Taxidermy is a word that most of us are not acquainted with. It is the art of ‘stuffing and mounting’ the skins of dead animals and birds primarily for display in museums and institutions. You might remember your visits to the local museum as a kid where you would have been fascinated with a ‘stuffed’ lion on display. Little would you have known about the amount of work that goes into preparing that model. Only after slogging for hours and following certain basic and intricate steps involved in the art and science of taxidermy is a dead animal is re-erected again.
The people behind this work - the taxidermists - are hardly ever acknowledged; more so in our country. In fact, in India, taxidermy is a dying art; despite there being an authentic Wildlife Taxidermy Center here. Nevertheless, there is one man who intends to spread the art of taxidermy across the country. Dr. Santosh Gaikwad is one of the few practicing taxidermists in India. The 42-year-old is a Professor of Anatomy at Bombay Veterinary College and in between his work there, he finds time to oversee the affairs at the Wildlife Taxidermy Center located at the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Mumbai. In this interview with me, Dr. Gaikwad explains more about this fascinating art and its state in India, among other things.
Excerpts from the interview
Q. Can you please tell us what exactly ‘Taxidermy’ means and why is it useful?
Santosh Gaikwad: See, the term Taxidermy comes from two different words. ‘Taxi’ means a vehicle which constitutes movement while ‘Dermy’, on the other hand, is skin. So Taxidermy basically means the movement of the skin. The thing is, not many people know about this term. We generally understand ‘stuffing’ easily. This is an ancient art which is also a combination of science. This art has been going on from the times of the British and today it has developed a lot from its initial days.
Taxidermy is very useful as it allows an animal or bird to be preserved for several decades after its death. The body of the animal can be judiciously used for educational purposes and little children of the country can learn a lot just by observing the animal which has been stuffed. If a child gets to touch the mane of a lion, which has been stuffed, it would make him feel elated and at the same time give him some good knowledge about the animal.
Q. Tell us how you began your career in taxidermy.
Santosh Gaikwad: I began my career in 2003; when Taxidermy was at a very withering stage. At that time I was the Assistant Professor of Anatomy at Bombay Veterinary College and I once visited the Prince of Wales Museum. I noticed the varied kinds of bird and animals they had preserved there and was quite intrigued. I then came to know about Taxidermy and educated myself on it.
As my interest in this art began I thought that why should caged and such endangered animals and birds be burnt or buried after death? Why can’t we preserve them? I then came to know that there is a clause in the Wildlife Protection Act on India that if you want to preserve any animal after its death for education purposes then you can. This then motivated me to become a taxidermist and preserve animals even after their death.
That is how I considered coming into this field.
Q. You say you educated yourself in this field. Can you please elaborate?
Santosh Gaikwad: Well, when I was intrigued by this subject I also realized that there were no proper institutions in the country to teach me about it. I thus had to educate myself. I began by reading some research material that I got from the library and questioning some of my senior professors about it. Apart from that, I also visited museums and studied the anatomy of various stuffed animals and birds, kept there, very intricately. To further help myself learn Taxidermy, I also observed idol makers carpenters and painters to get a basic idea of molding, carpentry and painting; elements of which is used in taxidermy.
After having done so for some time, I decided to experiment. I began that by bringing home dead chickens and practicing on them. It was an arduous task as I would have to work only after I reached home from work, but over time, I finally perfected myself. There was one problem though. I had to keep the dead chickens in the deep fridge at home to preserve their bodies. This greatly annoyed my wife and I was chided quite a few times (smiles).
Q. What was the first real work you did as a Taxidermist?
Santosh Gaikwad: Well, as I became better I began to stuff small domestic birds at first. The Agriculture Information Technology Centers of different universities of the city then came to know about me and asked me to make small stuffed birds for them. That is how I began my first work as a taxidermist. My work was then noted by the directors of some museums who appreciated me a lot.
Q. So how did you then move from small birds to different animals?
Santosh Gaikwad: After making those birds, I had now got confidence and wanted to experiment with animals. But to play it safe, I first chose fishes. Yet again, I read some research work on them from the library and began practicing at home. Shortly after that, I got offers from some fisheries colleges to make taxidermied fishes for them.
