Q: Most people think taxidermy is a cushy job in a laboratory but you've had some pretty harrowing experiences, right?
A: Some years ago a friend of ours at the Smithsonian brought into the old taxidermy lab a fox that he had found dead on the road and my boss decided that I should skin the animal, because I needed the experience. I started to skin the fox, got about halfway through, slipped with the scalpel and ran it through the palm of my hand. We had the fox examined for rabies, and the three white mice which had been inoculated with the brain tissue from the skull of this fox all died of rabies.
So I had to go through rabies treatment which in those days was by use of the duck-embryo vaccine. For 14 subsequent days I had to get a shot in the belly. The nurse just took a felt tipped pen and marked off my whole abdomen and put 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, right on through 14 on it, and every day they knew where to give the next shot.
Q: You also had a bout with a Komodo dragon?
A: Yes. We just wanted some closeup pictures of a Komodo dragon, a large dragon or lizard in the Indonesian islands. In order to get good closeups we needed to get in the cage with the animal.
Q: It's deadly, right?
A: It's a man-eater, but I wasn't told that until I was in the cage with the camera in hand.
Q: Do you recall about how big it was?
A: That particular animal was about 7 feet long. The animal would come up and kept sticking its tongue up. It had picked up my scent, I suppose. And the keeper would prod it away with the end of a broom.
Q: What's been the purpose of some of your expeditions?
A: I've travelled to some neat places in the world -- Panama, Australia, New Zealand, Dominican Republic -- to collect specimens. By the way, scientific collectors do not go out and shoot up the wildlife like John Wayne might. Before the seasoned collector goes into the field he becomes very knowledgeable with the area. He knows exactly what he expects to encounter and he's extremely careful not to take threatened species or capture more than is needed for the collection.
Q: You've known some of the best collectors. The tiger that's in the gift shop downstairs, that was taken at a great distance with one shot, right?
A: Yes. That was taken by a very good friend of mine in Philadelphia. David J. Hasinger learned that there was a man-eating tiger in India. He naturally arranged for a very sophisticated hunt and took the animal in that manner.
A man by the name of Joseph Evans back in 1972 said, "Museums are too often looked upon as cemeteries of the sciences. But those who live and work in them know them to be a collection of measuring devices to determine from the preservation of observed fact what is new and different."
But collecting does not always occur without problems. I've been exposed to near catastrophic deadly harm from the bushmaster snake in the jungles of Panama more than once.
Q: That's a poisonous one. A: It's a rattlesnake-family snake but it doesn't have any rattles. Although it looks like a huge rattlesnake, it has what looks like shiny black reflective beads running up itsback. Whenever you see this snake there's no question about which one it is.
Q: No question about what it's going to do either?
A: Right. It's very deadly. I hear your days of existence are very limited as soon as you're exposed to this animal. I've never been bitten but I've nearly stepped on one on several occasions. I was taking bats out of nets along the stream beds and the snakes were there to catch frogs.
I also remember one day as we were sitting down skinning animals, way off in the distance we heard what sounded like rustling leaves. Within a few minutes we found ourselves being inundated by paths of millions of migrating ants. These ants crawl over everything in their way. We had to pour kerosene around the poles of our lean-to, and then we got up on tables and waited for the ants to pass through.
We collected in an area near the Colombian border which was so infested with scorpions and tarantulas that every night the scorpions would try to crawl and very often did crawl in your boots. The first thing you did when you woke up in the morning is to take the boot and shake it out -- sometimes shake scorpions out at the same time.
Q: How did you hook up with an Indian tribe on one of your expeditions?
A: This was an incident in Panama in 1963, when I got miserably sick after partaking of a ceremonial drink with the chief of the tribe. What we were trying to do, my colleague and I, was win his confidence so we could collect animals from his jungle domain. I drank the ceremonial drink and I ended up getting sick as a dog. They'd made the drink out of something from a wild plant. Ghastly.
Q: Did you ever figure out why that gorilla in the National Zoo kept spitting at you?
A: You're no doubt referring to the time in 1960 when we were working on the remodernization of our skeleton hall -- the osteology hall. We had hired an osteologist -- this would be a person that reassembles the bones and puts the skeleton back on display. He was attempting to reposition a gorilla skeleton. So my boss and I jumped in a car and sped out to the National Zoo to examine a male gorilla.
The keeper coaxed me to take my camera and go in the narrow corridor between the bars and the glass, so that I would get better pictures. When this massive gorilla looked up and saw my camera, he immediately dropped his head and worked up saliva in his mouth and at intervals between my flashes he spat upon me. Fortunately, I had a raincoat on. He was aiming at my face, but every time I saw him getting ready to spit, I flinched so he)$ hit my shoulder instead of my face.
We both survived -- he's still alive at the National Zoo.
Q: How was it that you were at Mount St. Helens when it blew?
A: A colleague at the Smithsonian knew that I was going to the Mount St. Helens region -- back in July of 1980 -- and he said as long as youre going there, would you collect some ash samples for us? So my wife and I and my niece had just been there 30 minutes earlier collecting ash samples when, lo and behold, the mount erupted. In retrospect we remember kind of a weird feeling in the area. The winds felt like they were starting to shift. There was something eerie about the whole thing.
