SCHWENDEMAN’S TAXIDERMY STUDIO
“THE SIGHT OF a particularly fine animal, either alive or dead, excites within me feelings of admiration that often amount to genuine affection; and the study and preservation of such forms has for years been my chief delight.” I’m quoting William Hornaday, the famous Smithsonian taxidermist and animal-rights activist, who wrote this in his 1891 manual, Taxidermy and Zoological Collecting. But the words could just as easily belong to David Schwendeman. Schwendeman was the last chief taxidermist ever employed by the American Museum of Natural History, where he worked for twenty-eight years. Schwendeman is eighty-five, long retired, and likely to show up at the taxidermy workshop his father opened in 1921 in Milltown, New Jersey, now run by his son Bruce. Lately, he says, he’s lost his dexterity for taxidermy. Indeed, he says, he’s skinned his very last squirrel. Then I show up at Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio, and he’s degreasing a Cooper’s hawk, or sculpting a puma tail, or varnishing a boar’s nose (to give it the “wet look”), or macerating a bison skull to remove the meat. “Macerating bison’s one of the worst smells there is in taxidermy,” he says with a devilish grin.
Although Schwendeman’s simulations of nature are unsparingly sober, his own nature is curious and wry. Much to Bruce’s chagrin, women find David charming, though he is rail thin and pink-complected and he complains that his “computer” has a tendency to backfire. He has fleecy white hair and eyes that work like automatic sensors, picking up every chipmunk and groundhog that scuttles past his yard—although he’s as likely to raise them as he is to trap them in a Havahart.
With his khaki shirts and trousers, zebra-striped toolbox, and pocketknife, Schwendeman resembles the archetypal taxidermist, and that’s exactly what he is. Schwendeman grew up in a taxidermy studio, passionately devoted to the art and science of creating the illusion of life. In his prime, he strove for absolute realism, becoming the perfectionist his father never was and his son now strives to be. “I am skilled; my father is talented,” says Bruce, deferring to the old man who had no use for school after his ninth-grade biology teacher mistook a starling for a flicker. That was that; Schwendeman has sided with the animals ever since—a prerequisite, it turns out, for all great taxidermists, then and now.
Although the outside world may dismiss taxidermy as the creepy sideline of the Deliverance set or an anachronistic throwback to the dusty diorama, inside Schwendeman’s taxidermy is known as a unique talent that is generally misunderstood. “You have to have respect and intuition for the animals to bring out their best characteristics,” says David. “You have to have the delicate finesse of a watchmaker and the brute strength of a blacksmith,” says Bruce. “You have to be able to mount a hummingbird and an elephant.” Mostly you have to imitate nature with a fidelity that verges on pathological.
Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio is the oldest business in Milltown and, not surprisingly, the only place on Main Street that dispenses business cards from the jaws of a leathery old alligator. The workshop was established by Arthur Schwendeman, David’s father (Pup-Pup), a habitual truant who learned taxidermy from a female teacher who bribed him with taxidermy lessons so that he’d stay in school instead of running off to fish or hunt. He barely finished the eighth grade. David’s mother, Lillian (Mum-Mum), was a patriotic earth mother whose energy for preserving God’s creatures was infinite. She was the skinner and made all the artificial ears until she died at age ninety-four. “What you need for this kind of work is a strong stomach and lots of patience, and I have both,” she once said. A resourceful cook known to lie about her ingredients, Lillian marched in every Fourth of July parade beside the float carrying one of Arthur’s deer heads. Today Bruce Schwendeman wields the calipers and the brain spoons in the studio.
From outside, the sleepy little storefront resembles every other building on Main Street: a 1930s clapboard with two large display windows. Inside, however, the place brims with natural wonders. It’s a motionless zoo. Roughly one thousand dusty-eyed birds and exotic stuffed beasts roost on the countertops and hang from the ceiling and walls. It’s so cluttered with mounted animals (and skeletons and strange tools) that no one’s ever bothered to take an inventory. Some are faded relics from the 1920s; others are so vibrant you want to poke them to see if they will move. A great blue heron with outstretched wings held in place with long dressmaker pins sits on a table near a puma that looks ready to pounce. Intricate snake skeletons lie in long glass-fronted wooden display cabinets. A fluffy Dall sheep seems to have walked through the wall, its hind end hidden from view on the other side.
Once when I visited, 180 birds Bruce had salvaged from an old wildlife museum filled the front room. Another time I encountered a pack of deciduous-forest dwellers (beaver, raccoon, black bear, skunk, turkey vulture, chipmunk, rabbit) preserved at the request of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, which planned to transport Connecticut to Greece for the 2004 Olympics.
I first found myself drawn to Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio in 1994, when I returned from a trip to Africa to visit my in-laws, who lead safaris for Ker & Downey. The company was founded in 1946 by big-game hunters. Now it’s conservation minded and has taken Meryl Streep, Prince Charles, and other famous people on safari in discreet comfort. But not, as it turned out, me.
When I landed in Nairobi, I was informed that I was going to join a group of seasoned guides on a fourteen-day reconnaissance trek through the most barren stretch of Tanzania—an area so remote, the animals had never seen people before. The purpose of the trip was to scout out potential concession areas for future safaris. The guides called it “the real thing.” No jeeps or radio—we’d be out of range. It was all very nineteenth-century—the kind of foot expedition the early specimen hunters and museum taxidermists went on when natural scientists were building their amazing collections—only we weren’t going to shoot anything.
Coming from New Jersey, I thought it was impossible (even undesirable) to escape civilization, but we did (for a while, anyhow), and the isolation and wildlife were extraordinary, the birds too beautiful for words. On the last night, the leader, dressed in a loincloth, grabbed his shotgun and suggested we take an evening game walk. Somehow, we met up with a group of Belgian hunters who were camping nearby. They invited us back to camp for a drink. While the guides and hunters talked shop, I mistakenly wandered into the carcass room, where the hunters stored their kills. The salted pelts, hung high on pegs, were eyeless, mangled, and limp. They smelled bloody and metallic: the unmistakable stench of decay. I wasn’t sure what was more shocking: the human violence after all the tranquility or the idea that someone was going to transform these vestiges into something else. Trophies, I assumed. I wanted to know more. Was taxidermy just the creation of an ornamental souvenir? Or was there more to it?
Taxidermy is the art of taking an animal’s treated skin and stretching it over an artificial form such as a manikin, then carefully modeling its features in a lifelike attitude. The word is derived from the Greek...