"Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy"
By Melissa Milgrom
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $25, 304 pages
Thank goodness Melissa Milgrom's family lived near Schwendeman's Taxidermy Studio in Milltown, New Jersey. "Everyone knew the queer little shop,” Milgrom explains in her delightful debut, “Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy”. Milgrom’s mother referred to the establishment as, “that dark, dreary place on Main Street” and wondered, ”What goes on in there?”
Returning from a trek in Africa, Milgrom decided to find out. In Tanzania she had crossed paths with Belgian hunters and had mistakenly wandered into their carcass room housing salted pelts that would soon be mounted. Perhaps a visit to Schwendeman’s could answer the questions raised by that “shocking” experience. “Was taxidermy just the creation of an ornamental souvenir? Or was there more to it?” I’m not giving away the ending by saying the author concludes there is much, much more to taxidermy, an enterprise that she says has evolved “from a crude way of preserving skins to advance science into a highly evolved art form whose chief objective is to freeze motion."
Schwendeman’s, whose clients range from heartbroken pet owners to the world’s finest museums, proves the perfect place for Milgrom to begin her quest.
“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.”
The business was established in 1921 by Arthur (Pup-Pup) Schwendeman. His wife Lillian (Mum-Mum) did the skinning and made all the artificial ears. Son David, now in his 80s, went on to become the chief taxidermist at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City. “You have to have respect and intuition for the animals to bring out their best characteristics,” he tells Milgrom. David’s son Bruce, the current proprietor, adds, "You have to have the delicate finesse of a watchmaker and the brute strength of a blacksmith. You have to be able to mount a hummingbird and an elephant."
Milgrom spent days at Schwendeman’s as a fly on the wall (a fly is probably the only specimen the family hasn’t mounted). The more she observed, the more questions, she had, including: “Why not go to a forest or drive to…(the) zoo, to see the real thing? Why kill it just to obsessively bring it back to life?”
And so begins a series of adventures that will take her across the United States, up to Canada, and over to Europe. Only a stuffed shirt could resist tagging along. Milgrom skillfully brings taxidermy to life by introducing us to a diverse cast of colorful—dare I say off-the-wall—practitioners, past and present.
Her first stop is the World Taxidermy Championships, held in, of all places, Springfield, Illinois. “The World Show is not a survival-of-the-fittest event, but something of a twisted 4-H fair, where teams of scrutinizing judges holding dental mirrors and penlights examine mounts from nearly every phylum and order for anatomical accuracy and artistic merit.” Here we meet Ken Walker, a former bear hunting guide who now wows crowds with his re-creations of mythic animals (and, for good measure, mythic performers. Walker is highly acclaimed for his imitation of the late singer Roy Orbison).
In Springfield, Walker displays a panda inspired by Hsing-Hsing, the real life creature given to President Richard Nixon by the Chinese government. While working at the Smithsonian Museum, Walker had received permission to study the panda, which had been kept in a freezer there since its death in 1999. Milgrom writes: “Much like a forensic scientist outlining a murder victim on a sidewalk, Walker traced Hsing-Hsing’s carcass onto paper and used the template to make his own panda’s inert body.” Struck by Walker’s imagination and moxie, Milgrom later journeys to Alberta to watch him re-create an Irish elk that has been extinct for seventy-five hundred years. Actually a form of deer, Megaloceros giganteus stood seven feet at the shoulders, weighed almost one thousand pounds and boasted the largest antlers of any known deer, twelve feet from tine to tine. Resurrecting the beast, Milgrom writes, “posed an incredible challenge. That’s primarily because Irish elk exist only in Paleolithic cave art, in fossilized remains, and in Seamus Heaney’s poetry.”
I won’t spoil this particular adventure by telling how Walker pulled off the feat, but suffice it to say that the taxidermist’s intellectual rigor and technical skill enabled him to discourage any other entrants from competing against his elk in the Re-creations category at the next world championships. Several of the other characters whom Milgrom has hunted down do give Walker a run for the money as most unique in book. There’s Emily Mayer, a spiky-haired, brash Brit sculptor, who calls herself an “anti-taxidermist.” Using an erosion molding technique, she is, Milgrim tells us, “Damien Hirst’s taxidermist: the woman who repairs the sharks, preserves the grizzlies, assembles the skeletons, and casts the cow heads for his multimillion-dollar artworks.”
There’s also Carl Akeley, considered by many to have been the greatest taxidermist of all time. Akeley (1864-1926) not only pioneered new techniques for preparing animals, he brought realism to the craft by displaying specimens in painstakingly created natural settings. “His adventures still draw comparisons to Indiana Jones and other swashbucklers,” Milgrom notes. “But Indiana Jones never killed a leopard by shoving a bare fist down its throat, sewed the scalp back onto a mauled Nandi spearman, or raised a vervet monkey on Central Park West.”
Finally, there’s Walter Potter (1835-1918), whose museum of curiosity in England personified the Victorians’ delight in personifying animals. Milgrom travels to the Cornish peninsula for the auction of the ten thousand artifacts in the Potter collection. Among the highlights was Potter’s five by six-foot diorama based on the popular poem, “The Death and Burial of Cock Robin.” It features “ninety-eight British birds in a reenactment so fastidiously rendered that a few feathered friends actually shed glass tears,” writes Milgrom. “Seeing (it) in person is a lot like viewing a famous painting that you’ve only seen in photographs—like the Mona Lisa for instance.” But lest one thinks Milgrom has become a bit flighty, she tells us, “I remembered I was looking at birds at a funeral which is really very silly and morbid at the same time. I quickly moved on.”
By book’s end, Milgrom has returned to Schwendeman’s. There she overcomes the squeamishness which no doubt afflicts most first time taxidermists as she skins, prepares, stuffs, and displays a grey squirrel. Proud of her work, she enters it in the novice division at the next World Taxidermy Championships. Her judge is tough, but encouraging: “This is an art, and now you appreciate that. You may have thought taxidermy was just stuffing an animal—mounting an animal—we hate that term. But it’s an art. We don’t want to be thought of as Norman Bates (the axe-wielding villain in Psycho, who says his hobby is taxidermy). We are artists and we have great respect for God’s creatures.”
The judge adds: “You might become a competitive taxidermist. It’s opened up a whole world to you that you never knew existed.”
Already a skilled writer, Milgrom has in Still Life opened up a whole world to readers.
Steve Fiffer’s books include “Tyrannosaurus Sue: The Extraordinary Saga of the Largest, Most Fought Over T. Rex Ever Found”.