The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy

The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy

by Dave Madden

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Why would someone want to create or own the mounted skin of a dead animal? That's the question Dave Madden explores in The Authentic Animal. Madden starts his journey with the life story of Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy. Akeley started small by stuffing a canary, but by the end of his life he had created the astonishing Akeley Hall of African Mammals at The American Museum of Natural History. What Akeley strove for and what fascinates Madden is the attempt by the taxidermist to replicate the authentic animal, looking as though it's still alive. To get a first-hand glimpse at this world, Madden travels to the World Taxidermy Championships, the garage workplaces of people who mount freeze-dried pets for bereaved owners, and the classrooms of a taxidermy academy where students stretch deer pelts over foam bases. On his travels, he looks at the many forms taxidermy takes—hunting trophies, museum dioramas, roadside novelties, pet memorials—and considers what taxidermy has to tell us about human-animal relationships. The Authentic Animal is an entertaining and thought-provoking blend of history, biology, and philosophy that will make readers think twice the next time they scoff at a moose head hung lovingly on a wall.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429987622
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/02/2011
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 400,969
File size: 397 KB

About the Author

DAVE MADDEN is a professor at The University of Alabama. He lives in Tuscaloosa and co-edits The Cupboard, a quarterly pamphlet.

Read an Excerpt


Our taxidermy story begins on a cold night in Clarendon, New York, in the winter of 1876. Everyone in town was asleep. The farmers and shopkeeps. The judges with their offices in Town Hall and Frank Turner, the new town clerk. Chauncey Foster, who owned the Clarendon Hotel. The man who ran the gristmill, a miller whose name just happened to be Miller. The schoolteacher, William Stillwell, who pounded insubordinate students with a notched ruler, and the schoolboys trying not to sleep on their bruises. Even the known night owl Dr. Brackett turned in early that evening, the cold being too fierce to get any work done. Irene Glidden, the youngest of ten children — twenty years old and living, still, at home, a brief lifetime of spinsterhood set out unwittingly before her — had fallen asleep before she could remember to throw another log or two in the stove. In the morning she rose early and shivering to find that her pet canary had frozen to death. She fed fresh, dry logs to the dying embers. She tried to get a fire roaring. If she tried hard enough maybe she could wake her canary up. Maybe it could live again. Maybe miracles happened every day.

Another canary? Another canary was just a day's trip away in Rochester, and yet as any pet owner knows what creates the love between the human and the pet is the notion of custody. This animal's life is my responsibility. Every loss of every pet is met with some anxious mix of deprivation and personal shame. Sometimes sobbing alone in one's living room is the only reasonable reaction. Miss Irene Glidden's tears, then, are understandable tears. She had that cold morning in 1876 some complicated feelings of guilt to manage, and she had before her an image no one likes to consider: a bird unmoving, its wings no longer cutting through the air above us.

Enter Carl Akeley. A small boy, thin. His sandy hair slicked flat on his scalp. In certain brands of daylight it looked painted on. A farmer's son, quiet and watchful. Fence-picket shoulders and skin as fair as a lady's handkerchief. She watched Carl enter the house with an empty basket held in his mittened hands. Outside, the wind blew up snowdrifts in slanted curtains of white. Carl said good morning. He left his coat and mittens in place on his tiny body. He was so much like a bird in the frail way he stood beneath Irene that it was too much for her not to keep sobbing right there in her chair.

"Mother sent me for some eggs," Carl said, not moving closer.

She couldn't say it. She only pointed to the birdcage in the corner.

Carl set the basket on the floor and walked over. The cage was a shiny brass thing. Baroque, and glowing in the firelight like a lantern. It hung from a hook in the ceiling, and Carl stretched up on the tips of his toes to see inside. There lay the canary. "Oh Carl," Irene said, standing up from her chair and keeping a distance from the birdcage. "I'm an animal. A monster. What kind of person ...?" She drifted off to open the stove and throw another short log in, but by now the fire was blazing. Carl began to sweat. He took off his mittens and stuffed them in his coat pockets, and he pried open the wire door of the cage and reached one hand in.

"I'll fix it," he said. The canary was warm to the touch and felt like breath between his fingers.

He had handled a dead animal before. After the cows on his father's farm had been milked, after Carl had cleaned out the horse stalls in the barn, he liked to walk wordlessly through the woods with another old farmer in town, a man named Os Mitchell, who could train a dog to hunt better than anyone. Mitchell taught the boy how to shoot, and Carl on his best days would clip a bird right out of the air and watch as one of Os's dogs ran off to fetch the animal and present it to the boy. These dead animals led to nothing. They became dead animals and remained dead animals. Before that morning in the Gliddens' home, death was the end of something, and then, suddenly, death was not the end, Carl saw. Death was just an accident, an error in the world he thought he could fix. That morning a canary had died, but before anyone knew it a taxidermist was born.

