Tea with a Taxidermist
William Hales provides a full Taxidermy service throughout Lincolnshire modelling birds, mammals and fish to the highest of standards. His admiration for beautiful birds shines through his work as he sculpts them into their truest, most natural state and preserves them in their most magnificent form, granting them eternal glory. We delve into the mind of the man who makes friends with death and practically cheats nature through his art, retaining a little bit of history, beauty and magic forever. We ask the burning questions of the process from death to immortality and all the gory bits in between. Just be careful not to sit too still around him in case you end up mounted.
How did you get into taxidermy?
I had a natural curiosity when growing up and I had always wondered how it was done, so I bought one or two pieces from local auctions then proceeded to take them apart to see what was going on inside.
How did you decide you could make a living out of preserving animals?
It changed over from a hobby to a business after two or three years of trial and error, (and believe me there were errors) then the quality started to come together and I discovered I had a natural flare for the art. I mainly work with birds and that has become somewhat of a speciality of mine.
The idea of preserving a dead animal could seem slightly unnerving and unnatural – do you think it can be? How do you actually preserve it?
I accept that to some people it might be unnerving if you are not interested in wildlife and the natural world, but I do not think it of being unnatural. It is the most natural thing in the world! A Taxidermist only works with skin with fur or skin with feathers, each of which are cured or the animal skins are tanned, which is similar to a sheepskin rug we all have seen. The word ‘Taxidermist’ comes from ‘Taxi’ which is the word meaning ‘to move’, and the word ‘dermis’ being the word for skin. Ultimately I am simply moving the skin on to a sculptured mannequin beneath the skin to the correct position it would naturally lay in real life. If the process is done professionally there should be nothing within the frame that can rot… this is the difference between good taxidermy and bad.
Talk us through the process from the animal dying to the finished mounted piece.
Once a customer rings to say they have found a specimen I discuss the condition of it to see if it is possible to mount. Generally it is then frozen to halt any further decomposing. Then once the time comes to carry out the work the carcass is defrosted overnight. The following day an incision is made on the underside of the bird and the body is carefully skinned around and removed. At this point the leg and wing bones are still attached and all muscle and fat is removed. Now you have the body removed it is time to copy it to the millimetre in a choice of materials including woodwool, polystyrene, balsa wood, to name a few. Predominantly it is down to the taxidermist to choose the suitable material for the specimen involved. Wires are used down the legs and alongside the wing bones to give support when mounting and the skull is also cleaned totally and is still attached at the base of the beak. The skin is totally washed before mounting. Glass eyes are used to replace the natural eye. Obviously every bird and animal has different colours and sizes, these I buy in from a supply company, and quality does vary. The pose of the animal will have been discussed with the client beforehand and the creature can be set in the desired position. Some painting might be needed to restore faded colours on legs or beaks. My aim is to mount a subject in a natural pose, as if you have seen it in the wild and it hasn’t seen you!
Have you ever known anyone to kill an animal specifically to preserve it into taxidermy and what are your thoughts on this?
This is not something I have not yet come across and would certainly not support in any way. Thankfully there are very strict laws on many of the birds we work on, so paperwork is time consuming within the business. Taxidermy is no longer used as a hunting trophy. Years ago when taxidermy had no laws, birds were shot and preserved hence the saying, “what was shot was history and what was missed was mystery”.
Do you do pets and what are your personal views on turning beloved pets into taxidermy?
I have done all sorts of pets from hamsters to lizards, rabbits to parrots and many cats and dogs. Honestly though it is something I do not encourage as it is difficult for me to recreate a subject that they have lived with for several years. I would hate to create an unrecognisable animal or something which did not look quite right. Luckily I have not had dissatisfied customers but it is frustrating at times dealing with the customers themselves at a traumatic time in their life.
Where do you get your animals from in the first place?
My birds or animals come to me mostly due to road accidents. Small birds also fly in to windows, or the menacing domestic cat brings home a gift for its owner! Taxidermy is an opportunist’s business you might say.
Some people are very against taxidermy as they say it is degrading and cruel. What would you say to defend it?
I struggle so see how cruelty is involved in this process. People like taxidermy because they can appreciate how beautiful nature is. Most of the public realise we are all going to die at some point in all sorts of ways and it’s the same with wildlife, so to preserve a specimen means it then lives on for many decades, which in my eyes can only be a good thing. The majority of people never get the chance to see wildlife up close, so taxidermy is a real gift more than anything. Taxidermy is so important! It is an art form which has dazzled many. It is beautiful, delicate and educational. It is amazing because it preserves a part of history and can show how animals have changed and developed over the years and can even prove the existence of extinct creatures. Unfortunately now a lot of museum collection have been destroyed and replaced with dreaded computerized pictures of animals, which is just so wrong.
How long does an animal take?
Depending on size, I could be working on a medium sized bird for up to five days. Small birds are tricky – you have to be very patient, but I am prepared to tackle most subjects.
How does the pricing work?
Sometimes pricing work by the rarity or indeed the commonness of the animal, and not how difficult the process was. But generally I find the best quality taxidermy fetches the highest prices as those pieces have been prepared properly.
What do you think about the rising trend of taxidermy?
I am sure it will keep rising in popularity, as now it is seen much more of an art form and not just a stuffed (I hate that term) bird in a box. I try to recreate wildlife in its most natural form, so I don’t like to see a dressed up animal looking supposedly amusing.
How do you deal with the gory side of things?
This never even enters my mind. Being a born and bred country person, the gory part is something that goes with the upbringing and I am focused on the end result, so I just get on with it!
How long did you take to get your skills good enough to sell?
It takes several years before you are comfortable providing a service. I personally have been practising for nearly 30 years and I am still learning! We learn until we die.
What is the strangest piece you have ever seen?
I have seen one or two human heads that were mounted decades ago in Africa – this is not something I would tackle! Some American taxidermists mount the likes of tigers and lions which can be very impressive, mainly because this is not something we are used to seeing in real life, and of course because of the scale.
Finally, what is it about taxidermy that you love so much?
I look forward to a Monday morning as much as a Sunday morning, not many folk can say that. I once mounted a white jay which is very unusual gorgeous bird so that was a real pleasure to work on.
Words by Loo Loo Rose