Life after death

Though taxidermy isn’t as common as it once was, some still appreciate the skill

Birds, like the pheasants above, are skinned after a cut is made down the middle of their chest.
Birds, like the pheasants above, are skinned after a cut is made down the middle of their chest.
Photo: 
Tice Post, biology department technician, does about 12 taxidermy works each year. While some become full-body models, others, like the bear above, are made into rugs.
Tice Post, biology department technician, does about 12 taxidermy works each year. While some become full-body models, others, like the bear above, are made into rugs.
Photo: 

Scattered throughout the Biosciences Complex is a collection of animals caught in time.

They’re all preserved skins, mounted on a sculpted shape to retain life-like looks — specimens of the art of taxidermy. And some of them are made by one man, a technician for the department of biology.

I meet with Tice Post in his office. It’s a small room, piled with tools and documents under a halo of fluorescent lighting. A fish is mounted on the wall above his desk. Mid-motion, with its tail curved right, the fish’s shiny, artificial coating of varnish is supposed to reflect how it once lived — wet and swimming frantically, as if escaping the fisherman that ended its life with a hook.

It’s a finished product, which alludes to a room on the bottom floor — a workshop where Post does most of his taxidermy work.

Some call taxidermy an art, but Post, who’s been doing it for just over 43 years, insists he’s no artist. For him, the craft is simply a byproduct of growing up on a farm north of Kingston, hunting and gaining a parallel respect and fascination for the animal world.

The taxidermy process comes down to three things, according to Post: skinning, preserving and shaping.

Post first obtains the animals from biology faculty members who request the taxidermy. The lifeless bodies arrive frozen in a plastic bag, waiting to be gutted and skinned in Post’s workshop.

Post uses a male pheasant, a colourful specimen, to trace where he would cut a bird’s flesh in order to skin it. It’s a straight line right down the middle of the chest.

The skinning process can take up to an hour, Post said.

“You just wet the feathers a little bit and part them back and there’s always a little bit of bare skin there with no feathers,” he said. “You cut that with a scalpel.”

To prepare an animal skin, Post first cleans it.

Fish and mammal skin is treated with a mixture of salt, water and Borax that acts as a guard against insects.

“For the feathers, you don’t use the salt because the skin is very fatty. It’ll just dissolve the skin,” he said.

He keeps the specimen in the solution for up to three days, a careful process, as too much time submerged can ruin the skin.

A mammal with fur will be tanned, similar to leather. A bird, however, is dried with the reverse function of a vacuum — similar to a blowdryer.

Hanging on the walls of the workshop are several fish, all in the middle of a process that could take up to a week.

They’re drying out until Post can fit them onto a styrofoam sculpture, an anatomically correct mold of the animal’s shape.

These can be bought, Post says, but he uses a fillet knife to modify it as needed.

Taxidermists will place the skin over the mold, using wire to shape legs, necks and tails as needed. A final stitching job seals the wound that shows how the animal was killed.

He said these final steps are often the most difficult ones.

“When you first start something like this, you think you know the animals. You don’t,” he said. “You’ve got to spend time and observe how they walk, how they hold themselves.”

It’s all part of the craft, it seems. Expose yourself to wildlife enough and you might gain the skill to duplicate it for all to see.

“You keep learning. You never stop learning,” he said.

While mammals and birds retain their colour over time, a fish skin will slowly turn into a dull, grey colour upon drying.

Post says he’ll use oil paints to colour in the animal’s skin. It’s why most fish taxidermists are skilled painters as well.

“I find [acrylic paint] dries too fast and I have trouble blending the colours,” he said. “You’ve got to put all that colour back in.”

Other animals are made into rugs. On one side of Post’s workshop sits a bear skin with the head protruding, intended to lie on someone’s floor.

Surrounded by his work, it’s clear that taxidermy is more than just a weekend hobby for Post. He said it all began with a high school correspondence course in taxidermy that led to a summer job with Queen’s department of biology. Post said he was hired in anticipation of creating a new museum for the department.

The museum was later canned, but the department kept Post on.

Taxidermy used to occupy half of Post’s time at work but since the retirement of one Queen’s biology professor whose work often required Post’s specimens, his workload has gone down substantially.

Nowadays, he’s typically busiest during the spring, a time when biology faculty members’ last-minute requests for taxidermy come in.

“They’re getting ready to head out into the field, or they want something for the classroom,” he said.

The influx of projects means Post’s personal projects, remnants of his hunting trips, are often left until later.

“It’s like a mechanic. Your stuff comes last,” he said.

While most commissions come from people looking to decorate their homes with their latest kill, Post said a lot of his work goes towards education.

Some of the animals are kept in biology labs, or in the display cases that line the halls of BioSci.

According to Post, he’s lost count of how many animals remain to be worked on. He tells me of the road kill sitting in a chest freezer, waiting to be made into taxidermy.

“I’ve got coyote, an otter, two mink and a fish,” he said. “They’re going to be used in the classroom and [by the local nature group, the] Kingston Field Naturalists.”

Taxidermy reached its height during the Victorian era, in the late 1800s to the early 1900s when transatlantic voyages sparked curiosity about exotic animals.

For the Victorians, it was a combination of the scientific and aesthetic as they decorated their homes with preserved specimens — mounted zebra heads or colourful birds under bell jars.

Now it’s a dying craft — something that has become more of a hobby for Post, with some work done on a commission basis.

“It’s nothing where you’ll make a lot of money,” he said. “That’s why you’ll get people [who] start it and then just find out it’s not worth the work.”

He makes about a dozen specimens each year for the biology department.

Although the demand for his craft has changed, one basic principle has remained.

“You’ve got to have knowledge of your animal,” he said. “That’s the hard part.”

It’s a point traditionally taught in a taxidermy class, like the ones Post said he used to teach in night courses at Frontenac Secondary School.

In fact, he said he still gets Queen’s students and faculty approaching him to learn taxidermy. Not all of them can cope with the process, though.

“They just can’t handle the blood, I guess.”

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