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  • September 23, 2014

Exotic, Extinct, and On Display: Robert Clark’s Take on Taxidermy

Author
Melody Rowell

For photographer Rob Clark, the fascination with taxidermy started with a fright. “There was a big polar bear in my hometown, in Hays, Kansas,” he says during a phone call last August. “They kind of hid it behind a door and I’d always forget it was there, and you’d come around the corner, and it would just scare you to death.”

He’s talking about the polar bear in residence at the Sternberg Museum, right off I-70. Standing on its hind legs, ears back, mouth open in a snarl, paws poised to rip you apart, the preserved bear sunk its claws into Clark’s imagination and never quite let go. But it wouldn’t be until years later when Clark would fully realize the impact that would have on his own artwork.

 Ken Walker in his studio in Alberta, Canada.
Taxidermist Ken Walker in his studio in Alberta, Canada. It was a polar bear that first captured photographer Robert Clark’s imagination.

Now based in Brooklyn, Clark has had quite the spectrum of projects—from the photographs in Buzz Bissinger’s bestselling Friday Night Lights to the National Magazine Award-winning work of “Was Darwin Wrong?” in National Geographic magazine. In the midst of doing a story on “forgotten evolutionist” Alfred Russel Wallace, Clark came across the story of John Bellucci in Xenia, Ohio, who finally got around to mounting the tanned lion skin he’d acquired from a New York taxidermist some ten years earlier. While working with the skin, Bellucci noticed some distinct differences from the other lion skins he had worked with. The hair was thicker and coarser, the face larger and broader, the nose flatter. Before long, Bellucci realized he had in his possession the pelt of a Barbary lion—which has been extinct in the wild since the 1940s. Once Clark heard this story, the Barbary lion sunk its claws into him, just as that polar bear had so many years before. “To get up close and personal with the endangered or extinct species—or exotic species—is just amazing,” Clark says. “It’s the fact that they could bring to life something that had been gone, you know, for 80, 90, 100 years.”

Picture of a taxidermied Heath Hen
Heath Hens used to populate the east coast of North America, but due to overhunting became extinct in 1932. Photographed at the private collection of Bob Howard Jr. in Palm Springs, California.

And so, as Clark worked on the Darwin and Wallace stories in museums throughout the world, he made it a habit to ask to look at their taxidermy collections as well. “There’s probably dozens and dozens of species that are taxidermied that probably don’t exist any more, that are extinct,” he remembers thinking. Once he joined forces with journalist Bryan Christy to bring National Geographic a story on taxidermy, Clark got to continue the fieldwork he had begun informally. He met dozens of people who illuminated the artwork, science, and heart behind taxidermy. “They love taxidermy, the artform of taxidermy,” he says. “They know a lot about anatomy, they know a lot about the species they’re working with.”

Picture of Lonesome George being restored
Taxidermist George Dante works on Lonesome George, a rare male tortoise from Pinta Island, who lived his last years at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands. He will be placed on view at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

One of these taxidermists is George Dante. Based in Woodland Park, New Jersey, Dante was called in when the mounts in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History needed restoration and repair after years of being bleached by the overhead lights. This winter, the same museum will display Dante’s latest masterpiece: Lonesome George. Lonesome George, a 200-pound Pinta Island tortoise, died in 2012 at 102 years old; he is believed to be the last of his kind. To preserve him, Dante will measure every minute feature of Lonesome George’s body and sculpt a mold to replicate him. After the tortoise’s skin is tanned, Dante will stretch it over the mold and sew it in place. Finally, Dante will reattach Lonesome George’s original shell, which had been sawed off for the routine necropsy. After a few months on display in New York, Lonesome George will return to his home on the Galápagos Islands, where thousands of visitors will have the chance to admire this natural wonder for years to come.

Picture of a reconstructed Panda
Ken Walker’s recreation of a Giant Panda is constructed from two black bear skins, one of which has been bleached. This mount took home Best in World Re-Creation and the Competitors’ Choice Best of Show at the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships.

Ken Walker, on the other hand, is one who took a somewhat unconventional approach. While part of a team brought in to restore the Smithsonian collection of taxidermy, Walker discovered that the museum still had the body of Hsing-Hsing—a Giant Panda who had died in 1999. China had given Hsing-Hsing to the US government as a gift, and the Smithsonian was afraid mounting the panda would be perceived as an insult. So Walker innovated. Using Hsing-Hsing as inspiration, Walker constructed a panda mount and covered it with two black bear skins, one of which he bleached. The result is indistinguishable from the real thing. In fact, Walker caused a bit of an uproar when he entered it in the 2003 World Taxidermy Championships, as real pandas are illegal to taxidermy. But once the confusion was cleared up, Walker took home two awards: Best in World Re-Creation and the Competitors’ Choice Best of Show.

