The Man Who Turned Taxidermy Into An Art Form

In Kingdom Under Glass, author Jay Kirk tells the life story of Carl Akeley, the pioneering taxidermist and adventurer who once killed a leopard with his bare hands. Taxidermist David Schwendeman runs his family's 90-year-old studio and describes the techniques and hazards of modern taxidermy.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

Next up, you ever wander around the American Museum of Natural History here in New York? What's the thing you remember most? If you've done this for years, and I say picture something at the museum, I'm going to guess you're seeing those stuffed-animal dioramas, right? Because that's what I remember most from 40-or-so years of walking around there, looking at those dioramas of gazelles and wildebeests and zebras. They're gathered around a water hole, right? They're sort of set in a spot you might see them out in the wild.

Have you ever wondered how they got that gazelle to look so realistic, the alert look on its face, like it's just got a whiff of a predator or the tendons and the muscles stretched tight beneath its hide as it prepares to sort of bolt off to safety?

Well, it turns out that there's one man who's really largely responsible for a lot of that magic, a taxidermist by the name of Carl Akeley. Akeley revolutionized natural history museums in the early 1900s, dreaming up the idea of putting animals in realistic scenes of life on the savannah, instead of just putting stuffed hides in wood and glass boxes as people had been doing before.

It wasn't easy to get the animals to look so alive, so muscular, rather than just a patchwork of skin and stuff - stuffed body filled with sawdust and rags. He figured out how to do all of that and how to elevate taxidermy to an artform.

And along the way he had some crazy adventures, like the time he wrestled a leopard, killing it with his own bare hands, or a more unfortunate encounter when he was mauled by an elephant. Those are just a few of the fascinating stories about Akeley in my next guest's book, "Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals."

Jay Kirk is the author of that book. He's also a professor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Kirk.

Professor JAY KIRK (University of Pennsylvania): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You know, I - until I read this book, I really had no idea how all that got started. As I say, I've been going to that museum and others, you know, in Chicago, other places and seeing those dioramas - I had no idea how that got going.

Prof. KIRK: I didn't either. I mean, it's - I'm the same. When I was a little kid that was one of my favorite things to do when I went to New York, was to go visit the dioramas. So when I found out myself, I was pretty excited and excited that I hadn't been scooped yet...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KIRK: ...in terms of a book.

FLATOW: I'll bet. We're talking about the life and times of Akeley on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Jay Kirk.

How did you get interested in this, Jay?

Prof. KIRK: It was pretty serendipitous. I mean, I was working on another magazine story for Harper's about extinct mountain lions or mountain lions that were supposedly extinct. It was the eastern mountain lion that had gone extinct in 1888 after all of the, you know, the hunting down and over-killing in the 19th century. But there are all of these sightings of them all over the place, almost like Elvis sightings. And I guess I got kind of taken by the whole cryptozoological thing of that, and I got in deeper, but then I started reading about the natural history behind it. And so I was reading a lot of stuff about the 19th century...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. KIRK: ...and, you know, the programs and the - I just read something in passing about this famous taxidermist, Carl Akeley, who had once famously strangled a leopard with his bare hands, and I was immediately smitten.

FLATOW: And how did he revolutionize - what did he do differently than what other people have been doing until then?

Prof. KIRK: Well, he - I mean, he did start out, you know, the same way. I mean, he might have had a little more passion as a youngster. He was so obsessed with it as a child - like 11, 12 years old - that his whole bedroom had been devoted to tearing apart and reassembling animals. And he had the arsenic and the phenol and all of these toxic preserving chemicals that he could get around the corner at the local drugstore. But his family was so concerned with him and his obsession with taxidermy that one point an aunt of his suggested that perhaps he could - he'll do well to go away to an insane asylum for youth.

But then he finally left home and he went and worked for a company called WARD's Science - WARD's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, New York, which was not far from the farm where Akeley grew up. And this place, WARD's, was producing not only dioramas and stuffed animals for the new up-and-coming natural history museums, but you know, everything - you know, gemstones and geodes and fossils and all of that.

