At Work With… Lee Ismail

… Lee Ismail, Curator of Natural Sciences

This article describes the processes of taxidermy.

Young Vixen
Young Vixen

Any keen readers of the Royal Pavilion & Brighton Museums blog will know that I previously worked on bird taxidermy as part of the Monument Fellowship programme at the Booth Museum. The programme facilitates knowledge capture between retiring curators and their successors. As the fellowship draws to a close we have decided to do a series of blogs on the most complicated aspect of taxidermy, namely, preparing mammals. This first blog will examine the steps taken in the basic preparation of a mammal skin and skeleton.

Young Vixen
Young Vixen

We start with the animal itself. In this case, we have a young (approximately six month old) vixen. She met her untimely demise following a road collision, and was brought in by a member of the public.

The procedure started in much the same way as in preparing a bird. Measurements were recorded along with the date and location of death. The animal was then weighed, which proved to be a lot messier than with a bird, as most of the blood drained from the nose when it was hung on the scales. The body was then inspected externally and examples of any parasites, such as fleas or ticks, were collected and preserved for future reference.

The next stage was to make an incision into the skin. This initial opening can be made in a number of places depending on what end result is intended. In this case, as we were aiming for an unblemished pelt, the cut was made along the centre of the chest. This was extended to the full length of the body and up to the chin. Further incisions were made along the length of each leg.

Fox Skin
Fox Skin

Once the incisions were made, the skin was carefully removed from the body, by using fingertips and a scalpel where neccessary to free the body from the connective tissue. The body was almost entirely removed in this way. Even the tail was removed by simply easing it out, much like a very bristly sock.

Once the body was free, we moved to concentrate on the head. Again, it was skinned in much the same way, including very carefully turning the ears inside out and removing the cartilage. To finish, the gums and the flesh just behind the nose were cut through and the fur was successfully removed from the fox.

Fox Skull
Fox Skull

A basic autopsy was then carried out, to record anything significant about the animal’s life. Our little vixen had the following injuries: shotgun pellet holes, an air gun pellet wound and a semi-healed break in her right back leg, all within her first year of life (not to mention the car accident that killed her). All these observations were recorded as part of the specimen history.

The final stage was to prepare parts of the body for skeletal preparation. This involved the removal of the head from the body as well as the broken limb. These parts were placed into a pot and simmered for two days. The pot was not allowed to boil as this fixes the fats into the bone leaving them with a permanent stain. The flesh was then removed with a combination of forceps and a toothbrush to avoid damaging any of the smaller bones. The bones were placed into a bath of petrol for a week, in order to remove any fats still present. Finally, the bones were removed, dried and then bleached in a mixture of ammonia and hydrogen peroxide.

Fox Bones
Fox Bones

The next blog will look at preparing a mammal skin for display as a mounted specimen.

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