By Faith Eckersall
There’s a touch of the Victorian museum about Jonathan McGowan’s Bournemouth flat.
Antlers, butterflies in cases, little chests of drawers, dusty books, a stuffed wildcat and crow and, over the chair at the desk, the perfectly-preserved pelt of a deceased otter.
Like most of his specimens, the poor creature died as a result of a road accident. Jonathan doesn’t believe in killing animals although he does eat meat – you may have clocked him on the TV, discussing his penchant for devouring roadkill.
“I’ve got a dead deer out in my car,” he says in a gentle, West Country accent.
His morning’s foray has also secured the most beautiful pheasant and a hare, perfect save for the tissue Jonathan’s packed in its bleeding eye, after a bird pecked it out.
“Taxidermy was a by-product of my love for natural history,” he explains.
As a child growing up in the countryside, he would always see dead animals. I felt I wanted to preserve them so I’d take them home, I wanted to look at their teeth and soon I was opening them up, looking at their organs, how they worked, what they died of.”
At the age of 14 he attempted to preserve his first skin.
“The word taxidermy comes from the Greek, taxi ‘to move’ and dermis meaning ‘skin’,” he says. It took him 20 years to perfect the art. And it is an art.
Particularly good examples can sell for thousands of pounds, more taxidermists are turning their specimens into modern artworks and there has been a revival of interest in the work of Victorians such as Walter Potter, famed for producing ever-so-slightly creepy anthropomorphic dioramas.
There are several ways you can go about taxidermy but Jonathan does it like this: “I place the animal on its back and slice the body open from its chin to its tail,” he says.
“Once you’ve done that it’s like peeling a banana, the skin usually comes off very easily.”
After you’ve disposed of the innards or, in Jonathan’s case, eaten them, it’s time to wash the pelt or feathers in borax substitute and salt.
“Borax neutralises the fats that might still be in it, the salt stops it from decomposing and when it’s been there for a day I wash it in Fairy Liquid to give it a good shine and get all the dust off,” he says.
After that it’s a rinse and blow dry and the application of yet more table or cooking salt, being stuffed with loo roll and left for another week.
“The art of preserving is drying and that’s what the salt does, pulls out all the moisture,” he says. It is this which prevents the material from rotting.
“Smell this,” he says, thrusting the otter skin under my nose. It smells of soft shoe-leather and, faintly, of fish.
When it’s stopped emitting moisture it’s ready for stuffing. Modern taxidermists use pre-formed foam, which you can purchase, like acrylic eyes, from catalogues. Purists like Jonathan use wire and cotton wool, the better to pose the creature with. He prefers natural poses with the creature sitting on a branch, or amongst a leafy setting.
“I visualise the animal while I’m skinning it – it usually has a good and bad side because of being injured in an accident,” he says.
He most enjoys dealing with wild animals, partly because of his voluntary work with Bournemouth Natural Science Society – he helps preserve exhibits for them – and also because he uses them in talks for people who are blind.
“If they can touch a stuffed otter or owl, it helps them to understand the size and shape of them,” he explains.
He will preserve large birds – he’s got two glossy, prepared shags on his sitting room chair – but tries to avoid the smallest.
“Finches are terribly fiddly,” he says.
“Their skins are almost transparent, like membrane, and it’s so easy to tear them.”
He also does domestic pets.
“Most people who want their pet stuffed are people who cannot come to grips with its death,” he says.
“Usually I’ve got to be an agony aunt for them because they cry and I have to treat the animal as if it’s still alive, make it all cosy in its box.”
Unfortunately, some clients aren’t always as aware of the decomposition process as he is.
“They usually call me up two days after their cat’s died when they’ve had it on their lap all that time,” he says.
“Once it’s died it starts to decompose. If they’ve put it in a black bin bag it decomposes even more and sometimes it’s gone on so long that its hair is falling out so I refuse to do it.”
Even when he does take them on he always freezes the body to kill parasites and fleas.
“They can be a bit of a problem,” he admits. However, when they do receive their preserved pet, owners are usually overcome.
“They say things like ‘he’s alive again’ and ‘that’s exactly how he used to look’.”
He accepts commissions to preserve pets but because the law is rightfully strict about the acquisition of protected species, won’t preserve animals where he is not certain of the provenance.
He does it for pleasure and interest.
“If people see the beauty of these creatures in taxidermy and their natural habitat they are more likely to want to conserve them,” he says.
And you get the feeling that if we could stop all animals from being run over and killed, no one would like it more.