Work Experience 14: Taxidermist
Warning: Taxidermy is the preserving of an animal’s body via stuffing or mounting for the purpose of display or study. Below I show some of the things that I saw and did as part of my taxidermy experience.
I’ve known Ali Douglas since our daughters became friends in Prep many years ago (they’ve just finished primary school and are heading to different high schools…sob). Ali is a taxidermist at the Queensland Museum, and I’ve always been intrigued to find out exactly what it is she does.
When I first asked Ali if I could come and do work experience with her she asked me how I am with bad smells. My response was, ‘It depends what I’ll be sniffing.’ She informed me that the pong of the day was rotting echidna carcass. Eww! Surprisingly it didn’t put me off, and a few short weeks later I joined her in her basement workshop at the Queensland Museum to learn a bit about the art and science of taxidermy.
What did I do?
On day one Ali introduced me to her colleague Todd and gave me a tour of their work space. I wasn’t surprised to see stuffed animals everywhere.
- A seal that needed repair and a mounted deer in the wet preparation room.
- Wings on the walls, birds and koalas perched on sticks, and a variety of birds, mammals and amphibians displayed neatly on shelves of the desk in the skinning room.
- A huge number of Australian animals stacked in a large storage cupboard.
- A hand-written sign by the exit in the wet prep room that read TURN OFF TURTLE COOKER (I did ask what the turtle cooker was used for and was quite pleased there was no turtle cooking going on that day!)
- Drawers labelled with red eyes, brown eyes etc, and a cupboard labelled with skins and other bits (I probably shouldn’t have been opened that door).
It was the most interesting work space I’ve ever seen.
A big job Ali and Todd had to do that day was to rearrange the frozen animals in their section of a large walk-in freezer, in order to access the fin of a killer whale. They pulled all of their storage tubs out into the main room, checked the contents of each bag, and reorganised the tubs in order to create more space in the freezer. Although I was wearing gloves and an apron ‘just in case’, my job was just to write down what they were putting into each tub. Phew! It was interesting to see the variety of animals that were in storage, waiting until the time they’d be brought back to life by the taxidermists. There were snakes, lizards, marsupials, small mammals and many different species of birds. I remember earlier this year phoning Ali to tell her I saw a dead fox on the side of the road that she might like to collect, but she didn’t need it as she already had one in the freezer at work. I did get to see the frozen fox, and he was pretty cute! All of the animals had died of natural causes or as the result of accidents such as being hit by a car.
On day two I arrived to find two defrosted koalas in the sink, and two defrosted corellas on the work bench. I realised very quickly it wasn’t going to be an observation day. Ali’s plan was to use one of the koalas for its skin and the other for its skeleton. I won’t go into too much detail, but the process of getting down to the skeleton is quite messy and not for the faint-hearted. Strangely I didn’t find it too disgusting to see, although I may have felt differently if I was the one holding the scalpel.
While she worked away in the sink, Todd explained that my job for the day was to prepare the corella as a study skin. I’d always known that taxidermy was the process of stuffing an animal so it can be mounted and displayed. Although that’s a part of the work Ali and Todd do, I didn’t realise that preserving animals for scientific purposes is their primary job. Animals are collected, preserved in alcohol or as study skins or skeletons, catalogued and stored in perpetuity in drawers and cupboards within the museum. They provide a record of animal populations across time and are an invaluable resource for scientific study of the natural world. The collection at the Queensland Museum has been built up over 150 years, and predominantly documents the natural history of Queensland.
Back to my corella. As it was going to go into the museum collection forever, there was some very important data I needed to gather before reaching for the scalpel. I first needed to record the bird’s scientific name, where it was found, when it was found, who it was found by and how it died. Much of that information had been included with the bird when it was first brought in to the museum. In fact, if that data hadn’t been provided – particularly where and when it was found – the bird wouldn’t have been able to be used for scientific purposes. The next job was to use some accurate measurement tools to find the bird’s length, wingspan, and head to beak length.
