When Philipp Schulz mentions he’s a taxidermist at a dinner party, someone will inevitably crack a lame joke about ‘being stuffed’. Occasionally on an ordinary work day when he’s skinning specimens at his workshop, he’ll get a request to taxidermy someone’s beloved pet. Having a yard full of drying bones, freezers full of carcasses and being asked by curiosity collectors if his natural history store, Mandibles, stocks human skulls, is also commonplace in his daily life.
Some of the basic skills needed for the job include steady handwork and anatomical knowledge on a wide range of species. Originally a scientific practice to understand the animal kingdom and procured mostly by private collectors or museums, taxidermy has, with the influence of artists like Damien Hirst and Polly Morgan, together with the increased focus on consuming artisan products, become a fashionable decor commodity. Morbidly fascinated by the this unusual profession, we chatted to Philipp about the ins and outs of his exotic day job.
In South Africa, taxidermy isn’t considered a run-of-the-mill profession. What inspired your career choice?
I’ve always had an interest in animals and wildlife and I tried to make a profession out of that. I looked for things at a young age that I could start a business with right away as opposed to going somewhere and studying something like nature conservation – which is always fine – but I also wanted to make money and do something that I enjoy. I did a course in Montana and came here and started a business, which is an ongoing process. What you learn there and what you can put into practice here are two different things.
How do people react when you tell them what you do?
Some people are very interested. Others crack stupid jokes about something like ‘stuff this and stuff that’. You hear it so often it breezes past you. If someone is genuinely interested you can engage in conversation, otherwise I tell them I’m a chartered accountant.
Does one have to study overseas to be a qualified taxidermist?
Not anymore. At that point, in the mid 90s, there was nobody here. There were established people but there wasn’t anybody that would be willing to take you on and to teach you. You know, they teach you from the roots up, but they’re going to hold onto you as long as possible because obviously they’re going to use you as an apprentice. I wanted to learn the basics and in the States they have a huge taxidermy industry. I did a course there and came back and a friend of mine, who had been established for a few years prior to me going over, then helped me out a lot with things I needed to know locally.
How many taxidermists are there in South Africa?
In Cape Town there’s two or three, but they’re not big operations. The minute you move to the interior or go to the Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga, Limpopo or Guateng you’ll find taxidermy studios that’ll blow your mind. They’ll have 50-60 people working there non-stop on conveyor belts. I mean they are processing thousands of game heads a year and cater entirely for the hunting industry.
How does the local industry compare to the Unites States?
Put it this way, in the United States any little backwards hick town has a petrol station, a grocery store and a taxidermist. Hunting is so big in the US and unlike South Africa, which is 90% privately owned, anybody can hunt. A lot of people depend on the hunting season to get meat for their family. If somebody gets a nice deer in a season then they’ll take it to the taxidermist. Every town has a taxidermist. It doesn’t mean he’s a full time taxidermist, he might be running the petrol station during the day, but he’ll do some deer heads in the season, some fish and a few pheasants.
What does a taxidermy course encompass?
It’s not as difficult as people think it is. Because of the commercial taxidermy industry, you can source most things you need to get started whereas I’d say 50 years ago, a taxidermist would have to start from the bottom up recreating the entire animal from scratch. Nowadays you can buy ready-made mannequins online. So, you shoot a deer and bring it to the taxidermist, he’ll take some rough carcass measurements, skin the animal and in the meantime order a form from a supply company. The form will fit the neck and shoulders and then he’ll mount it up. Here it’s difficult because we have many more animals. In America you mainly have have deer, elk and turkeys. In SA you have 30 horned species of game – never mind all the birds. You have to adapt, that’s why I did the course just to get started and then my friend helped me out, because I could get mannequins and moulds from him. Afterwards I learnt to sculpt my own. All our birds are made from scratch though. You use the actual carcass of the bird and carve the body and build the bones back in.
At the workshop we have what we call ‘the kitchen’ where everything raw gets boiled and bleached, where the nasty, nasty stuff happens.
Where do you source your specimens from?
Unlike the guys in the States, pretty much every taxidermist in this country tends to work solely or largely for the hunting industry – people who shoot an animal and want to have it mounted. However, we get our animals as specimen from sanctuaries, animal rehabs, zoos and as by-products of game industry. When animals die at a game auction or at the end of a culling season or when farmers have left over hides then we’ll buy them. It’s all the products that would end up in the rubbish. Our specimens are all South African sourced but if you look around the store, 50% of the stuff doesn’t come from here. There are parrots from South America, Australia and South East Asia. Some breeding centres have Cockatoos, Amazons or Macaws and once in a while something dies, or gets a fright and breaks its neck flying against the aviary. These people know about us and we get specimens from them. It’s mutually beneficial because we offer money in the form of a donation. A lot of rehabs and small zoos are struggling because it’s difficult to upkeep, so now we give something they would throw away a monetary value and it’s win win. We make something nice and they get a bit of money to buy feed etc.
Are there any ethical complications?
People don’t understand that all natural history museums started as collected specimens, as trophies so to speak. They didn’t start because guys waited for things to fall out of trees, they went out there, got that and then they imported it back and displayed it. The whole business is vulnerable to a lot things, especially with social media. Taxidermy is popular so the minute you associate it with hunting, it takes on a different vibe. We don’t really do any hunting industry work. People don’t come in with their shot buck and ask us to mount it. We do all the specimens that we get from zoos and rehabs that are all part of the wildlife industry from the biltong trade but the minute its associated with hunting you receive negative feedback. That’s a whole different topic.
Because of social media, a lot of things get exposed, which is a good, but a lot of people voice their opinion without any scientific background or evidence. Whether they like it or not is besides the point. The point is whether it was legal or not.
