Taxidermy used to be one of the few ways to see wildlife up close. That era has passed, but the beauty of these vintage specimens lives on.
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Ever since I was a schoolgirl, when I would spend long afternoons in the Newark Museum and the American Museum of Natural History, I have loved the examples of taxidermy more than anything else on display.
Men have been stuffing animal skins for hundreds of years, yet the art of taxidermy -- mounting or reproducing dead animals for display or for other sources of study -- was not perfected until the early 20th century. That is when the proper materials and methods of artistic preservation were discovered and developed by a small group of talented naturalists.
At Skylands, my house in Maine, I amassed quite a few examples of fine old taxidermy that I found in shops, at auctions, and at local garage sales. The stairway is occupied by a few superb taxidermic examples: ducks, geese, a turkey, a bird, and a baby black bear.
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Rise and Shine
The great museums and institutions of higher learning often incorporate into their exhibits lifelike dioramas of animals in order to excite, teach, inspire, and inform. In the process, they have preserved certain animals and environments that have since become extinct or threatened. The opportunity to study the creatures and their habitats in that detail fostered my interest in all animals at a very early age.
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This photograph of a bear tucked into bed with a scary nighttime read, taken at Skylands in 2002, was the inspiration for this story.
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Plan of Attach
A vicious-looking American lynx is in attack mode in the games closet, about to kill a frightened fisher.
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The lynx is at it again. This is an example of realism taxidermy, which was popular in the first half of the 20th century.
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Here, a red fox jauntily posed by his artistic taxidermist playing a game of billiards.
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Setting the Bar
Mounted northern bobwhites hide on an upper shelf of the liquor bar while a thirsty porcupine investigates the contents of the counter.
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An old house like Skylands, and its outbuildings, can be made more interesting with the addition of these mounts. Since Mount Desert Island was home to many artists and naturalists, such as the incomparable Carroll Tyson, who painted from nature his extraordinary "Birds of Mount Desert Island" series, I decided to find and display many examples of the real birds and mammals one might see in our locale.
This exquisitely set table visited by two northern bobwhites, a hooded merganser, and a mallard came from a Maine collector who specialized in shorebirds.
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This black bear was found at a sporting auction. It is relatively new taxidermy and came with a certificate authenticating that it was roadkill.
There is a kind of taxidermy called rogue taxidermy, which might represent unrealistic hybrids -- species that do not exist in nature, such as unicorns and dragons -- and another called anthropomorphic taxidermy, in which stuffed animals are posed in human activities and are often dressed in clothing (Peter Rabbit-style). I much prefer to appreciate the beauty of these animals in their naturalistic forms.
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In the 19th century, display cases holding naturalistic tableaux of mounted specimens, called Victorian taxidermy, became popular and were exhibited in museums; once available in antiques shops and at estate sales, these are now hard to find and very collectible.
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This shadow box contains an owl in a wonderful landscape.
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This diorama displays several red squirrels mounted beautifully in a landscape; it is one of my favorites.
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Guide to Taxidermy