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11 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Taxidermy

The Deyrolle Taxidermy Shop in Paris, which was established in 1831.

Think all there is to taxidermy is stuffing an animal? Think again. Since the days of William Hornaday and Carl Akeley, taxidermy has been a scientific art: It requires practitioners not only to take accurate measurements and photos and make traces of the animals they'd like to mount, but to study the anatomy of those animals—all for the purpose of creating a specimen that is true to life. Read on for 11 things you might not know about the history, development, and practice of taxidermy.

1. The first person to use the word “taxidermy”—which comes from the Greek words taxis, or “arrangement,” and derma, or “skin”—was Louis Dufresne of the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris. He wrote about it in the 1803 reference book Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle.

2. Taxidermy began in England in the early 19th century. An increased demand for leather meant that tanning—turning an animal's skin into preserved leather—became commonplace, and this made preservation of species catalogued by naturalists possible. Victorians often anthropomorphized their taxidermy, dressing stuffed animals in clothes and working them into tableaus like the ones created by Walter Potter. They were also obsessed with animals that were deemed "curiosities": deformed creatures with extra heads or legs.

3. Early proponents of taxidermy included Captain James Cook (he brought the first kangaroo skin back to London in 1771) and Charles Darwin, who would not have been allowed to travel as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle without that skill. He learned the trade from a freed Guyanese slave.

4. Early taxidermy mounts were stuffed with sawdust and rags without regard for actual anatomy, so the models were often disfigured. In fact, mounts from those days skewed how we imagined creatures like the long-extinct dodo for years. Today, taxidermists can purchase a mannequin—which they can sculpt to achieve the position they want, then stretch and sew the skin over it—or create their own using old methods, like the Victorian-era process of winding the body shape out of string.

5. When Captain John Hunter sent the first pelt and sketch of a platypus back to England in 1798, many assumed it was a hoax—that someone had sewn a duck's bill to the coat of a beaver. George Shaw, author of The Naturalist's Miscellany: Or, Coloured Figures Of Natural Objects; Drawn and Described Immediately From Nature, reportedly took scissors to the skin to check for stitches.

6. The first American taxidermy competition was held in 1880. The top prize was awarded to taxidermist William Hornaday’s A Fight in the Tree-Tops, which depicted two male Bornean orangutans fighting over a female. The scene, which was scientifically accurate, changed the purpose of taxidermy—it inspired other taxidermists to aim for accuracy in their mounts, too.

Hornaday working on a lion mount. Photo Courtesy Taxidermy.net.

7. Dioramas like the ones in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) show animals in their painstakingly recreated natural habitats. Carl Akeley (for whom the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at AMNH is named) created the first habitat diorama in America—which portrayed muskrats—in 1889. The Milwaukee Public Museum still has it on display.

Akeley's obsessive method of preserving one elephant was detailed by his wife in her memoir, The Wilderness Lives Again. Melissa Milgrom sums it up in her book Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy:

After the elephant was shot in the bush, he shaded it under a tarp to slow it from decomposing. After he photographed it for reference, he took detailed measurements with a tape measure and calipers, compensating for variations that make a dead animal different from a living one, such as deflated lungs, a limp trunk, and flaccid muscles. Next he cased the skull and leg bones in plaster and made a death mask of the face to capture its fine musculature. ... Akeley skinned animals like a Park Avenue plastic surgeon. All his incisions minimized future seams, so they'd disappear when the animal was assembled later. The legs were cut on the inside; the back was cut longitudinally along the spine; the head was cast, cut off. Once skinned, the elephant was fleshed ... It took Akeley and his team of porters four to five days to remove and prepare the thick, 2000 pound hide, using small knives so they would not mar the skin.

Back at the museum, Akeley tanned the hide in a 12-week-long process that turned the 2.5-inch thick hide into quarter-inch leather. He then made an outline of the elephant on the floor and built its internal frame—using steel, wood, and the elephant's bones—on top of it. He covered the frame with wire mesh, and then clay which he sculpted to recreate the elephant's muscles. After placing the skin on this form and making sure the clay accurately replicated "every fold and wrinkle," Milgrom says, he cast the form in plaster to make a lightweight mannequin, which is what he eventually stretched the skin over. This is the process he used to create the elephants in the Akeley African Hall of Mammals (below).

In addition to his obsessive eye for detail—he even invented the first portable movie camera to capture footage of animals in the wild, to better create more accurate taxidermy mounts—Akeley was also a badass: In one of many adventures, he killed a leopard with his bare hands.

8. Arsenic was one of taxidermy’s earliest preservatives. In those days, competition was fierce, so methods of preservation differed from taxidermist to taxidermist and were closely guarded—some even went to the grave without revealing their secrets.

9. In taxidermy, a specimen is an exact replica of the animal as it appeared in the wild; an example of a trophy is a deer head mounted on the wall.

10. Taxidermy competitions include a category called “Re-Creations,” where taxidermists attempt to create an animal without using any of its actual parts—making an eagle using turkey feathers, for example, or creating a realistic panda using bearskin—or even recreating extinct species based on scientific data.

11. When the rhino that belonged to Louis XIV and Louis XV was hacked to death by a revolutionary in 1793, its skin was varnished and stretched over a frame of wooden hoops. At that time, it was the largest animal to undergo a modern taxidermy process. The skin is on display at the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris (below); its bones are displayed separately.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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