And it was while he was working there that he became pretty disillusioned with the methods that they were using, which hadn't really been evolved since the advent of taxidermy itself. So they would take a skin and just, you know, they would prop it up in a basic armature using the leg bones of the animal and the skull and then create kind of a loose armature around that and stuff it with whatever they had around the shop, mainly sawdust or rags or whatever.

So in the end they were kind of obscene looking, in Akeley's opinion, just kind of grotesque effigies. And he felt that - he felt like it could do much better. So he started systematically studying anatomy and really applying himself to try and figure out a new method to, you know, make the animals look...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. KIRK: ...more like they looked in real life.

FLATOW: And he had to find new materials to use to do it.

Prof. KIRK: He did.

FLATOW: Yeah. And he...

Prof. KIRK: I mean, he went through a number of different experiments. At first, you know, the first real epiphany for him was when he realized that he really had a knack for sculpting with clay. Now, they had already - they had always had clay around the studio for just kind of lumping up these armatures that I mentioned. But he really - he really took to it. It was an orangutan that had been brought back, and that's one of the key points too that I should mention, that a lot of the taxidermists were not mounting animals that they themselves had witnessed in nature, in which Akeley would later go on to do. And I think that was very significant as well. But this orangutan that he's working on, you know, he did the usual armature with the leg bones and the skull and whatnot, and then he started building it up. And then he started using clay, and he was just basically inspired to make a clay sculpture of the animal. And in the end, just the clay sculpture itself was beautiful. It was a work of art.

FLATOW: All right, Jay, going to have to hold you there. We'll come back and talk more with Jay Kirk, author of the new book "Kingdom Under Glass."

Stay with us. We'll be right back after this break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the life of Carl Akeley - he was a pioneer of taxidermy, an adventurer who travelled all over Africa gathering specimens - with my guest Jay Kirk, author of "Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals."

And if you want to see some of Akeley's photos from trips to Africa - he took a lot of them when he was out there - our science and arts producer Katherine Wells has an audio slide show up on our science and arts website. That's at sciencefriday.com/arts, if you'd like to see that. 1-800-989-8255.

You know, Jay, a lot of people are upset by the thought of just going out to shoot animals to bring them back to stuff them for a museum. Did Akeley ever have that feeling himself - you know, what am I doing here? I'm just killing...

Prof. KIRK: Yeah.

FLATOW: You know...

Prof. KIRK: Yeah, very much so. He had it at the very beginning, when he went on his first expedition for the Chicago Field Museum in 1896. He felt like - he'd gone after a Somali wild ass, and it died without too much fanfare or protest, and he sort of felt like, well, if this is the life of a collector, then I don't really know if there's much sport in it or if I feel so great about it. But the fact of the matter is, he kind of - he kind of got into the swing after a while and became quite the hunter, was dedicated to the job.

And it wasn't until 1921, when he was in the Congo collecting mountain gorillas, when he really first had his great epiphany and realized - I mean, he felt like a murderer, and he writes about this very affectingly, just - and I think it was probably easier for him to feel like a murderer because he was face to face with a primate, and it was easier to feel, you know, simpatico with a gorilla that seems much more like a human than maybe a gazelle or a, you know, or a giraffe or something more alien.

So, you know, in the end, that that led - this is towards the end of his life and his story - but I mean that is his great redemption in the end, that he felt so strongly about this that he dedicated the latter part of his life persuading the Belgian government to establish what would be the first wildlife sanctuary in Africa.

And without this, you know, without question, the mountain gorilla would have gone extinct, because at this point - I mean this is during the period of the golden age of safaris when, you know, presidents - I mean Theodore Roosevelt went over there hunting elephants with Akeley, you know, at Akeley's suggestion, and you know, American magnates and Swedish princes. And you know, it was very macho. And so somebody would go and shoot 80 lions without blinking or go...

FLATOW: Eighty?

Prof. KIRK: ...shoot...

FLATOW: They'd shoot 80 lions.

Prof. KIRK: Yeah. There wasn't a whole lot of regulations with lions.

FLATOW: Wow.

Prof. KIRK: There were permits that restricted the number of animals you could kill, like elephants and giraffes and other things like that, that we still are aghast at. You know, I think the limit on giraffes was something like, you know, six. Oh, okay. Well, only six giraffes.