How long does the entire process take?
It’s hard to say because everything is different. What takes long is the curing process because your ambient temperature will determine how quickly things dry. Birds go fairly quickly. We can mount several birds a day but then they have to dry and set which can take 10-14 days after which, you go back to the bird and remove any of the tape or thread that you’ve used to help set the bird and then you airbrush and sculpt in little areas that need touch ups. Theoretically the process can take 14 days but the actual mounting is over in hours. Bigger things take longer. We recently did a leopard, and you’ll come back to something like that. In other words, you’ll start with the mould and the skin and you can spend a whole day just fitting it and having to readjust the mannequin and add more clay and more definition. This you do 4 or 5 times and it’s tedious. Then the skin has to go back in the freezer until you’re perfectly happy with it and then you’ll sew it up and put the glass eyes back in place and fill the ears with a type of epoxy. There really is no time limit. Some taxidermists are very happy with just banging the thing on, sewing it up, and if it looks reasonable, they’re good to go. It all depends on how nice you’d like something to look. There’s no set formula.
What are some misconceptions about the job?
People have a misconception about what they brought and what it should look like. A guy will pick up something from the side of the road, put it in a freezer and bring it to you half a year later. In his mind, he picked up or shot this incredible buck during sunrise, but meanwhile it was put on the back of a car and left there for half a day. So when he brings you a rotten-carcass and you’ve done your best but he’s going ‘that’s not what it looked like’. He doesn’t realize what’s he’s picturing is last time he saw it was alive through the scope of a rifle or newly dead lying there in a meadow.
Can you share any instances?
We had a young guy, who got hold of a dog after I stopped doing commercial taxidermy. I said I’ll do the dog but my way – standard, on his four legs using a jackal mould. Dogs are very similar to jackals. His wife or girlfriend picked it up and then he was devastated and phoned me back in half an hour, after I’d already sent him a picture, because he was unhappy with the ears. In his mind, they were supposed to be down. I said, well this kind of dog doesn’t have down ears, it’s like an Alsatian, it’s ears are up. He loved the dog but wanted the ears down and asked me to just ‘push them down’. I said, it’s a complete process, it’s done. Everything is tarred and set. It was so hard for him to understand that this is not doable. He thought the whole thing was going to be like plasticine. That’s one of the many reasons I don’t want to have to deal with people and do custom work.
Taxidermy doesn’t like the sun, it’s like a little goth girl.
What’s the strangest request you’ve received?
Pets, but we don’t do commercial taxidermy anymore. I started off like that and at that stage I’d get the odd person who would bring me a pet. We had a person who brought in a guinea pig that had traveled the world with them – they had photo albums from it’s birth through to all their travels.
What are some of the daily challenges?
For a lot of big game, there are mannequins that you can buy which gives you something to work with but often they don’t fit. They’re too big or too small and if the positioning is wrong you can’t just lob off a leg and then put it back in place. You need to know about anatomy. The more you know about an animal, the more references you can use.
Can you briefly explain how the process works?
You have dead animal. That animal is skinned, has to dry and then it goes into a tanning process, which cures the skin. You have to flesh the skin because it has to be supple. You then fit it on a mannequin. It’s like somebody making shoes, they’d fit the leather over the mould of the shoe and see that the size is correct and fits in the right places. Then glue is applied to the mannequin and you sew it shut so the fur can stick to that form and take up that shape. There’s a lot of sculpting work because you’re putting clay back where there should be muscle tissue around the face, expression, jowls, the toes etc.
At the workshop we have what we call ‘the kitchen’ where everything raw gets boiled and bleached, where the nasty, nasty stuff happens. Then we have the skinning and the fleshing room, where we have a lot of deep freezers to keep specimens and things are skinned and salted. Carcasses are then thrown back in the deep freeze because we can’t dispose of them. We have a farm and every once in a while when the freezers overflow we take it all out there and give it to the jackals. Then we have a prepping room, which is our neatest, cleanest and lightest room, where we do all the fine work and keep the airbrushes and compressors and a lot of mannequins. We also have storage room and drying room which is important, because during the drying stage these things are very vulnerable to infestation by flies. It’s just while they’re still slightly moist. They need to dry completely before they become unappetizing to the flies so to speak. Then we have a packing room where everything that is finished, done and processed goes to be stored, and then we have a yard, where our skulls and bones go out to dry .
What is the mould made from?
It’s urethane. In layman’s terms its similar to what surfboards are made out of. It’s durable and light-weight. We pour it out of a two-part component, it expands, and then we pour it into a mould. When it sets you pop the mould open and then you have your mannequin.
How does one maintain taxidermy?
You want to keep it in a controlled environment at room temperature, not a lot of fluctuation. Taxidermy doesn’t like the sun, it’s like a little goth girl.
Why do you think there’s been a resurgence in collecting taxidermy?
It’s the whole being comfortable with things that are natural.I think if you look at design 10-15 years ago it was very different in the sense that it was very spartan – things were glass and acrylic. The 90s were so sleek and cold, and that was modern, but now there’s a faux-Victorian thing going on. On the East Coast in New York, in LA and even in London, taxidermy courses night-classes are the in thing to do. People want the real thing, not a plastic deer head which was actually big in the 90s.
It’s all cool. At the moment, you can’t go wrong with taxidermy. Some people prefer skulls and bones, others really just like it from a decor point of view or just like freaky things. If it looks freaky, it’s cool. On one hand it is this dark goth trend and on the other it looks nice if you have a very modern apartment with a few natural things like a nice set of antlers over the fireplace.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I’m self-employed. Also, anything that gives you a result in any profession is nice.
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