Last week saw the World Taxidermy Championships take place in Salzburg, Austria — the first time the event has ever been staged in Europe. It offered an unusual glimpse of a world as unsettling as it is fascinating — one where the greatest joy comes from pulling the pelt off an alpine marmot or a white-tailed deer.
The magic lies in the squinting eyes of the fox; she turns her head slightly away from the younger animal next to her, irritated and yet full of affection.
Like a queen she tolerates being humbled by the others. Her muzzle is still closed, and it looks like she could yawn at any moment. But this is where Dirk Opalka’s devotion ends. “I had to do them over,” Opalka, 40, says, referring to the yellow eyes of the fox, “they were seated wrong — and then the clay in the eyelids slid too.”
Opalka is an animal taxidermist. His mission could almost be called religious: He is seeking life in death. “The animal must look very much alive, that’s the secret,” says the man from Fuhlendorf, near Rostock, the German Baltic sea port. His great act of creation took eight weeks — and it paid off. Opalka has won a world championship of a particularly bizarre kind.
The World Taxidermy Championships came to an end on Sunday in Salzburg, Austria. One-hundred-forty participants from 25 countries had flooded into Salzburg, the city of Mozart, to find out who could best preserve the nostril of a stag, most perfectly model the lips of a hyena, or color the anal opening of a common pipistrelle (a small bat) the rosiest shade possible. Over 500 dead animals transformed a Salzburg exhibition center into the deck of a Noah’s Ark of absurdities — full of lifeless passengers.
Animal cadavers are the objects of this eccentric craft; freezers, scalpels and de-greasing liquid the tools. And the craft unifies this unsettling passion with a nearly devout obsession for preserving the beauty of nature beyond death.
“Taxidermy is not just a craft, it’s an art,” says Larry Blomquist, the American doyen of taxidermists and organizer of the competition, which has taken place in Europe for the first time. “I am thrilled with the quality we get to see here.”
Practiced as far back as ancient Egypt, the art of taxidermy gained popularity in the 19th century when it became a way to preserve the trophies of colonial hunting societies. Today taxidermy — the preparing, stuffing and mounting of skin — is a multi-million-dollar business, especially in the United States, where it is estimated that 50,000 taxidermists preserve hunting trophies and other animals for American living rooms.
Germany’s national association brings together around 260 biological taxidermists. There are professionals like former world champion Berend Koch, who has created a menagerie at the Technical University in Darmstadt that is highly esteemed in the field. But above all there are the self-employed, who fervently bathe bagged does in polyethylene glycol or give deceased ducks new dark brown eyes, diameter 9 millimeters (0.35 inches), from the German company KL-Glasaugen (KL-Glass Eyes).
Measured against the World’s Best
They have all come to Salzburg, to this high-performance show of animal preservation, in order to measure themselves against the best in the world. The contest is carried out by people in outdoor clothes, whose greatest joy is pulling the pelt of an alpine marmot or a white-tailed deer over its head.
Rewind to two weeks earlier, and Dirk Grundler is preparing for the Salzburg event at his taxidermy workshop in the eastern German city of Magdeburg. His workshop has a low ceiling, and the carpeted floor is littered with hair and spare bits of foam. Paint brushes, forceps, resins, dyes, hairsprays and varnishes complete the chaos. It’s a whimsical zoo: magpies with fluttering wings, frozen in motion, dance on the floor; on the ceiling flies a huge raven. Alongside it are a bearded tit, a hoopoe and a large, black-billed Capercaillie.
“That one comes from Lake Baikal (in Russia),” says Grundler, 43. With a full beard, gray vest and sturdy build, he doesn’t look like a man who deals in fine motor skills. But his daily bread does indeed consist of detail work. “I only preserve birds,” says Grundler. He operates according to the motto: emptied and feathered. He skins the birds, cuts bodies out of polyurethane foam and sprays the legs with formalin (“so they don’t shrivel,” he explains). Then he molds the skin over the artificial body. As a final step, he applies a substance to protect the bird from insects. Any “naked areas of skin” are colored in with an airbrush.