Picture of a taxidermied south China tiger
South China tigers have been extinct in the wild for decades, but this preserved mount lives on in the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, France.

Clark visited Walker at his home and workshop in rural Alberta, where he found a menagerie of mounts: a fox, a mountain lion, an eight-point buck, a wolf, a polar bear. And when Clark’s assistant went to put his stuff in the guest room, he called out, “Rob, you’ve gotta see this.” On the bed, reclining against evergreen-patterned pillows, was a snow leopard—tail mid-swish, head raised as if in greeting.

Dante, Walker, and their peers “absolutely consider themselves people who are preserving the past,” Clark observes. And for him, capturing their work is critical, “because I hate to think of what’s going to be extinct in 100 years—even twenty years.” Really, Clark’s fascination with taxidermy should come as no surprise, for both taxidermy and photography are founded on a singular purpose: preservation. “You’re preserving a moment in photography, a decisive moment,” Clark says. And in taxidermy, there’s the chance to preserve a species that generations will get to see up close, long after the rest have disappeared from the wild.

Robert Clark’s photographs of taxidermy will be featured in an upcoming issue of National Geographic magazine. Follow Clark on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.

Related story: Lonesome George Unveiled in New York City

There are 26 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Scott Elliott
    January 29, 2015

    Very interesting article. I love taxidermy and this was a fascinating read. I would love to see more of this kind of work, the stories are so interesting.

  2. Bill Dishman
    October 10, 2014

    very nice article with a positive spin on the taxidermy industry!

  3. Kurt Ainsworth
    October 8, 2014

    Yes, it is about time Taxidermy got it’s just due. As Rick Carter said many of these guys are personal friends of mine as well, and some of the best in the business. I would love to see more of this. Quality Taxidermy is art in it’s truest form.

  4. John C
    October 8, 2014

    Awesome story, thank you to the writer for putting the art of taxidermy in a good light. Thank you Ken Walker for you inspiration.

  5. Michelle
    October 8, 2014

    Awesome article! It’s great to see our profession looked at the way we as taxidermists see it! Thank you and congratulations Ken and all those who were part of it.

  6. Rick Carter
    October 8, 2014

    Thank you for an article that expresses the true nature of taxidermy. The modern taxidermists you mentioned are all personal friends of mine and they deserve all of the admiration and credit that can be bestowed. They have always gone far above the norm to preserve realism and anatomical accuracy artistically and respectfully.

  7. joshua jefferson
    October 7, 2014

    ilkeit

  8. ISABELHERNÁNDEZTIBAU
    September 28, 2014

    Muy interesante y hasta un poco gracioso los comienzos de tu interés en la Taxidermia. Confieso no sabía cómo se lograba conservar las diferentes especies, pero me interesó mucho todo lo que de ello se explica. muchas gracias y sigue con esto que tanto te apasiona, aludos cordiales.

  9. Ainsley
    September 28, 2014

    long, but cool article!

  10. David Frey
    September 26, 2014

    Who knew a muse could be stuffed and mounted? Great piece!

  11. Austin
    September 26, 2014

    I love the article, good to see that we are preserving these animals so we can show future generations.

  12. Ranjith Kulasooriya
    September 26, 2014

    Great art work. Great photos, specially the South China Tiger. Never seen such pictures before

  13. key’ana (Key-Anna)
    September 25, 2014

    This is s great article. I’m a freshman in highschool and I did a research paper on your article. It is really great. I hope I get a 100. Good job. And thanks for providing such a great things.

  14. Susan Gittens
    September 25, 2014

    Nice article, really never thought of taxidermy that way, enlightening!

  15. Samantha
    September 25, 2014

    WOW! SO COOL! 🙂
    Awesome job!!

  16. kyle
    September 25, 2014

    Really enjoyed this article. Thank you

  17. Kay Clark
    September 25, 2014

    Well done, Robert! I too, have met the Sternberg Polar bear! I applaud your work!

  18. mike hennessy
    September 24, 2014

    Nice to comment favorably on the art that is taxidermy – often misunderstood and dismissed

  19. benkssudarmono
    September 24, 2014

    Saya suka….saya suka..

  20. Dr Don
    September 24, 2014

    RIP Lonsome George – met and petted you when I was there number of years ago

  21. jai
    September 24, 2014

    Beautiful work. Thanks for sharing such amazing art, that I never knew existed.

  22. Glennda
    September 24, 2014

    Very interesting story with great photos.

  23. Candy
    September 23, 2014

    intetesting article. Enjoyed your photographs.

  24. Florence Rowell
    September 23, 2014

    Interesting, informative and very well written.

  25. Don
    September 23, 2014

    Quite an excursion in photography, taxidermy and great writing.

  26. Nate
    September 23, 2014

    Very well-written, interesting article!

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