After this, through my college, we approached the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests of the Maharashtra Forest Dept. for more work. He took some time to convince, but he finally became impressed with my work. He then asked me to join work in national parks to do the stuffing of bigger animals like leopards and tigers. In around 2006, I had thus made my entry as an official wildlife taxidermist. My work got noticed even more and I got offers from different places. The best moment came when I got to make a Royal Bengal Tiger and the country’s last Siberian Tiger.
Meanwhile, at the same time I also worked at my home on stuffing cats and dogs as they helped me hone my skills as a taxidermist. It was tough as I did everything without any teacher to guide me.
Q. Can you explain in brief the steps involved in stuffing an animal?
Santosh Gaikwad: There are actually a few basic steps that go into the stuffing of an animal through taxidermy. The first step is that of skinning which you can very well understand as that involves the careful skinning of a dead animal through incision. The second one is tanning. This involves the removal of fat muscles from the animal’s body after its skinning. They are then kept in different solutions to keep the hair follicles. This helps in preserving the stuffed animal for more than 70-80 years. Then comes biometry, i.e. the careful measurement of different parts of the animal’s body. After that, there is fleshing where you have to remove the flesh from the animal’s body by a knife. A tiger’s flesh for example, can be easily removed by 6-8 people by knives in about eight hours. After this, there comes the skeleton erection where we can make the skeleton in whatever position we want or have been asked for: standing, sitting, jumping etc. After the skeleton has been erected, we have to put clay on it; also known as clay modeling.
From the clay we make out molds and from the molds we go on to make casts. From the casts, we then prepare duplicate models of fiber of the particular animal. On this model, or artificial body, the skin is then placed and stitched. The last stage is the most crucial one known as finishing. Here we put glass eyes on the animal which, you can say, brings the animal alive. So now you see Taxidermy is the culmination of several art forms and science. Not an easy job isn’t it? (smiles).
Q. So if today, I want to get an animal stuffed, how should I go about it?
Santosh Gaikwad: Well, you will not be allowed to. In our initial meetings itself we had decided that we will not prepare stuffed animals to private individuals. The reason being that this might lead them to kill precious birds and animals like peacocks or deer. That cannot be allowed. Hence, taxidermy is only allowed for institutions and government organizations where it is used for educational purposes. An individual can however acquire it by getting a license from the government under very rare circumstances.
Q. How did the establishment of the Wildlife Taxidermy Centre come into being?
Santosh Gaikwad: It was in 2009 that the B. Majumdar, Chief Wildlife Warden of Maharashtra, took my suggestions to approve an ideal location for the first authorized wildlife taxidermy centre. After some deliberations, the country’s first wildlife Taxidermy Centre was established on 1st October 2009 in the Sanjay Gandhi National Park (Mumbai). It was a historic and proud moment for me. I was then asked by Mr. Majumdar to oversee the work there. Soon after being established, we started getting a lot of offers from several state forest departments across the country for getting animals stuffed through taxidermy. And even now, it is still the case. It makes me feel good.
At that time I was the Associate Professor of Anatomy of my college and now I am the Professor. It is quite challenging to juggle between my job and my work at the Taxidermy Center, but I manage it and enjoy it thoroughly.
Q. What is the current situation of taxidermy in India?
Santosh Gaikwad: It is not very healthy really. Despite there being an official taxidermy centre and courses for teaching this art, no one really is coming forward to learn in. I am the only practicing taxidermist in the country currently. However, there has been some interest in this art over the past many years. Several forest ministries are now interested in training their officers in this art. I myself am giving taxidermy training to people in different forest departments. Hopefully, many more will now come out and become practicing taxidermists.
Q. What are your future plans now?
Santosh Gaikwad: I do not want this art to die with me. I want to pass on my knowledge to others in the country and hence am always willing to teach it to interested people. Unfortunately, not many people come out to learn this. Perhaps they know that taxidermy is difficult to learn. It needs to have a lot of hard work, patience and desire to perfect it. Nevertheless, I will hope that I would be able to inculcate my skills to several others, and that hopefully, people will get awareness regarding this form. In the long run, I hope that several taxidermy schools can be opened in the country. That is my ultimate dream.