In March of this year I helped out on the Conservation stand at an evening event as part of my role as Volunteer Intern at National Museum Cardiff. It was a fun event, with a turnout of 852 curious visitors. Art conservators and natural history conservators collaborated to show how natural history specimens could inform and create imagery and art.
Throughout the event both children and adults came up and asked a lot of questions about the objects, and I noticed some reoccurring queries, especially around the ethics of taxidermy. I have attempted to answer some of these here, so that if anyone else reading this faces the same conundrums, this article will set their mind at ease, or enable them to answer the questions confidently.
Is it ‘ethical’?
‘Ethical’ is a subjective term, therefore what is considered ethical varies between taxidermists. Whether the preservation of animal remains, without the inherently unobtainable consent of the animal, is in itself ethical is up to each individual to decide. ‘Ethical-taxidermy’ has become a more frequently used term generally referring to the animal not being killed specifically for the purpose of becoming a mount. However, this refers to a wide range of sources and can range from accidental deaths such as finding an animal dead or road kill, right through to by-products of culling, pet food supply animals and pest control salvages.
So the term can be misleading in its lack of distinct definition. A level of transparency and open communication as to the source of the skin should be sought in order to obtain any real clarity on whether a specimen is in line with your personal code of ethics. However, especially when it comes to old mounts, sometimes the exact origin of the animal has been lost to time.
What is the difference between taxidermy and study skins?
Since the sixteenth century taxidermy has aimed to mimic life. The word itself is derived from the Greek ‘taxis’ meaning fixing or arrangement and ‘derma’ meaning skin. The skin of the dead animal is removed and treated before being stuffed and arranged into a lifelike pose. Many modern specimens use premade moulds constructed from high-density urethane foam. Others use clay, foam, wood-wool, or a combination of these along with the original skeleton.
Historically, there have been a range of stuffing types; when taxidermy was in its infancy field collectors, hobbyists and early taxidermists often used whatever was to hand. For many years after the dodo’s extinction there were misconceptions about the bird’s appearance because the specimens available were stuffed with rags and sawdust, disfiguring the skin. In the Victorian era new methods of stuffing were trialled, some less successfully than others. Dr Beevor of Newark on Trent trialled a method of covering animal carcasses in a tropical tree sap and placing the skin on top. This produced a rough uneven specimen, therefore never caught on.
New technology and techniques have resulted in the development of new types of taxidermy such as freeze-dried mounts and re-creation mounts. In freeze drying the internal organs are removed, but the skeleton and musculature are kept inside the skin and the animal is posed before being placed in a freeze dryer and desiccated. Whereas in re-creation mounts the fur, feather and skin of other animals is used to create a representation of a different species, requiring a great deal of artistry, e.g. a fisher cat’s skin is used and edited to appear like a red panda.
In taxidermy the aim is to create a specimen that is a lifelike representation of a live animal, whereas the aim with study skins is to preserve the skin and in turn the data we obtain from it. Study skins are present in all scientific natural history collections and are used for data collection. They preserve the morphology, the DNA and even the isotopes present in particular structures of the animal. Isotope analysis is a relatively new procedure that can offer insights into the diet, migration, ecological niche, as well as the hormone or stress levels of the individual just from sampling a study skin. Even the parts that are removed during the skins preparation can be used to obtain insights when measured, independently examined and analysed at a later date e.g. organ tissue samples can be frozen for further analysis. Isotope analysis has been recently used to find out lifetime patterns in whales, such as pregnancies and stress levels, by analysing the different bands of growth in baleen and earwax removed from whale carcasses.
Study skins tend to be stuffed with wood wool or cotton, or a combination of both, wound around a wooden dowel. They are prepared uniformly so as to be comparable and any differences become apparent, aiding in defining species and determining taxonomy. For each taxon, there are ‘type specimens’ on which the description and name of a new species is based, these are found by comparing the characteristics and DNA of specimens, and museums worldwide have type specimens in their collections.
For a great example of how study skins can give us new insights, check out this article by the BBC summarising a study by Shane DuBay and Carl Fuldner (published in 2017) on how bird feathers can indicate rises and falls in pollution through history. Or why not read the whole paper here?
Do videos or seeing the animal in the wild not defeat the purpose of taxidermy?
Not everybody has the chance to see animals in the wild, especially not up close, and especially not some of the specimens we have of species only found in other counties or that are now extinct. It’s much easier to see a whale, a hyena or even just the particularly small and speedy kingfisher in a museum, than it is to see them in the wild. Plus the sheer scale of Dippy the Diplodocus is far easier to grasp when you are stood staring up at it.
Taxidermy has its limitations, you are only going to see that animal in one pose, and one mount is not representative of all individuals of that species in size or colouring. But the artistry of dioramas often aims to be informative, showing a particular behaviour or feature of that animal, submerging you in a moment in time in that setting, with that animal, and your imagination. Animals are often displayed in their habits alongside each other; meaning that in one scene you can encounter all a woodland has to offer in a singular gathering.
Obviously viewing animals in a museum does not negate the experience of seeing them in wild but may inform it. It has been used to highlight the plight of species in the wild and through this has contributed to wildlife conservation. In the 1880’s William Hornaday, chief taxidermist of the Smithsonian at the time took specimens of American Bison to Washington to advocate for ceasing their widespread slaughter and leading to the protection of the Bison range in Yellowstone.
From my own experience volunteering at museums, I have found seeing a taxidermy specimen of a species to be useful in helping me to identify them in their natural habitat through highlighting identifying features and offering immediate comparison to possible look-a-likes. I feel it has the ability to encourage us to go out and keep looking!
DuBay, S.G. and Fuldner, C.C., 2017. Bird specimens track 135 years of atmospheric black carbon and environmental policy. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(43), pp.11321-11326.
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