Still life

By Kathy Riley 3 June 2009
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For world-champion taxidermist Sascha Smith, success is all about sweating the small stuff.

DROP IN UNANNOUNCED ON Sascha Smith at her house on Sydney’s northern beaches, and you could catch her in the act of gutting a wallaroo. Open her freezer and you may find a sugar glider wedged alongside the ice tray. Switch on the television in the family room, and you’ll have a boar, several deer and an elk gazing serenely over your shoulder at the screen. Although Sascha readily admits she’s “a strange lady hoarding dead things in my house”, the most unusual thing about this 36-year-old taxidermist is how normal she is. She’s intelligent and down-to-earth, with a whip-cracking sense of humour and a tan from surfing the Narrabeen break. She also happens to be one of the world’s best at her craft.

In the “room of death”, as Sascha cheerfully calls her workroom, amid pelts and glass eyes and a menagerie of still life, a crouching joey wallaroo is caught forever in the act of scratching himself behind his right ear. Despite his mistreatment at the hands of Korean customs officials, who were certain he was stuffed with cocaine rather than fibreglass, this endearing marsupial netted Sascha – the only Australian entrant among hundreds of taxidermists from around the world – the coveted 2007 World Taxidermy Championships Professional trophy.

She’s only been in the animal-stuffing game for six years, but it’s clear Sascha has found her calling.

“It sounds clichéd, but I’ve always been an animal person,” she says. “Any museum we went to I was instantly into the natural history section. I’d be asked, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ and I’d say: ‘I’ve seen this cobra fighting with a rat in an old antique shop – please can I have it?’ My mother, especially, had no understanding what it was about.”

Despite her passion, Sascha’s career path veered from university student to radio producer to surfboard restorer and repairer until, like a compass needle finding north, she came back to animals. She researched taxidermy on the Internet and pored over books in the library, gleaning information from stories of 19th-century rabbit trappers. She applied for a licence and began practising on roadkill. The fibreglassing skills she’d learned working on surfboards gave her a head start, but it wasn’t until she travelled to the USA – where there are more than 25,000 taxidermists, against Australia’s 40-odd – that things really took off.

“Working with some of the very best  gave me a benchmark and an expectation of what I wanted my work to be like,” she says. “I came back and slogged away and within a year I had my first customers.”

The meticulous job of a taxidermist

Six years later, Sascha – who specialises in mammals – has a waiting list of up to two years. Clients are an even mix of feral game hunters, museums and National Parks and Wildlife departments. An animal is usually delivered, deep-frozen, to her house. She thaws, photographs and measures it, then skins and dissects it, making plaster moulds of each section. She reassembles the mould then builds up the muscle shape with foam, clay and fibreglass. The skin – which has been tanned, or chemically preserved – is then sewn back on and glass eyes (custom made in Germany or the USA) are put in place. A kangaroo takes up to three months to complete. Although a sugar glider is much smaller it’s more fiddly, so can take the same amount of time.

It’s a physically demanding job and Sascha admits it’s mentally draining as well. “You get emotional connections,” she says. “It’s a great honour to work with these animals – especially ones like the platypus and Tasmanian devil. They’re just amazing – their physique, the way they’re put together. I’m always learning something new. I become very intimate with them, and by the time they’re gone I miss them.”

A self-confessed perfectionist, Sascha constantly visits zoos and pores over photographs in a bid to make her animals look as lifelike as possible. “Most of my clients know that I like a photo of the actual animal. Five echidnas to a trained eye are like five different humans.

“One of the reasons I enjoy it is the challenge of taking this floppy skin and making a body, breathing life back into a creature, to give it that look that the animal has in nature. The animals that are preyed upon – for example, deer – they’re animals that are wary by nature. They come out of the womb ready to be knocked off, so they’ve got to have that look on their face, whereas a wolf – well, he’s a predator, so he needs to be engaging with the world like that.

“That’s the constant challenge – breathing life,” she says. “That’s part art, part science. If an animal is not anatomically correct; if the eyes are incorrect; if they’re the wrong colour, if the expression is wrong, then the animal is not going to look alive. It just looks stuffed.”

Source: Australian Geographic Jul – Sep 2008