“YOU can’t have teddy bear eyes on a fish. It’s just weird.”
If you stared down the barrel of its pea-green snout, Andrew Xanthoulakis’s trout had red eyes that domed out sideways. They’d been shipped from the US. The fish’s demise, months ago, had triggered countless inventories and deadlines.
There were the fins to consider, the spiny dorsals and the tail, ruffled chips of brown translucence. Those American eyes. The faintly submarine-ish body, shrunken, warped, restored from months of drying.
“And the thing about scales is they’re out everywhere,” Xanthoulakis, from Bacchus Marsh, said.
“Unlike fur, you’ve got nowhere to hide. Get the scales wrong and you’ve got two options: throw it out or fix it.”
The third Australian Taxidermy Championships were held at the York on Lilydale, a one-storey pokie palace in Melbourne’s Yarra Valley outskirts, where the cars are flecked with mud and leisure time is built around animals and recreational machinery.
On the same weekend a function centre up the road was hosting a whippet breeders’ summit.
Lilydale is one of the few places in Australia with a taxidermy supplies shop and, with a sudden rush of those who might require a flexible rabbit ear-liner or a pig jaw-and-tongue set (no tusks), it was in grand final mode.
In the early afternoon, the Australian Association of Wildlife Artists opened the doors of the function room to the public, who fell into a quiet reverence.
The animals, or mounts, had been assembled after painstaking journeys.
Deer had arrived in cargo hold herds, ducks stacked in trucks had nodded through roundabouts, glass-eyed boar had quivered at intersections.
Inside, a red fox balanced on a sheet of ironbark in the halogen glow, paw raised in fangy calculation, and two more locked sharp, white teeth in silent combat.
Families in matching camouflage inspected half-deer, whole deer, a camel branching upward in full-throated mid-bray.
There was a marmoset in a bonzai tree; a Reeve’s pheasant with tailfeathers down to the floor; a brushtail possum in the cleft of a branch, a red berry in its tiny left paw.
There was a fallow deer with dappled hide somehow suggestive of water; a tawny frogmouth clutching a mouse; a lionfish with spines fanned open; a replica orangutan frozen in furrowed resignation.
Xanthoulakis – stubbled, 40s, white Star Wars tee – quietly agonised over his fish’s puckered left underfin, but let himself be chuffed with its pale, dimpled underbelly he’d done with terry towelling.
The trout was a full-skin mount, which meant after it dried – “most of this is drying” – Xanthoulakis sculpted the plumpness back into its flesh and airbrushed its colours.
The airbrush had required a lacquer-based paint, so the fish’s dotty complexion would “pop”. A water-based paint wouldn’t do. Such are the economies of scale.
Xanthoulakis mentally frisked his trout, suspended from a glass and wooden backdrop mid-wriggle, with the air of a mechanic.
Which he was. A love of fishing lured him out from beneath cars and into the wild, to return with great scaly slabs for his freezer.
“The first piece I ever did looked like a sardine out of a can, but I was absolutely rapt.”
Proud anglers come to Xanthoulakis, one of the few fish taxidermists in Australia, with instructions for kitschy Big Mouth Billy Bass-style wall-mounts, which he tries to talk them out of. He can make something better, he tells them. His taxidermy colleagues are “doctors, lawyers, truck drivers, ditch diggers”.
Through the championship aisles – Novice, Masters, Small Mammal, Reptile – ambled nuggety dudes in gun club polos, mud-caked desert boots and trucker caps.
There were hipsters in busy shirts and black jeans up from Melbourne; some were the competitors.
“See what he’s done with the fins? Must’ve taken f---ing ages”.
Natalie Delaney-John – 33, blonde-fringed, sleeveless plaid – had won a first place for her myna bird skeleton (described as a work of “skeletal articulation”) and her sparrow on a twig over a tiny reflective pond.
“To be completely honest, I finished it last night,” she said. “It was an all-nighter. Wine and tears got me through.”
Delaney-John has devoured taxidermy lore since the Sunday she found the skull of a bull at Melbourne’s Camberwell markets.
