Sam Leith has been taking lessons in taxidermy, and he hasn’t had so much fun in ages
‘Now I’m going to show you what a scalpel handle is for,’ says Mike Gadd. I pick up the one nearest me, and start trying to affix the blade that I’ve so far been using pinched between finger and thumb. ‘Don’t be silly,’ says Mike. ‘It’s not for holding a scalpel blade.’ And with that, he reverses the scalpel handle in his own hand and digs its blunt, spatulate back end into the orbit of the eye in the skinned bird skull he’s holding. He whips it deftly round in a circle, and neatly pops out the eyeball. He turns the skull over and does the other.
I try it on my own bird. Very satisfying. Jays’ eyes come out dead easy. In death (as Mike demonstrated earlier by puffing one up with an injection of water) the eyes deflate like a tyre going down. Sitting on the workbench, mission accomplished, they look exactly, but exactly, like a pair of blueberries.
Three hours ago, I and the two other students on Mike’s three-day beginners’ course in bird taxidermy were each presented with a chilly, just-defrosted dead jay, feathers a little matted with blood, necks flopping around all over the shop. Now what I have on a piece of newspaper in front of me is ...a mess. All my own work. I haven’t had so much fun in ages.
There’s more to stuffing a dead jay, however, than unseats the eye. ‘Where shall we start?’ Mike asked earlier, after issuing us with our feathery subjects. ‘Hmmn?’ I suggested bloodthirstily, running my forefinger in a line down the bird’s tum. ‘An incision?’ he said. ‘No. How are you going to put it back together if you don’t take some notes on what size and shape it is before you take the skin off?’ Oh. And, he points out, try to reconstruct the musculature of a human leg from a discarded leotard. Oh. Calipers came out. How far is it from the eye to the beak? What’s the distance across the shoulders?
Think of all the things you enjoyed doing at school, combine them, and you have taxidermy. ‘Skinning out’ your specimen is an operation with all the gory fun of dissection in biology, and all the fascination of a natural history lesson. You get to see what goes on inside a bird: where the joints articulate, how surprisingly long is its neck, and how tiny its body. The musculature on the bird’s back is incredibly human-looking. Plus, you get to wear latex gloves and imagine you are a customs officer. It’s hard to resist the temptation to give the wrists a snap as you put them on.
Then there are the craft, design and technology pleasures of finding it a log to sit on. ‘What’s this log telling you?’ asks Mike, sounding ever more like Yoda, as we scrutinise the woodpile. There’s sawing and drilling and — if you so choose — adding in fake moss, fibreglass rocks, dried grass or what you will. Then there are the pleasures of the sculptor. You have to build the jay a replacement body, as close as possible to the size and shape of the original — by carving it from some sort of styrofoam block, or, as we did, by scrunching up wood wool (the stuff they used to pack crockery in in tea crates) to shape in your fist, and winding it round and round with thread.
Into this, in due course, wires slipped cunningly along the bones of wing and leg will be cinched, flexed and posed. Always, you’re having to think of anatomy. ‘Where are you going to put the wing?’ asks Sensei. ‘There?’ ‘Think about it,’ he says. ‘Does your shoulder come out halfway down your chest?’ Oh.
But, before you are ready to bring the whole thing together, you have to wash and treat the skin — a series of small chemical miracles. When you’ve finished skinning the bird out, you are left with a pair of wings, flesh stripped from the bones, the legs and tail still attached to the skin of the torso, and, at the top of the neck, the bare skull, bird brains tapped neatly out with a sharp rap on the edge of the bin. You rinse the skin in cold water, then wash it with Fairy Liquid to get rid of any grease. Then rinse, rinse, wring and squeeze (surprisingly resilient, birdskin) — and what you are left with looks completely hopeless: a few scrags of soggy feather on a wet, pitifully bald pale yellow hide. But — clever bit, this — you dip the hide in a bucket of white spirit, causing the water to precipitate to the bottom of the bucket. Then you roll the hide in a barrel of Sepiolite (a sandy substance sold in pet shops as ‘chinchilla sand’), run a cold-air blower over it and, miraculously, the feathers you thought were long gone spring back into resplendent, fluffy life. That’s the chemistry lesson. Later, of course, comes sewing class....
Many people, when you mention the idea to them, seem to think taxidermists are a bit weird. Mention an ambition to stuff a badger, and they think you’re some odd alloy of Burke, Hare and Ed Gein. Actually, nothing seems to make more sense as an activity for a person interested in art and in the natural world. Good taxidermy is a sensational demonstration of knowledge, manual dexterity and aesthetic touch: of sleight of hand and sleight of eye. And — unlike other communities of hobbyists, there doesn’t seem to be a stereotype for the taxidermist. One of the people on the course with me is a farmer’s daughter who works as a gardener and has always dreamed of taxidermy. Her husband sent her on this course as a present. The other is a guy who works as area manager for a firm providing doormen for nightclubs. He’s had enough of confronting psychos, and hopes to move to the countryside with his wife and kids and to become a professional taxidermist.
What brought me here originally was research for a book I am writing called Dead Pets. I wanted to include a chapter called ‘How to stuff a schnauzer’. (How difficult, I thought like the idiot I am, can it be?) But I soon realised that dogs are for advanced learners, and that the chapter was probably going to have to be called ‘How to stuff a songbird not very well at all’. In fact the link to pets is more theoretical than practical. Most taxidermists hate being asked to do pets. Really what they do is a sort of pragmatic branch of natural history: setting up as lifelike as possible an example of a species. A good taxidermist will turn your dead bunny rabbit into a gorgeous-looking bunny rabbit — but it’s a different matter to recreate the exact way Flopsy’s ears fell or the shade of her eyes. Few rabbit owners know what exact colour their pet’s eyes were — but they will sure as hell know, when presented with the finished product, what colour they weren’t.
Jays and partridges are good birds to start on (though you have to obtain them legitimately; the only birds that aren’t legally protected in one way or another are pigeons). Their fluffy feathers are forgiving of the cack-handed mannequin (‘Really,’ says Mike, ‘you could stuff these with a bag of nails and you’d be able to make it come out all right’); and their skins are tough enough that the amateur can arrange them without poking them full of holes. My fellow student Wayne has a freezer full of partridges and a woodcock. Mike says, ‘What I advise you to do with the woodcock is eat it. Woodcocks are a nightmare: they have skins like soggy tissue paper.’
Mike should know. He has been stuffing — or ‘mounting’, to use the preferred term — dead animals for 30 years and he is very, very good at it. The hallway of his house throngs with foxes and owls. Lined along one wall of his studio are a pair of diving otters, a handsome badger, and a spectacular trio of huge raptors having a fight. You name it, he’s peeled it and stuffed it: rhino, tiger, golden eagle, secretary bird (‘Look at the eyelashes on that!’), giraffe. He has never done a moose, but is planning a trip to Canada in the hope. He even, as an experiment, once did a bird blindfold (‘not pretty’). How fast can he stuff? For a bet, he took one from dead bird to mounted as fast as he could. It took him 27 minutes. It takes us three days. But we get — with a little help — what Sensei calls ‘a result’.
My jay, lodged at last on its branch, has mean little eyes, skinny legs and enormous feet. I decide to call it Margaret.