist in New York. And our thanks to KCRW’s Here Be Monsters podcast episode, we pay them in meat for the beetles. We’re very happy to have them.

We’re going to take a break and afterwards we’re going to go look at the ins and outs of the daily routine of our microbiome with a guy who sampled his microbiome every day for a year and wrote about it. He’ll join us after the break. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.

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