THE leopard crouched on a tree branch, a helpless bird in its jaws.
Two cubs were waiting, their small mouths opened in anticipation. Below them, an adult honey bear combed the undergrowth for food while a bear cub followed closely beside it.
All of these animals were still and unmoving, their beady eyes staring fixedly into space. They looked as if they were frozen in time and, indeed, they were, forever entombed in a glass display.
These are just one of the many displays of animal taxidermy in our renowned Sarawak Museum. Their skins and skulls have been well-preserved and shaped into what they originally looked like – preserved for generations.
Not many visitors to any museum understood the complexity in the behind-the-scenes process that created life-like samples of animal species, some of which are still in existence while others long extinct.
The Oxford Dictionary defined taxidermy as the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals with lifelike effect. The word itself comes from the Greek words of taxis (arrangement) and derma (skin).
According to museum taxidermist Affindi Muheden, taxidermy plays an important role where museums are concerned.
“It’s important to preserve for the purpose of research and study. The animals must be displayed or mounted in a realistic manner so that they look real just like how they were if they were alive. This includes arranging for the right movement and pose. It wouldn’t do if a squirrel is posed like a fox or if an eagle like a pigeon,” the 46-year-old told thesundaypost in an exclusive interview.
He said the museum usually gets stock of animals from the public or Sarawak Forestry and others.
“We get mammals, reptiles, fish and birds. The public would usually bring in birds, squirrels, mice and other small mammals while Forestry would give us crocodiles that had died. Sometimes, it could be an endangered species that had died and we need to preserve it for record. However, we don’t allow the deliberate killing or catching of animals listed in the Ordinance of Protected Species.
“Once in a while, we even get requests from pet owners who want to preserve their pets but we don’t encourage that as well because the chemicals used are expensive and should be restricted for scientific use only,” he disclosed.
Affindi has been a taxidermist with the museum for about 27 years. He is the third generation in his family to have worked the trade with the museum.
“I have interest in taxidermy since I was young. What I know I learned from my father who was a taxidermist before me.
“With the Internet, I’m able to upgrade my knowledge and skills in taxidermy and get some useful tips, especially through YouTube videos. However, bear in mind, the methods and materials they use overseas are usually more advanced than ours. Some of the materials are very expensive.
“Here we only invest the expensive stuff on rare items, such as archaelogical bones. We don’t display the originals, we made replicas from molds,” he explained.
He is occasionally assisted by two zoologists who had graduated from Unimas – Mona Octavia and Sitty Nurhamiza – who assisted him during a pre-arranged demonstration on taxidermy for thesundaypost.
The taxidermist workshop is a curious ensemble of tools, chemicals, dead animals and stuffed animals. In the centre of the room is the main working counter and it was here that Affindi demonstrated the basic steps of taxidermy on a small specimen.
He pointed out that it was very important the specimen was fresh when brought in.
“We will leave it in the freezer for one to two days, then work on it soonest for best effect.
“The first process is skinning, which is the main thing we will use in taxidermy. The skull and leg bones will also be used while we throw away the flesh and internal organs,” he said before proceeding to work on a small monitor lizard, brought in dead couple of days before.
Using a scalpel to remove the skin of the dead reptile from its flesh, the taxidermist and his assistants worked swiftly but carefully to ensure the specimen under their gloved hands was properly skinned for the purpose.
Affindi said chemicals were applied to preserve the skin once removed.
“The inside of the skin is applied with boric acid powder to dry and preserve it. For bigger specimens, aluminium sulphate is used.
“After that, we will begin stuffing the specimen with sawdust or woodstraw and others, depending on the animal and size. For the purpose of our demonstration, we use sawdust and cotton wool to fill up the monitor lizard.
“Once it’s all filled up and shaped nicely, we sew it into place, keeping the original skull and leg bones. As I said earlier, taxidermy is about making life-like samples, so the animals must be mounted in a way that shows how they would have looked in their natural habitat.
“After mounting, the specimen will then be left to dry for two weeks,” he explained at length, while propping the monitor lizard’s head up with a small piece of cut styrofoam.
As the original eyes had been removed, Affindi looked through his collection of artificial eyes, mostly glass beads and buttons, for a suitable pair to fix onto the monitor lizard. Satisfied with his choice, he slowly pinned them in the original eye sockets.
At a glance, the monitor lizard with its unseeing eyes looked real again.
Affindi said animal taxidermy could last a long time if kept in air-tight casings.
“If left exposed to the air, they don’t last because insects will attack. Most of our taxidermied animals are inside casings. The oldest exhibits we have came from London more than 100 years ago. These old exhibits are maintained and repaired when necessary.
“Maintenance and repair works are also part of the job of a taxidermist. There are days we don’t have anything to work on while there are days we work on bigger animals such as a crocodile, taking up to one month to complete.”
Affindi believed taxidermy was not a job for just anybody.
“There are not many experts in this field here, as there isn’t any specialised course offered in local universities.
“Taxidermists must be ready to get their hands dirty and stand the smells of animals and chemicals. Sometimes, specimens that come in are not fresh but you still have to work on them. The stench can linger for a long time after the job is done.
“However, as long as the museum still exists, taxidermy is something we have to do and will still require people to do it in the future,” he noted.
A walk through the Sarawak Museum and its taxidermied displays of leopards, wild cats, orang utans, monkeys, civets, foxes, birds and others served as a reminder that if these animals were not preserved, chances are we would not know how they look upclose and personal beyond what we see in books and television. Animals we do not see in their life-like and life-sized forms could soon be forgotten or dismissed as mere myths.
As a famous Victorian era author George Eliot once wrote: “Our dead are never dead to us until we have forgotten them.”