Julia Akeley was a fire-eyed woman with an acute severity in the brow and a temper none in her household could anticipate. A wronged woman. Her family was wealthy and her husband was poor, having been handed fifty-eight rocky, barren acres on the far eastern outskirts of the property owned by Julia's father, Thomas Glidden. The Gliddens were a large and proud clan, one of Clarendon's founding families, who, according to Carl's older brother Lewis, "ruled the public opinion of the neighborhood." To be a Glidden was to walk through town expecting the faces of its people to reflect envy and admiration. And then there was Julia. Her husband, Webb Akeley, was a man who did not put on airs and had no truck with the airs put on by others. He didn't go to church; he raised livestock. A couple cows, and few pigs, some chickens. He grew oats and corn and wheat, but the ground was all clay and rock, and Webb never could have been called a successful man. And Julia saw success all around her. Her sisters all married well and lived in tall brick houses in town with four, five bedrooms. As she walked through town, she heard, she thought, them and the other citizens of Clarendon talking about her family — that run-down farm, that boy and his dead animals. It should have been enough to make her leave. Webb wrote to relative Gliddens out in De Kalb, Illinois (where one of them, Joseph Farwell Glidden, became the inventor of barbed-wire fencing), and received word that out there was wealth and bounty. The Heartland. It had so much promise, but Julia wouldn't leave. Her refusal to break away from the Clarendon Gliddens and their power led, Lewis once wrote, to the Akeleys' doom: "Our father never had a chance for economic independence in the utterly hopeless agricultural situation to which his wife's reluctance condemned him for life."

Julia turned cold and cruel. She snapped at her children and nagged her husband. By age twelve, Carl had learned to remain out of her sights, to stay busy with farmwork, to spend his afternoons far out in the woods of Clarendon. When he got home that cold morning he tried to slip noiselessly upstairs and get right to work, but his mother heard his footfalls from the kitchen. "How many eggs?" she called out, and only then did Carl realize he'd forgotten. He was to have left with at least four eggs, his mother had explained, and eight if the Gliddens could spare them. "And they can," she'd said. Carl had even forgotten the basket. He walked into the kitchen. His mother was sitting at the empty kitchen table, her hands flat on the surface. The canary was safe in his coat pocket, wrapped in a red handkerchief. "I forgot them, I guess," he said. "Shall I go back for them?"

"You forgot the one thing I sent you over there for?" She didn't look his way when she spoke.

"Yes'm," he said. "It was Irene. Her canary —"

"I don't care about canaries. I only care about feeding this family." Her eyes were closed and her face held upward as though in prayer. "But it's clear you don't care as much as I do. Running around without a head on your shoulders. Your father's son, that's what you are."

"I can go back, Ma."

"No," she said. She was looking at him now. "No, you can go up to your room. And stay there. Without those eggs I have too many mouths to feed tonight."

Carl just turned and ran up the steps. "You won't be missed," his mother called after him. It must have been a lie, because by the time dinner was ready she called him down to join them, pleaded almost, though Carl never answered. He wasn't vindictive so much as busy, absorbed in the task of resurrecting Irene's canary. How to get started? Every story ever told about the life of Carl Akeley has begun with this fundamental canary, and part of the mythology holds that he knew what to do because of a book he had borrowed from another boy in town — one that, Akeley is sure to explain in his memoirs, "had originally cost a dollar." It's shorthand for "humble beginnings": act 1 in any Cinderella story. Not that taxidermy in the second half of the nineteenth century was such a strange activity for a young boy. This was a kind of boom era for American boyhood. Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published the very year Miss Glidden's canary died, and books abounded on how to fish, hunt, and make the world your playground. The children's magazine Youth's Companion was in wide enough circulation to have reached even the Akeley household. Add to this knowledge the self-sufficiency Carl had cultivated in the face of his mother's temper — she was right: he truly was his father's son — and it's clear that Carl knew what to do with the bird without having to think too much about it.

All the same, he proceeded methodically. First he lay the bird on its back and cut a long incision down the breast, from neck to tail. He used only a small pocketknife, and he took his time. Once he cut away the bulk of the skin he dug into the joints, severing the tibia from the hip, the tailbone from the backbone, the wingbones from the shoulder joints, and the vertebrae from the head. What he then held in his hands was the headless, limbless torso of the canary, shapeless and small like some broken toy. Next he had to remove the eyes and snip out the tongue and scoop the brains from the cranium. Only then was the skin ready for stuffing. He took measurements of the bird before cutting it open and used these numbers to mold from sticky wood shavings called "excelsior" a kind of body. Carl took a sturdy length of wire and fit one end of it into this body and another into the canary's skull and made a neck. He stuck four more wires into the excelsior and attached them to each severed limb and made thighbones and wing bones. Around this poseable doll went the skin, which he sewed up along the seam, keeping the stitches small and neat.