Q: You used to be the kid on the block who always walked around with a jar full of insect larvae and spiders. Did you know then that you'd be a taxidermist? Did people think you were weird?
A: I've always had a great curiosity about nature. That's why I spent so much time exploring it, or still do. At a very young age, when I was examining bugs in jars and things like that, I don't think I was really paying much attention to taxidermy. I don't know whether people thought I was weird or not. If they did at least they had the kindness not to say so.
Q: Why would anyone spend spend their life in a museum working as a taxidermist?
A: Once when I was a young boy, I was walking along a roadside on my way to school, and I saw a beautiful male redbird knocked down right in front of me after it had been hit by a car. The bird's heart was beating very, very rapidly and in a matter of a few seconds it stopped. I remember thinking to myself, what a pity that this beautiful animal was going to be wasted. Within a week or so I had corresponded with the Northwestern School of Taxidermy, a world-famous school, and started a course in taxidermy.
Q: You are a bat specialist, right?
A: I never really thought of bats as being very interesting until I started working with them. Bats are more important to us than most of us realize. Some populations of bats may consume literally tons of insects every night. I agree that bats can only be considered nothing other than ugly, perhaps, but at the same time I think that we are definitely prejudiced when it comes to our appreciation of beauty.
Q: No one gives you any grief these days when you turn up at a Halloween party and you have a dead bat hanging from your costume?
A: They look at me and say, "Well, that's what I would expect to find."
Q: Is taxidermy a lonely job? Is there a way of expressing any creativity?
A: Sure. I'd say there's never a dull moment in taxidermy. A progressive taxidermist or a skin preparer is constantly experimenting with his techniques. Taxidermy, like painting a canvas, is a perfect way of expressing creativity.
Q: What does it take to be a good taxidermist?
A: Most taxidermists seem to possess a sensitive awreness for nature. Perception and dexterity, the ability to work well with your hands. You'd certainly have to be able to use certain instruments and paint brushes. A good eye for color and detail and a well grounded knowledge of chemicals because very often you're mixing chemicals. Last but not least is patience.
Q: Is there such a thing as state-of- the-art taxidermy?
A: The idea is to position the animal in such a way so that it ends up looking like it has movement. A good piece of taxidermy is usually considered a sculpture.
Q: How do you determine what pose or setting an animal will be in for display?
A: In a museum field, what the taxidermist usually does is he gives his idea of how he would like the animal to appear in the final setting. After he makes a small clay model of this animal he would pass it around to the curator or any of the specialists in that field and they would make final approval as to whether the anatomy or the attitude is correct.
It's very common for a new taxidermist that's practicing to take an animal and give it an elaborate or not a natural attitude. If he's mounting his first bird he might want to do it with the wings open, which is hard. Right away he's putting himself on the line. He could mount the animal in a typical stand up or even squatting attitude so that it's not going to tax his experience. You've got to walk before you can run.
Before we attempted to mount this gigantic bush elephant in the rotunda we used a methodic scientific approach. We had already been supplied by the collector of the animal with field measurements. These are measurements that he would have taken right after he killed the elephant in this case. He took dozens of measurements -- the height at the shoulder, the distance between the eye and the ear, circumference of the body, length of the tail. We had to take his measurements and compare them with actual elephants. We went to the zoo where the animal could be measured to make sure that he was not grossly off. We even measured the elephant bone. After all this was done then we made a framework out of clay the size of the animal itself. Then, through a series of casts and molds -- which, incidentally, took months to dry because any time you make a cast of an animal out of plaster you're using literally tons of plaster -- what we ended up with was a hollow mannequin. Then the skin, which had been tanned, was glued and sewn (on).
The Smithsonian appreciates the value of its collection. When the exhibit mammal and bird hall started undergoing remodernization back in the mid '50s, we put all our taxidermy efforts into saving the previous mounts. Many had been collected many years ago by notables such as Teddy Roosevelt.
I was a primarily self-taught taxidermist hired to assist the old masters in taxidermy restore these mounts. Many that had been displayed for so many years had cracked or were beginning to fade. The lips, the surface around the eyes, had cracked open.
Q: The premise of taxidermy appears to be to preserve the dead as if it were living. Does that seem unnatural?
A: No. As animals are slowly or even rapidly vanishing from the face of the earth, mounted specimens are becoming more valuable. Quite a number of animals displayed in the Smithsonian)$ have become extinct in recent times: the Dodo bird, the Carolina parakeet, passenger pigeon, Steller's sea cow and Tasmanian wolf. Quite a few are threatened species. Taxidermy seems to be the second best method of preserving a species so that future generations can look at them. The best way, of course, would be to keep them from becoming endangered.
On several occasions I've overheard people say as I walk through the exhibit halls, "Oh, that's what the animal looks like. It didn't stand still for me while I was at the zoo." Or, "The day that I arrived at the zoo to see this particular animal it was sleeping." Here is a unique opportunity presented to examine the animal in its entirety.
When animals are mounted for display in this building, for example, we expect them to be around so that our grandchildren can see them.