But, you know, Akeley realized with the mountain gorillas in the early '20s that they - that they were a very limited population. They had only relatively recently been discovered. Nobody really understood what they were. I mean the lowland gorilla was much more populated and people had had more encounters with them, but the mountain gorilla, Akeley felt, was very special, so...

FLATOW: There's that famous exhibit of gorillas that everybody sees, and that's the one he put together?

Prof. KIRK: Yeah, one of the corner pieces...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. KIRK: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let me get a question, a tweet, in here from Leslie M.B.(ph), who says: Martha Maxwell revolutionized taxidermy display in the 1870s, had a huge habitat display at the Centennial in 1876. Rarely acknowledged, exclamation point. Have you heard of her, Martha Maxwell?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KIRK: I'm embarrassed to say I have not. I mean, I'm aware of William Hornaday. I mean, there's - I mean, Akeley did not invent taxidermy, and there were certainly other people who made great advances in it. One of his predecessors who ended up being at the, you know, American Museum of Natural History as well, William Hornaday, had created some of the proto-natural habitats. These are the ones that kind of express the idea of ecology within a diorama, so it's not just, you know, a monkey paw or an animal in a vacuum, you know, in a glass box vacuum, but actually included the flora and the trees and the plants. And it showed that an animal is, you know, intertwined with his environment.

And you know, in going back earlier, I think the first natural history museum of the United States was run by Charles Willson Peale here in Philadelphia, and he had done some advances as well. The thing is though - I mean, Akeley's method was the one that - it was just so far beyond what anyone else had done...

FLATOW: Right.

Prof. KIRK: ...in terms of really capturing the essence of the animals, you know...

FLATOW: And today, what's the role of taxidermy today? There is no more taxidermy being done in (unintelligible) museums...

Prof. KIRK: Oh, there's certainly...

FLATOW: ...in terms of an exhibition? No one is going out and...

Prof. KIRK: Well, I mean...

FLATOW: ...shooting 80 lions anymore.

Prof. KIRK: No. Fortunately, that is passed.

FLATOW: Yes.

Prof. KIRK: Now it's camera safaris. No. I mean, you know, the American Museum of Natural History still welcomes millions and millions of people coming to the museum just to see the dioramas. They're wonderful. They're fascinating to look at. And I think you can love them with a grain of salt. It's interesting to know where they came from.

But, certainly, no scientific - you know, no natural history museum is setting out expeditions to collect endangered species, which is what was going on at the turn of the century.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's see if I can get a quick question in here from Natalie(ph) in Havre de Grace, Maryland. Hi, Natalie.

NATALIE: Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Go ahead.

NATALIE: Well, I was reading a biography of Teddy Roosevelt and it turned out that in his youth he was very interested in taxidermy and did they share - I mean, were they at the same time period and did they know each other?

Prof. KIRK: Yes, they did. And that's a great point. I mean, Teddy Roosevelt was a naturalist. Even after he came out of office in 1908, you know, many people were trying to encourage him, you know, to become the president of Harvard or to go to the Smithsonian and become a great scientist. He had a great scientific mind. Darwin was a taxidermist. You couldn't be a naturalist without being a taxidermist.

And to answer your other question, yeah. Roosevelt, I think, embodied this period more than anyone in many ways. And Akeley and he were friends. Akeley actually convinced Teddy Roosevelt to come to Africa. And he went - Roosevelt went over to Africa and collected for the Smithsonian.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And then...

Prof. KIRK: And they actually - they met up while they were there and went elephant hunting as well because Roosevelt was part of the New York circle. And, you know, his father had been one of the founders of the original American Museum of Natural History. And so he collected a number of elephants that ended up in that great centerpiece of the herd of elephants.

FLATOW: Yeah. But they don't have those dioramas around that they used to have with the stuffed animals in them any more at the Smithsonian.

Prof. KIRK: And the Smithsonian.

FLATOW: Yeah. They got rid of it?

