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Interview with Cate Vaughton

Last year in November I was interviewed by Cate Vaughton as part of her Masters dissertation. Now that she has submitted her dissertation I am happy to show you the interview details below. Hope you enjoy.

What drew you to creating taxidermy?

From a young age I’ve always loved wildlife and was fascinated with animals and birds. I remember at a very young age saying to my mum “mummy there’s a chicken in the garden!” Turns out it was a pheasant.

My most memorable moment with taxidermy when I went on a school trip to the Wilderness Centre on Plump Hill, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. I was always fascinated by animals and creatures that would not move inside old cases in museums. I remember seeing a taxidermy squirrel at the centre in year 6 without a glass case over it. I probably wasn’t supposed too; but I touched it and was fascinated. I was thinking “What was the inside made of?” “Are the eyes real?” Over the years I’ve always loved taxidermy, but it never crossed my mind if I could give it a go myself until I started looking at taxidermy courses in 2012/13 in my first year at university while studying Decorative Arts at Nottingham Trent University. I also saw Polly Morgan’s BBC documentary that inspired me to look at taxidermy again.

It wasn’t until my second year at university in 2014. I started getting serious about what I would do for my work placement. I am interested in textiles and creating 3D forms. I was looking into toy design, and unfortunately, I couldn’t get a placement in that industry. I then thought to myself…Well what if I did a placement with a taxidermist.

I contacted a local taxidermist near Gloucestershire. And started my placement with professional taxidermist David Keningale in March 2014. My first specimen was a squirrel unfortunately killed by a tram in Nottingham – Forest fields.

My first piece of taxidermy - Steve the squirrel

My first piece of taxidermy - Steve the squirrel

Where do you place your practice on the spectrum of taxidermy (science – fine art)?

I come from an art background – Doing fine art at A level at Cleeve School, then Art Foundation at Stroud College in 2011, then onto doing Decorative Arts at NTU I was always in the arts before doing taxidermy.

However, since doing taxidermy. I have been looking more into the scientific element of it and how it will benefit wildlife conservation. I am going to start sending birds of prey carcasses to the Predatory Bird Monitoring Scheme. So they can run tests on them to monitor population, disease and any chemical threats to the environment.

I have started looking at more zoology collections and how they display their pieces. I am very interested in the way how study skins are displayed. I would love to do more study skins and possibly investigate comparing them to older specimens in museums.

On the other side of it. I enjoy the artistic element of taxidermy. Creating dioramas based on their natural habitat. Or getting a bit wacky and dying squirrels purple. I like to think my work is a merge between science and fine art.

What are your views on the evolution of taxidermy?

Taxidermy has evolved massively. Since the earliest forms going even further back than the Victorian period. The oldest surviving piece of taxidermy is in a Church in Ponte Nossa where there is a mounted crocodile hanging from the ceiling, dating back to the 1530’s. The oldest taxidermy bird is the Duchess of Richmond’s pet Grey parrot from 1702.

Taxidermy took its own in the Victorian period. There are still some excellent examples of taxidermy that are over 150 years old due to the use of arsenic soap to preserve the mounts (it has long since been banned for being very toxic/carcinogenic).

Taxidermy took a league of its own in the Victorian era – then onto the 20th century where new technologies, materials and safer chemicals were substituted from the more dangerous ones. Taxidermy has played a major role in conversation and education. Naturalists such as Charles Darwin explored the natural world and collected specimens of every type of plant and animal. Since then, plenty of the species have diminished or become extinct. Specimen collecting, and museum taxidermy is a dying art and serves today more as a record and memorial to our threatened and extinct creatures.

Taxidermy continues to evolve. In the UK and even all over the world. Taxidermy has had a recent renaissance in the 21st century. With new taxidermists coming into the field, with more women taking taxidermy on than ever before. With some coming from a different angle with ethically sourced* specimens. Magazines such as Elle Decoration and retail stores such as Liberty’s are even using taxidermy in their displays.

In this digital era, more and more people are wanting to get back in touch with the physical world. With the use of the internet as a tool to find more resources on the subject. It has made taxidermy more available to people than ever before. I think people have been disconnected from the natural world for a long time. When someone picks up a bone or skull, it’s a special experience. When you hold a dead bird physically in your hand. Something about it you want to preserve so it is appreciated and admired forever.

