At Work With…

… Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

This is the second blog on mammal taxidermy. This time describing the processes of preparing a mammal as a posed mount rather than as a flat skin.

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The mammal used was a rabbit acquired from a local butcher’s shop which had already been semi-prepared with the belly opened up and the stomach removed. This time, there was no intention to later include the rabbit in the museum’s accessioned collections, so the usual process of weighing and measuring it was not carried out.

The removal of the rabbit’s skin was carried out in much the same way as with the fox with some differences. These differences were required for the purpose of displaying the skin as a mount rather than a flat skin. The most obvious alteration was in the preparation of the legs. In the case of the fox, each leg was cut down the entire length and the flesh was removed along with the bones. For a mounted specimen the bones need to remain as a method of support and unsightly stitch marks from incisions need to be avoided. So, with the rabbit, the skin on the legs was peeled back to the ankle joint and the flesh was removed from the bones using the scalpel. Once completed an incision was made in the sole of the foot and the muscles and tendons were removed. A sturdy wire was then fed up through the base of the foot and along the length of the bones. This wire was bound to the bone with string, before packages of wood wool and tow (plant fibres) were tied around the bones to mimic the shape of the muscles. The process was repeated on the other three legs. The position of the leg joints was recorded on an outline diagram of the carcass once the body was removed.

The preparation of the head is also different for a mounted specimen. The head of the rabbit was skinned, the same as the fox, however the central incision only went to the base of the neck. The neck and skull were then removed by turning the animal inside out. In normal circumstances the skull would be de-fleshed, then placed back inside the skin to fill out the head. However, the rabbit skull was badly damaged in this case and was not usable.

After the rest of the body was removed, the skin was washed, and any remaining flesh still stuck to the skin removed. The lips of the rabbit were sewn up to prevent the mouth opening during the drying process when the skin shrinks.

Body stuffing can either be purchased from a taxidermy retailer as a preformed plastic body or built from scratch. In our case, a body was made in the traditional way using wood wool (finely shaved wood) jute tow (used in sack cloth) and string. It was built up with wood wool, dampened with water and pesticide. This was wrapped with string at various points to secure the wool as well as to help assess the size of the body. When the body had been constructed, to the appropriate size for the skin, it was covered in a thin layer of tow and wrapped in cotton thread. This gives a smooth surface, which prevents lumps appearing in the skin.

To compensate for the lack of a skull (and Jeremy using it as a good opportunity to demonstrate how to salvage such a situation) a head was added to the body stuffing. In normal circumstances, the skull would be packed out with wood wool and modelling putty would used to fill the eye sockets and hold a pair of glass eyes in place. In this case, the modelling putty was built directly onto the head section of the body stuffing and the skull shaped by using more putty, cotton wool and string.

The whole body stuffing was then inserted head first into the skin. The wires bound to the leg bones were pushed into the stuffing material using the diagram as a guide to the position of the joints. Once the legs were anchored into place, the body was sewn up. The legs were then bent into the desired pose and the body was mounted onto a temporary wooden board to dry.

During drying the skin tightens up and sets the position of the pose. Drying involves pinning the skin into position and brushing and blow drying the fur. Once the fur looks presentable the mammal can be left to dry at room temp for several weeks. In larger mammals the skin shrinks significantly during the drying process so tanning is used to prevent it. On smaller mammals it isn’t such a problem.

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