The eye of a canary is a tiny black orb, with a gloss like obsidian. To fill the eye cavities Carl sneaked a hand into his mother's sewing table and found two glass beads. The final stage of any taxidermy project is the mounting of the specimen. For an animal in a museum, what's needed is a re-created habitat built behind a panel of glass. For something a hunter shot, a wooden plaque and some wall space in the den. A pet has its own demands. It was not enough for Carl to make the canary look lifelike. This was an animal gazed upon every day by its owner. It had to look like itself. It had to look as though nothing tragic had ever happened to it.

One Sunday afternoon a short while later, when the weather was still frigid enough to keep herself bundled in a scarf and muffler, Miss Irene Glidden came home from church to find that the cage in the corner of her room was no longer empty, that right there on its swinging perch stood her canary, which she could even push a little, back and forth, back and forth, and she smiled when she saw that the bird didn't falter, smiled knowing that maybe it couldn't swing on its own, that maybe it would never sing again, but that she could touch the animal. She could hold it in her hand and it would never fly away.

The Canary that Carl First Mounted is so central to his mythology that Mary Jobe Akeley, in assembling her 1940 biography, wrote letters to practically anyone still living in Clarendon who may have had information on its whereabouts. She found some success through a man named Glenn Ewell, who tracked the canary's posthumous flight to nearby Holley, New York, where the Glidden family eventually moved, then to a box in their attic, then into the hands of one of Irene's sister's kids. All this thanks to taxidermy, the pet's careful preservation for eternity.

Pets are one of the most obvious ways we make order out of the teeming and daunting animal kingdom. If there were a class system of animals, pets would surely be at the top: The Animals Allowed into Our Homes. In the dark, early days of taxidermy, pets were among the top candidates for preservation. The ancient Egyptians believed in the immortality of cats, and so wealthy citizens would embalm their pet cats after they died, preserving the vessel for that dear soul's return. And one of the oldest mounted specimens still in existence is the African gray parrot that belonged to the Duchess of Richmond, a mistress of Charles II. Before her death, she stipulated that her beloved pet, should it outlast her, must be preserved and displayed alongside her own effigy in Westminster Abbey. The Duchess died in 1702, and, as though in grief, the parrot died weeks later.

By no means are birds the only pets we find preserved throughout history. The Natural History Museum at Tring is a kind of satellite wing of the museum in London — a more intimate museum experience inside what looks like a quaint Tudor mansion. Tring, a town thirty-five miles northwest of London, is also host to the world's most extensive collection of mounted dogs. They've got a spaniel's head, emerging out of a small block of woodwork like a convict from the stocks, but the good people of Tring have chosen to keep this in storage. Which is a total shame. It could be such an instructive image. There is something very unsettling about the fist-sized head of a dog floating on a wall several feet from the floor. It's impossible not to imagine the body that went with it. Why didn't the original taxidermist go to the small trouble of preserving the dog in its entirety? A dog-head mount feels, then, like a bit of a cheat, and suddenly all game heads — moose heads, pronghorn antelope heads, zebra heads — feel like cheats. A deer's head on a wall reminds us that the owner had neither the money nor the space to exhibit the whole of the animal he killed (or had killed). A dog's head on the wall reminds us that game heads of any sort do taxidermized animals a small but noteworthy disservice.

The museum at Tring has plenty of full-size dogs on display — hundreds, actually. There's a pair of Irish wolfhounds, standing proudly erect with chins up as if under official inspection. There's a ratty old poodle dating to 1907 with a haircut that looks far more accidental and scattershot than the one we're familiar with today. A high-eared Welsh corgi standing with its head at a slight, curious tilt. An English pointer, pointing. A Pekingese named Ah Cum, born in 1875 and supposedly the patriarch of the entire breed in England. None of the pets can be petted. All are locked up behind glass panels. Some date back to the Victorian era — a time when gentlemen visionaries had a field day with taxidermy and handled animal skins like the shells of 3-D cartoons they could pose and bend to suit all kinds of gentle whimsy. A Mexican lap dog dates to 1843 and is, thus, one of the oldest mounted dogs in the history of museum taxidermy. Today it resembles something like a guinea pig caught in a wind tunnel.

In a guidebook to the dog collection, Kim Dennis-Bryan and Juliet Clutton-Brock claim the dogs "are unique because they are not just representations of their species, like a stuffed lion or tiger would be; each dog has a personal history that is linked to human social history." It's one reason that a stuffed pet makes most people uneasy: it wasn't just an animal, it was somebody's animal. It was some part of a person's family. My vegetarian friends argue effectively against another form of animal classification: edible and inedible. Bessie is large and stands around outside all day eating grass, whereas Fido is loyal and sits by our slipper-clad feet at dinnertime. This doesn't make Fido any less fit for eating than Bessie. But we do this. We create these classes, and this thinking is almost hardwired into our minds: "By 10,000 years ago," write Dennis-Bryan and Clutton-Brock, "the relationship between people and their dogs was already well-established and irrevocable." Pets are honorary humans, in a way. They are animals we give names to and read personalities from like we do meaning from Zen Koans.


Excerpted from "The Authentic Animal"
by .
Copyright © 2011 Dave Madden.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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