*Specimens were not killed for the purpose of taxidermy, reptile food, already found when dead and roadkill.

What steps to you take in respect to sourcing your subject animals?

I do my absolute best to “ethically” source all my specimens for taxidermy. All specimens are never killed for the purpose of taxidermy. I get a lot of my specimens from the RSPCA through a veterinary clinic in Nottingham. I also get my birds of prey from a DEFRA wildlife officer who gets birds that have died of natural causes.

Additionally, I also get specimens from The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) in Slimbridge and the International Centre for Birds of Prey (ICBP) in Newent, Gloucestershire. A small amount of my specimens are sourced from road kill, reptile food etc.

What is your view in respect to the ethics of sourcing subject animals?

It is an ethical dilemma sometimes when it comes to sourcing specimens and clients coming with their own specimens. Most of my specimens that clients give me are birds that are window or road casualties they want taxidermied. However, I do get game and wildfowl birds that have been shot and people come to me to preserve them.

Currently there is massive debates about the meat industry and the environmental concerns around this. What is more environmentally friendly? Mass produced farmed chickens or shooting a pheasant? There’s an argument that meat doesn’t get more free range and death doesn’t come much quicker than a good shot. Grouse are also controversial as they are one of the only indigenous game birds in the UK. Some game shooters illegally shoot birds of prey who are natural predators of grouse. According to the Game and Wildlife Conversation Trust its estimated that 35 million pheasants are now reared and released each year.

The Independent suggests that in the UK, there isn’t much of a market to eat game, so the majority of these birds that are shot are unceremoniously disposed of, which isn’t in the spirit of shooting for the purposes of countryside management or to put food on the table.

Another ethical issue is shooting mammals and birds in the UK for pest control. Birds such as crows, pigeons and grey squirrels are classed as pests in the UK. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states that it is an offence to kill any bird or mammal unless a license is held, but section one allows exemption if an organisation or individual complies with general license regulations. One argument suggests that doing pest control is beneficial for a wide variety of native species including plants, butterflies and birds. And that organisations that provide shooting opportunities carry out wildlife management and pest and predator control have seen reverse declines in bird species such as song thrush, whitethroat, dunnock and black bird.

I make sure that all specimens are legally and ethically sourced as possible. And have terms and conditions that my clients have to sign before any work is undertaken. I keep logs of all my specimens, detailing where the specimen was found, how it died and dates of when it was found/died and when it was mounted.

What type of reaction do you get when you disclose that you practice taxidermy?

When I do mention to people I meet that I do taxidermy, most of the time it is a reaction of surprise and curiosity. I do get some people that are disgusted by it and before I even explain how I get my specimens, they have this pre-conception that the specimens are killed for taxidermy etc. Most people I talk to listen to where I source my specimens and some change their minds about it. I have some vegan friends that are very interested in my work as I work with specimens that are dead anyway and I haven’t killed them. They know that I have done my best to source my specimens as ethical as possible and it is out of my control that it is now dead.

I am lucky that I have friends and family that support me in what I do. Some have even taken such an interest they are wanting to have a piece of taxidermy of their very own. I like to think I can change people’s perception on taxidermy and I can show it in a positive light.

How do you see the future of taxidermy developing over the next 15-20 years?

It’s difficult to predict the future of an industry that is changing surprising rapidly. I like to think that taxidermy can be seen as something positive, artistic, scientific and most of all – educational. I am already seeing a shift in more women in the industry than ever before. Taxidermy has been in the past, very male dominated and the change has already happened with more women in taxidermy.

Even with old museum cases and taxidermy displays. There is something even Virtual reality can’t replicate. Having the real thing in front of you will always make more of an impact than a plastic model, digital reconstruction or a photo.

Mounts in museums are mostly used for scientific research to see any changes in birds 200 years ago, 100 years ago and present day. The skins allow scientific to access and compare data to results from modern DNA analysis.

In my view I see a positive future for taxidermy and will continue to be practised by old and new upcoming taxidermists. There needs a more open culture in passing on techniques and skills. This is what keeps the art alive.

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