Finding a mass extinction of TAFE and university courses in taxidermy since the 1970s, she started teaching her own.
Delaney-John has scarcely had a vacancy in three years, and most of her students are women older than 50.
“They’re great. Taxidermy gets pigeonholed as weird, or all about hunting – and a lot of people do come to it from hunting – but it’s not weird, it’s freaking great,” she said, in slightly more colourful language.
“Please don’t make it out to be weird. I can see the humour in, say, a photo of a cat helicopter. But when you see people really doing this, you think, this is the best. And it’s going to keep getting better.”
No one’s pet was mounted in the York on Lilydale, but it was clear that taxidermy demands a certain kind of love.
If you’re a taxidermy person you love animals, it was explained, an arguably more honest duty of care that can mean hunting them, photographing them, perhaps raising them, all while noting the tilt of an ear or the curl of a lip for the day you skin them.
That doesn’t mesh with a clean, Japanese-garden idea of an animal world that’s chaotic and subject to death, sure, but free of the sight of skin peeling from flesh, thanks very much.
“Inspiration on a Saturday is wet preserving these amazing deformed baby piglets!” the Facebook page for Delaney-John’s taxidermy school posted.
“It looks like this guy’s brain has grown outside of his [skull emoji].”
In the video, a stillborn piglet’s pink brain-sac fluttered gently, tissue-thin.
“I need it!” someone wrote.
Before the Victorian taxidermist Dennis Grundy held the first national titles in the Lilydale Scout Hall in 2015, those with a use for Critter Clay or albino mouse eyes had less opportunity to discuss them at length.
Permanently displayed, three dimensional animals – oryx and antelope shot abroad, made rigid for the house guests with cotton and rags – were items of fashion in Victorian England.
But they never carried the same currency in the Australian colonies.
There was a working class sense to keeping pelts and hides, and a trip to the museum might offer a glimpse of a tiger, or the mounted head of a great white shark. But preserving a pet? That was the realm of eccentrics.
Hitherto, most of Australia’s taxidermy has split between displays in natural history museums and a kind of post-1960s, stuffed-owl kitsch; the stag’s head in a bar draped in the team colours.
Taxidermy’s niche-ness as an art, perhaps, explains its reputation as animal “stuffing”. That’s not what it is.
It actually involves skinning an animal, stretching its hide over a model – mass-produced from polyurethane, or one you’ve sculpted – and sewing it together.
Then it becomes a makeover from the inside out, often demanding the skills of a seamstress, a hairdresser and a sculptor.
Feathers and scales are trickier than fur, it’s widely agreed, but a lumpy moose head still looks funny. No one wants funny.
Handmade or store-bought parts substitute for what can’t be preserved, such as lips, ears, tongues or the eyes of a trout.
Tom Sloane – 38, bespectacled, a bit frazzled on the day of the titles – has perhaps set the jaws and shaped the snarls of more native animals than most Australians have laid eyes on.
The former Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery taxidermist, who works for himself, is known for his owls, hawks, Tasmanian devils and, in a gaping market gap, platypuses.
“I make their bills myself. No one sells them.”
Some taxidermists hunt their animals, while others use frozen rodents bred for pet store pythons.
Sloane’s partner Nicole Zehntner – taxidermy’s Tom and Nicole met working at the museum in Hobart – won at this year’s titles with her mount of a baby saltwater crocodile from a farm in the Northern Territory.
Working on commission for educational displays has made Sloane a go-to taxidermist these days. Among his blue-chip clients: he does work for the National Parks and Wildlife Service.
His vast taxidermy dominion ranges from ocean to sky, his subjects, octopuses to sea eagles.
The marmoset and its bonzai were Sloane’s – both won awards – as was the pheasant, another winner.
Last year, the providence of a lonely death on a beach in Tasmania gifted him the lithe corpse of a leopard seal.
When restored, the seal was snake-like with sharp white teeth, eyes wet and lively as your own, if only in the moment you remembered it had been alive.