The expertise of a taxidermist is vast. That’s the only way the work can succeed, says Grundler. He knows bird anatomy like the back of his hand. Neck length? “Female peregrine falcon 5.5 centimeters, mallard duck 19, ringed teal nine,” he says, ticking off data.
“It calls for the greatest possible perfection,” explains Grundler, who is self-taught in the profession. “You have to know: How does the bird look in nature? How would it move? For example, if a pheasant looks to the side, it gets a very certain kind of swing in its neck.”
The birds for Salzburg are already sitting ready in two boxes. Grundler wants to enter the most challenging division for the first time. Among his taxidermic preparations are a peregrine falcon, a kingfisher with iridescent blue plumage and an eagle owl, at least half a meter long. And where do all the animals come from? “All bred,” affirms the taxidermist, “anything else would be illegal.”
This is one of the basic problems faced by taxidermists: Exotic species are both a challenge and a curse. It’s not difficult to find someone preserving a freshly shot lion for a big game hunter. Indeed, taxidermists argue that without hunting tourism, many species would be worse off than they already are. But what are people supposed to make of a person like Ron from Texas, who bags a leopard, stuffs it and then says: “I just love being able to take something that’s lifeless and give it life again, make it look like it was, you know, out there in the wild”?
Still, whether it’s a tiger, a macaw or a Komodo dragon, taxidermy is all about high art. The work of Ken Walker, a Canadian who specializes in creating taxidermic representations of extinct species, is legendary. At the 2005 world championship, he wowed the crowds with an Irish Elk — a species that died out more than 7,500 years ago. To reconstruct the animal, Walker sewed together the skins of three stags.
More Obssessive than a Model Train Enthusiast
And then there’s Matthias Fahrni of Switzerland — a luminary in the art of fish taxidermy. “Since childhood” he has been obsessed with fish, says the taxidermist. “It is probably a genetic defect,” he jokes. Fahrni almost exclusively preserves scaled fish smaller than 15 centimeters. When it comes to his fastidiousness in terms of detail, he even outdoes model train builders.
With miniature scalpels and instruments used for eye surgery, Fahrni removes the fish skin with its scales still intact. Then, like anatomist Gunther von Hagens, creator of the “Body Worlds” exhibits of human bodies, he pumps in plastic. For the head, he keeps the original. The last step is to color the fish: living animals provide the model. “A fish changes its color and the expression of the eyes in the first five minutes after death,” says Fahrni. For this reason, he has developed a technique of anesthetizing the animal he wants to observe.
Fahrni has brought a bullhead and a perch to Salzburg and they rest, effectively lit, among the other mortal remains. A pair of men, their eyes hidden behind thick magnifying glasses, bend over the fish, whispering to one another. They are the jurors, designated experts who assign the points here.
And the Winner Is …
Further away, among the preserved deer, American Joe Meder shines a flashlight into the nostrils of a stag. The last fern of its life dangles from the animal’s mouth. Meanwhile, Peter Sunesen bends over a lilac-breasted roller. “This bird has problems with its anatomy,” deems the Danish judge. For this, points are deducted.
Or take Dieter Schön of Munich’s Museum of Man and Nature. The 46-year-old taxidermist was responsible for preserving Bruno, the brown bear shot in Bavaria in 2006. Now his critical eye falls on an Eversmann’s hamster. “The whiskers are very good,” Schön says to Berend Koch. But he is skeptical: “The body is far too compacted — the animal looks half starved to death.”
So what is taxidermy? Is it a morbid plundering of bodies or a celebration of the high art of life? It is the contrast between the loving devotion of the taxidermists and the macabre slaughterhouse atmosphere that simultaneously unsettles and fascinates.
At the end of the event, the taxidermists stock up on plastic bear tongues and artificial lion’s teeth at the exposition stands. Dirk Grundler is satisfied: For his kingfisher, he receives 88 out of 100 possible points. The jury also agrees on 96 points for Opalka’s fox, the overall winner.
“This entry captures the essence of the moment,” says Larry Blomquist, running his hand devoutly over the fox’s red fur. “You hardly ever get to see something like this in nature.”