N.J. taxidermy shop maintains family tradition

A third generation finds life's work in making specimens look alive

March 31, 2002|By Melissa Milgrom | Melissa Milgrom,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MILLTOWN, N.J. - "It's not necessarily gross," said Bruce Schwendeman as he snipped the tendons of a freeze-dried red-tailed hawk. He paused to wipe his bloody hands on his denim apron and looked up at his 77-year-old father, David, who was preparing a Cooper's hawk as flaccid as a rubber chicken.

Nearby, a glass-eyed wild boar stared blankly at the dissecting pair, waiting for its nose and tusks to be given the "wet look" (a coat of varnish), and a fluffy white Dahl sheep was shampooed, ready for display. Though it was 2002, the dark cluttered workshop, filled with a zoo's worth of exotic specimens, resembled a Victorian curiosity cabinet.

Schwendeman's Taxidermy Studio, established in 1921 and now in its third generation of Schwendemans, is the oldest business in Milltown, and the only one that dispenses business cards from an alligator's mouth.

The shop was started by David's father, Arthur, a habitual truant who learned the craft from a woman; his mother, Lillian, was a "skinner" who made all of the artificial ears. David Schwendeman was born and still lives in the house behind the studio; until 1987 he commuted the 35 miles from here to the American Museum of Natural History, where he was the chief taxidermist for 28 years. Today, his 50-year-old son, Bruce, wields the saw and tweezers.

Finesse and strength

"I am skilled, but my dad is talented," Bruce said, as the elder Schwendeman worked silently on his hawk. "You have to have the delicate finesse of a watchmaker and the brute strength of a blacksmith. You have to be able to mount a hummingbird and an elephant."

But mostly you have to know your animal. For David Schwendeman, a devoted naturalist and passionate bird-watcher, that means drawing on years spent in the field. "You have to have a respect and intuition for the animal to bring out its best qualities," he said. For Bruce Schwendeman, who has a master's degree in zoology, it means re-creating exact individuals, not generalized depictions of the species.

Today most commercial taxidermy is done from premade forms called manikins. "That's model-making, not taxidermy," said Bruce Schwendeman, who, like his father and grandfather, combines art and science to re-create each figure individually. "Taxidermy is the combination of art and science to re-create the illusion of life."

At the turn of the last century, taxidermy displays allowed many zoologists and naturalists to study animal and bird species. It was the heyday of scientific field exploration, and taxidermists such as Carl Akeley were celebrities, known for their daring wildlife expeditions to Africa.

Then, the mark of a naturalist was often his vitrine of stuffed birds or collection of trophies. After all, there often was no other way to see them. There was no television, no air travel and certainly no endangered species laws.

Today the trade is more often linked to sport than to science. But this is not the case with the Schwendemans and a handful of other taxidermists who continue to work in the old tradition. Seventy-five percent of the Schwendemans' work is for museums, nature centers and zoological societies, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Philadelphia Zoo. The Schwendemans recently gave a pedicure to the polar bear at the Explorers Club in Manhattan and restored the elephant head at the Harvard Club. But mostly they are known for their work at the American Museum of Natural History.

In 1960, when David Schwendeman started at the museum, the entire fifth floor was devoted to taxidermy. He delighted in the range of on-site experts he could consult for specific projects. His main contribution was to the Hall of North American Birds, though he worked on every hall and nearly every diorama.

In addition to his own numerous mounts, he repaired feather cloaks and aboriginal artifacts in the Hall of Pacific Peoples, where he encountered Margaret Mead. He also patched the feet and replaced the tail bristles on Akeley's famous mounted group of elephants, The Alarm, since 1936 taxidermy's version of Michelangelo's David.

"He was proud that his title was taxidermist," said Steve Quinn, the senior project manager at the museum. "He was the last true taxidermist who worked here on staff."

Today, Quinn went on, "there's a shift away from collecting specimens for museum exhibitions because of the fragile state of the environment," though he added that the museum would always need outside taxidermists like the Schwendemans.

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