National Geographic : 2015 Aug
96 national geographic • august 2015 lowland gorilla as taxidermist Christensen teas- es a few hairs around the huge primate’s fingers. “I was in Rwanda,” the woman shouts, “and I know gorillas are protected!” Christensen is an imposing woman whose blond hair—it’s impossible not to notice—is swept back a bit like her gorilla’s. Facing her ac- cuser, she calmly explains that for three decades, Samson the gorilla was the star attraction at the Milwaukee County Zoo. The visitor apologizes, then gapes at what Christensen says next: This animal, a vessel for Samson’s story, contains no speck of real gorilla. IN THE LATE 1800s Americans’ Manifest Des- tiny was consuming America’s boundless wild- life at a great rate. Professional market hunters killed game on an industrial scale to supply the fur, restaurant, millinery, and other trades. As if extinction were impossible, Americans killed millions of bison for profit and sport, so that by the end of the 19th century only a few hun- dred remained. Passenger pigeons once were the most pop- ulous bird in America. In 1878 hunters for the restaurant trade descended on a large flock of the birds outside Petoskey, Michigan, and killed some 1 billion birds in a few weeks. By 1914 America’s last passenger pigeon was dead (and mounted by a Smithsonian taxidermist). The list of butchered species goes on, much the way the list of African and Asian species un- der siege grows today. Teddy Roosevelt was both naturalist and sportsman, as were the dozen friends he called together in late 1887. The men founded the Boone and Crockett Club (named after Roo- sevelt’s boyhood heroes) with intertwined goals: to promote federal wildlife conservation efforts and ensure themselves a huntable animal sup- ply. The club established the New York Zoologi- cal Society, which would evolve into the Wildlife Conservation Society. John Muir modeled his Sierra Club on his friend Roosevelt’s organiza- tion. Among the latter’s influential members was William T. Hornaday, whose titles included director of the Bronx Zoo—and chief taxider- mist for the Smithsonian. I took up taxidermy at age 12. Like many World Taxidermy Championship competitors and the event’s director, Larry Blomquist, I got my start by enrolling in the Northwestern School of Taxidermy, an Omaha, Nebraska-based cor- respondence school that offers easy-to-follow courses. (Lesson One: Read this entire book. Lesson Two: Get a common pigeon. Lesson Three: Acquire tools—scalpel, bone scraper, brain spoon, arsenic ...) The father of modern taxidermy, as anyone who picked up a scalpel and a squirrel soon learned, was Carl Akeley. A New York–born Strike a Pose Taxidermists take precise measurements of their specimen before work begins, in order to craft a perfectly proportioned mannequin. Traditionally, wood shavings or hemp fiber helped shape an animal. Modern materials such as urethane foams now also do the trick. Skinning Skin is gently teased and peeled away from the flesh. The body and anything that can rot is meticulously removed. Preserving the hide Materials like borax, salt, and various tanning agents are applied to clean, disinfect, and preserve the skin.