Prof. KIRK: No. They've - you know, they've gotten...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Prof. KIRK: ...rid a lot of those. I mean, there's certainly a degree of ambivalence about keeping stuff like that around. I know that was the case at The Natural History Museum in London has gotten rid of a bunch of stuff, and the Smithsonian got rid of a lot of stuff as well, lamentably, for some people. You know, they still have animals that are, you know, taxidermied animals there. But I think they've gone over a more - toward, you know, modern, interactive, digital-type of edutainment.

FLATOW: All right. I want to bring on Flora Lichtman for our Video Pick of the Week. She's here to tell us about her visit to a taxidermy studio this week. Welcome, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Thanks, Ira. It was an adventure. Katherine Wells, the arts producer, and I went and checked out Schwendeman's Taxidermy Studio in this little town in New Jersey. And it's funny. It's like a family business. It's been around for 90 years. It reminds you of a family business when you go in. There's fourth generation apprentices learning - except that they're learning how to flesh a bear and skin a deer. In fact, we have some audio from our trip. So you can get a sense of kind of what it sounds like to be in the shop.

(Soundbite of grinding)

Mr. DAVID SCHWENDEMAN (Taxidermist, Schwendeman's Taxidermy Studio): Yeah, we have brain spoons. And this is a small ear splitter. This is a bigger ear splitter. See the difference? This is - well, this is for cantaloupes. But we use it for fat scraping. Perfect.

FLATOW: Wow.

LICHTMAN: That was David Schwendeman. He runs the shop and he is the grandson of Arthur Schwendeman, who started it. And actually, we have him here on the line. So he can give us a better sense of what goes on.

FLATOW: Welcome, David.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Yes. Hi. Hello?

FLATOW: Hi, there. Do you - where do you get your animals? Mostly hunters bring them in for you?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Well, we are different than a lot of studios. We do a lot of museum works and specimens for nature centers and - as well as for the sportsmen.

LICHTMAN: And some things have changed since Akeley's methods, right? We saw a lot of foam being used for the mounts.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Well, yes. Styrofoam has supplanted the hollow Akeley method of mannequin making, but the principle is still the same, where Carl Akeley would go out and make molds of actual skinned animals. They still do that today. But now, the mannequin is made out of polyurethane foams.

LICHTMAN: And you can actually order them from a catalog, right?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Right. There's catalogs. I was talking about the size of the catalog; they're like a small phonebook.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: And there's many manufacturers of typical game animals that are hunted in the United States.

FLATOW: Well, something I've always wondered about is the preservation process. You know, you've seen civilizations that are thousands of years old. They've learned how to do this many years ago. What tools do you use to preserve the skin then?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Well, we use regular hand tools. But the treatment of the skin is what's critical. And there are certain tanning formulas for mammals. There's tanning formulas for fish skins. And there's tanning formulas for bird skins.

And once the skin is tanned properly and mounted over a mannequin the proper size and shape of the animal, it can last indefinitely.

LICHTMAN: And I was surprised to learn that you don't need a lot of really synthetic, new age chemicals to do this, right?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Oh, no. No, no. So, you know, just like pickling spices for foods and other materials of what is used in the skins.

FLATOW: You mean, the same stuff that turns a cucumber into a pickle will preserve a skin?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Exactly, exactly. But then, once the natural oils are taken out of the skin during the pickling process, they have to be reapplied with synthetic oils and then manipulated to get back the softness of them so that they can be taxied or arranged over the mannequin. So taxidermy is the arrangement or movement of the skin over an artificial form.

LICHTMAN: You know, I was wondering - and this is a question for Jay too. You know, what are the dangers of taxidermy? You're working with all these dead animals, are there dangers of getting diseases? And did Akeley have to worry about this as well?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Oh, yeah.

Prof. KIRK: I remember reading about quite a long laundry list of possibly lethal things that you could get, including sarcoptic mange and rabies and all of these things. But, I mean, that's going back awhile.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Well...

Prof. KIRK: And certainly, you know, using arsenic couldn't have been healthy. I'd rather use pickling...

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Well, arsenic is not that bad.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. KIRK: ...brine.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: But mercuric chlorides and certain other things -asbestos in the maches is very hazardous.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. We're talking about taxidermy this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, here with Flora Lichtman, talking with David Schwendeman and Jay Kirk.