Next it was time to start skinning the bird (yikes…you should’ve seen the look on my face when I started!). Todd demonstrated each step on his bird before I had to do mine. Thankfully Ali made the first incision down the breast bone with a scalpel for me. I was too nervous to start! It was actually not too hard or yucky to separate the skin from the bird’s body. After a while I felt a lot more relaxed about what I was doing. Thankfully it wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it’d be, and I guess I just accepted what I had to do. The bird’s wing and lower leg bones, skull and beak stayed with the skin. Any flesh on the bones, however, needed to be removed so that it wouldn’t rot. I used tools such as a scalpel and rats tooth forceps to remove any traces of meat that I could.
Ali removed the eyes for me. She demonstrated one and I thought…you’re so good at it, you might as well do the other one! (Just quietly, the idea of doing the eyes made me a bit queasy). The skull also needed to be cleaned out (yes, the gooey brain), and I used pliers and cotton wool for that task. That was the grossest part! At that stage I was already thinking of my skinning job as being for science and it didn’t bother me too much, although I have to admit I was happy when that bit was over.
Once my bird was skinned it was time to clean it. This involved washing it in a mild detergent and thoroughly rinsing it under a running tap. After squeezing as much water out as possible, I pressed paper towel onto it to absorb some of the moisture. Next the skin was gently tumbled in a sawdust-filled barrel for about 40 minutes, which works to absorb even more of the moisture around the feathers. Finally, I used compressed air to ensure the feathers and skin were completely dry. My bird looked so clean and fluffy, and I was becoming quite attached to him by this stage.
Next it was time to stuff the skin. Remembering study skins are stored in drawers in collections in the belly of the museum and not for display, this job wasn’t too complex. Firstly, cotton wool needs to be placed into the bird’s eye sockets. Next, I placed a long wooden stick into the skull which keeps the bird in a straight position. I filled the body with stuffing to get the right shape then carefully stitched the body back together along the incision Ali had made earlier, from top to bottom. I tied the bird’s feet neatly together over the stick and voila! My bird was beautiful again! It was then wrapped in cling film, which would remain for a couple of days to help its wings stay in place and hold its shape.
The only other jobs that needed doing were to collect heart, liver, tissue and tongue samples, which were placed in tiny little vials filled with alcohol, and to find out the sex of the bird. As my bird had died from dehydration it was quite tricky (its insides were a bit shrivelled and discoloured), but under a microscope it was proven to be male.
I was quite proud to have produced a study skin, and really surprised myself that I was able to do it. I even thought it’d be nice to bring my bird home…we’d gone through a lot together! Although I’m happy knowing he’s up there in the museum collection to perhaps be used by scientists one day.
My third day at the museum was all about Tonka, a very special (and a little bit famous) wombat. After he’d passed away last year from kidney failure it was Ali’s job to preserve Tonka forever, but the time had come to send Tonka home to the Museum of Tropical Queensland in Townsville. We had to drive to the Museum’s storage facility, collect a suitable wooden box to store Tonka in, clean the box thoroughly, and pack Tonka carefully to ensure he couldn’t move or be damaged in transit. Tonka’s story is an interesting and heart-warming one. If you’d like to learn a bit more about Tonka and Ali’s work with preserving him, click here to read an article published in The Australian earlier this year.
I also had a tour behind-the-scenes of the museum, including the curators’ offices, collections and conservation room. See if you can read on the tag of the duck in the picture below which year it was added to the museum collection.
What did I learn?
It was so interesting to learn about all of the amazing work that goes on in a museum. I had such a great time working with Ali and Todd, talking about their roles and the process of preserving different animals, and of course learning how to create a study skin of my own. I expected to find the whole taxidermy process really disgusting, but it was fascinating. I’m sure I experienced the nicer side of things with my study skin, and imagine larger animals such as kangaroos would be a bit more of an eye-opener, but there’s something about the fact the animals are being preserved for display and science that makes it all worthwhile. I enjoyed the whole experience (except perhaps the bird brain removal part).
If you’re ever at the Queensland Museum in Brisbane, make sure you check out the amazing Wild State Exhibition on Level 4, which took three years of taxidermy work by Ali and Todd to create. It has more animal species than anywhere else in Australia, and is impressive to see.
To get some further insight into Ali’s role as a taxidermist, read her interview here or check out the interviews page.