Have you always been fascinated with the stuffed animals in museums? Ever wondered how these life-sized animal statues were made? Here is the answer to all your questions — taxidermy. Quite a fascinating subject, it provides a comprehensive training in the art of preparing and stuffing the skin of animals for display.
Taxidermy came into practice way back in 1800, when hunters started taking their trophies to sew them and stuff them with cotton or rags. This was the primitive stage of the industry. During the 20th century the method of taxidermy evolved. Various taxidermists figured out new ways to perfect the art. Some of the earliest taxidermists are Carl Akeley (considered the father of taxidermy), William T Hornaday and Louis Dufresne of France.
Says Santosh Anant Gaikwad, associate professor of anatomy, Bombay Veterinary College, Mumbai, “More than 90 per cent of the educated population are not aware of the term taxidermy. They are more accustomed to use the word ‘stuffing’. The art seems to be vanishing and is not a well known trade practise. There are also no specific courses available in the country.” Prof Gaikwad, is also the wildlife taxidermy expert at Sanjay Gandhi National Park (SGNP), Mumbai.
After completing his MVSc in anatomy, history and embryology from XXXXXXXXX, XXXXXX, he joined Bombay Veterinary College in 1999. His interest in taxidermy was born out of curiosity, “In year 2003, I visited the Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya fort, (formly Prince Wales Museum), Mumbai, where they had stuffed specimens of animals and reptiles. I was impressed with the technique. But the sad situation was, there was not a single person in the country that I could approach to learn. I did a lot of research, talked to senior or retired museum curators and staff. I observed local butchers and visited abattoirs to learn tanning and skinning.”
Prof Gaikwad’s first project was to preserve the Bengal Tiger in 2006. So far, he has worked on many animals including a lion, lioness, snow leopard, Siberian tiger (which was the country’s last species in the Nainital Zoo), six-feet long narrow nose soft shell turtle, snakes, fishes and wild birds.
Where to study
As of now, the only taxidermy training that is available is at SGNP, which comes under the Maharashtra Forest Department. “This centre was started in 2009. We also have students from other states. This is not a certified training centre. Students who are interested in learning this art, come here for training. I am not a full-fledged professor here. Students need to learn through observation,” says Prof Gaikwad.
One can work with a museum (which is quite advisable) or practise it as a separate business. Salary for a taxidermist will not be a specific amount, as each specimen will have a different routine. “Currently, in Delhi, there is separate directorate for Natural History Museum. Under this there are four regional museums at Bhopal, Delhi, Mysore and Bhubaneswar. In each museum, there is separate Taxidermist. But due to some reason there are no taxidermists and there is no taxidermy work going on. The specimens that are there were preserved by British taxidermists,” says the professor.
The situation abroad is much better than in India. Many schools offer courses and you can get specific taxidermy kits. American Institute of Taxidermy, Wisconsin, USA, offers an online course and a certificate course. Mountain Valley School of Taxidermy, Washington, USA, offers a nine-week course and one/two week speciality training courses for birds, game heads, fish, etc. London Taxidermy Academy, offers group sessions and private classes. The Academy of Taxidermy, Australia, offers a three-week course.
Taxidermy in India has not been a recognised work area. The same can be said as far as study programmes are concerned. Prof Gaikwad feels, “Not many youngsters are aware of the importance of preserving a specimen. In 2008, the Central Zoo Authority of India, has announced that wildlife should be protected by means of taxidermy. So we can expect some level of interest. But the future is still uncertain.”