Sunday, August 8, 2010

Taxidermy for Beginners

Things I like about Sydney No. 28: Taxidermy for Beginners

Lesson No. 1: Preparing a Skull

1.1 First find a corpse.

The prerequisite for preparing a skull is a corpse to which said skull once belonged. This should preferably be animal or avian and definitely not human...A New Zealand Fur Seal (Arctocephalus forsteri) discovered over a year ago on a trip to the Coorong and re-discovered in the exact same position fourteen months later is ideal as much of the flesh from the seal's skull will already have decayed and/or been eaten. Additionally, New Zealand Fur Seals are not categorised as endangered by CITES or the IUCN or any other environmental body.

1.2 Remove the skull from the corpse.

As this part of the operation is not very pleasant, involving a fair amount of tugging at decaying flesh whilst being besieged by flies, delegation and a pair of surgical gloves are advised. If no gloves are available simply delegate (to Daniel in this instance). Watch the ripping of fur seal flesh and say "Ugggggg" a lot.

1.3 Return at a later date to search for any missing teeth.

You will no doubt realise, when working at close range with your skull, that various teeth are either loose or missing. We will deal with loose teeth later, but those missing teeth might just be found. Return to the now headless corpse and scour the ground roundabout with close eagle-eyed attention and you may be rewarded with more canines to re-insert into your skull. Teeth are, after all, difficult to ingest and therefore confound both the maggots and the larger predators such as rats, foxes and dingoes. Feel especially brave for doing this without any help whatsoever.

1.4 Find a kitchen with plenty of ventilation.

As the next stage of our skull preparation will involve the releasing of a certain amount of unpleasant odours find a kitchen with plenty of windows and doors that open directly to welcome fresh air...preferably not your own (sorry Judith....).

1.5 Boiling the skull

Find a large saucepan (oops, again, sorry Judith), large enough to contain the skull and lower mandibles (which will separate easily from the upper jaw) and fill it with water. Bring to the boil and then submerge your skull and the lower mandibles in the water and leave to a gentle roiling boil for three hours. Open all doors and windows. Do not boil too hard and be careful not to lose any more teeth (the seal's not your own). Try very hard not think of Denis Nilsen as you watch a skull boiling in a pan on your kitchen stove. Try very hard also not to gag at the smell of boiling seal flesh. Try hard in fact to pretend nothing is out of the ordinary at all.

Remove the skull from the saucepan and place on newspaper outside. Search for any loosened teeth at the bottom of the pan amongst the sand, flesh, blubber and other detritus. Wash saucepan repeatedly with gallons of detergent and place back in the cupboard whilst saying determinedly, "It's fine, she'll never know."

1.6 De-flensing the skull.

To flense is to cut the blubber or skin from a whale or seal...Having boiled your skull for three hours, most of the flesh that remains attached to the bone will easily come off with a gentle scrubbing from an old toothbrush. Globby stubborn bits of flesh may need some extra scraping with a knife. Once more be careful with the teeth as some more will have become loose from the boiling process. Wear surgical gloves and marvel at how professional you feel. Ponder becoming a surgeon. Gag a bit at the smell of old boiled seal flesh.

Repeat steps 1.5 and 1.6 if necessary But when your corpse has already been exposed to the wind and sun for an entire year this will be highly unlikely...

1.7 Admire your work so far.

Actually, for stage 1.7 you really require someone else. They need to stop by, admire your work, and say "Gosh, how marvellous you are for bravely tackling the gruesome business of preparing a seal skull. And, oh, how professional you look in those surgical gloves. You should be a Doctor."

1.8 Return home with partially prepared skull in the back of the car wrapped in newspaper and  a bin liner.

Once more, put all thoughts of Denis Nilsen out of your mind.

1.9 Bleach the skull. 

Once all remaining pieces of flesh and blubber have been successfully removed from the skull it is time to bleach it.  Without bleaching it looks rather gray and grubby and there is still the matter of the unholy smell emanating from it. A trip to the chemist is required to buy some 3% Hydrogen Peroxide Solution. You need enough solution to cover the skull in a bucket. A seal skull is quite large and unfortunately Hydrogen Peroxide comes in 100 ml doses rather than 1 litre doses. Buy the chemist out of their entire stock of hydrogen peroxide and, when asked why you need so much, boldly state that you are bleaching a seal skull. This puts an immediate end to any more pesky questioning.

Place the skull in a bucket along with all those loose teeth and pour in bottle after bottle of hydrogen peroxide solution. Remember to wear gloves again and try not to splash your jumper and jeans...(I am speaking from experience here remember). Leave on the balcony for five days and nights, occasionally peering in to see if there has been any progress and to ensure that all parts of the skull are still submerged. Hope that the postman doesn't also peer into the bucket and then call the police.

1.10 Glue back all loose teeth.

Carefully take the skull out of the bucket of hydrogen peroxide and wash obsessively in soapy water. Sniff it gingerly and breath a huge sigh of relief that it no longer reeks. Run down to the local store and buy a small tube of Super Glue. Have fun working out which of the loose teeth go in which tooth socket (it's just like a children's game) and then glue them back in, thinking all the while how awful it would be to glue a seal tooth to your hand, or your fingers to each other, or your eyelids shut - all the things you normally contemplate when holding a tube of Super Glue.

1.11 Display.

Your skull is now ready to display. Find a suitable podium. Place it carefully in position. Stand back, admire it and think how brave you are once more. Wonder what your next project will be...the rat that's taken up his abode in the kitchen? Sniff? Daniel? Decide however that this will be your first and last excursion into practical taxidermy. Pour yourself a large drink. Drink it. Pour another. Drink that too. Decide that you might do some more taxidermy after all. Move on to Lesson 2.


  1. Bravo, strange boy!

    It looks fabulous.

    I had a similar experience trying to clean a huge shell i found in Puerto Rico (a kind of conch - the sort they make cameos from). The inhabitant was dead but not gone...took me days of gagging and bleaching...still reeks a bit but I put it under a glass dome and resolved never to lift the lid.

  2. Marvellous. Daniel must really love you! xxx

  3. J, I hope you didn't put the toothbrush back!