David, what is - are there future techniques, you know, down the road, or is just the old way is still the good way?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: The old way is still the good way. I have a French textbook on taxidermy from the 17 - 1758, and they show the - how they were doing it was the same way my grandfather taught me. And then those - the animals still exist. You know, there's mounted birds from 400 years old that are still in existence.

FLATOW: And what do you do with the animals themselves. I mean, people are concerned you're not just going out shooting animals for the sake of animals. I mean, are you...

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Oh, for taxidermy, no.

Prof. KIRK: Yeah.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: One of - we do not advocate killing anything for taxidermy purposes. Enough animals die, they're hit by cars, they fly into windows accidentally, they can be salvaged for the nature center or the museum. But as far as the sportsmen go is they follow the rules and regulations. The - a well-mounted trophy is worth a story, you know, and it's a shame to see that animal go to waste once is has been killed.

LICHTMAN: And you don't waste any of those parts.

Prof. KIRK: I can attest to that.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Yeah.

Prof. KIRK: I can attest to that. I visited Dave's shop one afternoon.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Right.

Prof. KIRK: And they were working on a badger that was a piece of road kill, I recall.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Right. Right. So...

Prof. KIRK: And then we ate lunch at the same table where you were taking it apart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: That's right.

Prof. KIRK: You were testing me.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, we missed out on some venison stew, it sounds like.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: You have a rain check for that, Flora.

LICHTMAN: Right. Thanks, David.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: So.

LICHTMAN: You know, I was wondering how there'd be sort of mixed feelings that museums have has changed demand for taxidermy. Have you seen your business changed, David, over time?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Yeah. A lot of the major museums are, well, they have their thing. Whatever they have mounted is on the outside. They have no more museum taxidermists on staff for the most part. Some do, but most are going the way of outsourcing their taxidermy work. And the demand for a large dioramas like at the American museum is essentially over. But there's still a lot of repair and restoration in small animals, and special exhibits that require an animal or two. But we're still very busy.

LICHTMAN: David, what's the weirdest or biggest thing you've ever taxidermied?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Here in our studio, well, life-size musk ox, Alaskan brown bear, polar bears. We haven't gotten into the African safari venues as much as other people. But I enjoyed doing the small mammals like a chipmunk. To see the chipmunk up close is for - in the nature center is a thrill to most people. They don't get that close to them.

FLATOW: It is the same process for birds? Is it the same? Was the pickling the same? The feathers stay on?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Well, yeah. Birds are actually washed. We don't do any tanning of the birds' skins. They're washed and degreased and they really looks a disheveled mess. But once it's dried and fluffed out and cleaned in various powders and stuff, they look great. They really come out natural and...

FLATOW: The state of New Jersey just, what, a week or two ago culled 400 bears in the state. They had open season on bear hunting, correct?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Yeah, I think it was 589.

FLATOW: No kidding. And did you get any of those?

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: We took in one. I don't advertise, but we got in one of those bears.

LICHTMAN: In fact you can see that bear being fleshed on our website. And I think we should do a little disclaimer. I mean, we showed everything that we saw in the shop. And one thing that was neat about the shop is that it really didn't feel that scary to be in it.

FLATOW: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: But I think, you know, out of context, people should be prepared that we show what we saw.

FLATOW: And if you go to our website at sciencefriday.com, you can see a visit to David Schwendeman's shop and watch how Flora has captured all the ways that - the ancient technology, right?

LICHTMAN: Yeah. It really...

FLATOW: How taxidermists work. Go over to our website at sciencefriday.com. It's got the Video Pick of the Week over there on the left side. And be prepared to, you know, it's a little gory at points but it's stuff that you wouldn't see at, you know, the butcher shop.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Exactly. That's what I like to say.

LICHTMAN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Well, good luck to you and happy holidays, David. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Thank very much. And hi, Jay Kirk, and everybody else.

Prof. KIRK: Hey, Dave.

Mr. SCHWENDEMAN: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: David Schwendeman is a taxidermist at Schwendeman's Taxidermy Studio and Museum Services in Milltown. And Jay, thank you for taking time to be with us. Good luck with your book.

Prof. KIRK: Thanks so much.

FLATOW: Jay Kirk is author of "Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals." He's also professor of creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

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