MAN’S BEST FRIEND: Wolves and foxes are ok, but Egidijus Vendelskis says he never does replicas of dogs or cats.
KLAIPEDA - If the sight of a run-over raccoon or a shot pheasant tears your heart apart, then you should skip this story. Others, grunting over human superiority over our crawling, hopping and gliding friends, should listen to the reasoning of two Lithuanian taxidermy artisans, who shared their stories with The Baltic Times. Fifty-three-year-old Egidijus Vendelskis and 76-year-old Zofija Vilkiene, taxidermists of two different generations, are convinced that an animal or a bird in human hands can turn into an eternal manifestation of the creature’s beauty, elegance and grace.
The artisans have devoted their entire lives to taxidermy which, from the Greek, means the arrangement of skin. However, it is much more complicated than this.
“When I was a kid, I joined a small circle of young bird-lovers, or in other words, young ornithologists, at the well-known Tadas Ivanauskas Zoology Museum, in Kaunas. There were many taxidermy replicas and reproductions of various animals, birds and reptiles in the museum. Gawking at them, I felt fascinated and mesmerized. I felt sorrow for the creatures but, on the other hand, I saw the reproductions of sparrows, falcons, eagles, hawks, lizards, bears, foxes, lynxes and wolves as a post-mortem resurrection,” Vendelskis, of Panevezys, a town in the north, related.
As early as being a five-year-old girl, the retired Vilkiene remembers feeling pity for the deceased birds and domestic animals. “It was a post-war time, and suffering and death were a common occurrence. I knew something horrible was happening, so I expressed my sympathies to others by picking up a dead bird and literally tried to breathe life back into them. When I grew up a bit and started going to a primary school, I joined a circle of young environmentalists. That was my beginning in taxidermy,” the elderly woman remembers.
Vendelskis does not count how many taxidermy replicas and reproductions he has put his hands on.
“It must be hundreds, or thousands,” he grins. His photo albums are full of pictures of life-like wolves, wild boars, bears, lynxes and European bisons. Recently, he finished a quite unusual assignment – a taxidermy replica of an African giraffe that some Lithuanian hunter hunted down while on safari in the African savanna. “You cannot do a reproduction in a night, or even in a week. For example, it took me nearly four months to produce the replica of the giraffe,” he tells. The taxidermy master could have done it faster if he had received an appropriate form. “I needed a female giraffe’s mold, but the one I got was one of a bull. Therefore, I had to take my time in molding out a necessary cast,” the taxidermist relates.
Did you ever wonder how an animal reproduction reaches its splendor? The craftsman goes on, explaining, “First, the animal is skinned completely. This leg of the process is similar to removing the skin from a chicken before cooking. The task can be achieved without opening the body cavity, so taxidermists usually do not see internal organs, or even blood. Then, the item’s skin is tanned and placed on a polyurethane cast. I order eyes and teeth from the United States, glue comes from Germany.” He says that all the materials he uses are foreign, except the needles and threads. Unlike other taxidermists, Vendelskis prefers making his own forms. “As a rule, abroad they are usually made by artists and sculptors. However, quite often they distort the animals’ anatomy. Therefore, I do them myself,” the man asserts. Besides involvement in taxidermy artisanship, he is a renowned restorer, which, he claims, helps a lot in his undertaking.
Being in the business for many years, both taxidermists have endured big changes in taxidermy. “The handicraft has advanced a lot,” Vendelskis maintains. “I am not even sure I could work in a modern taxidermist’s workshop,” Vilkiene echoes, suggesting, “In the old days, taxidermy included a certain risk for taxidermists, as they used arsenic, an extremely poisonous material, in their work. The material has been long forbidden, but, during the Soviet era, it was a taxidermist’s everyday item.
It has been a while since she put her hands on an animal. “Jesus, I am getting too old. Making taxidermy replicas requires a lot of strength and stamina,” the retired teacher admits.
She can crack many funny stories from her past as a taxidermist. Once, she remembers, asked by her pupils, she agreed to reveal publicly some secrets of her unusual craft. “I was nagging a local hunter to bring a shot animal to school in order to show the process to my pupils. When the hunter brought the animal in the classroom, it spread a nauseating stench. It appeared to be a ferret. I had heard that ferrets do stink terribly, but I never thought it could be that bad. The pupils started to retch and cough, as if throwing up. Though the smell was really horrible, I pretended it was OK. However, once I started gutting the animal, the stench became so unbearable that a bunch of kids scuttled away. I politely put a handkerchief on my mouth while trying to finish the work. Only a few kids were left in the classroom when I finished,” the ex-teacher chuckled. However, the one who got upset most over the stinky ferret was her husband. “He threatened to kick me out from our house if I brought another one home,” the woman laughed.
She likes to compare her occupation to the work of a surgeon. “With all those scissors, scrapers, knives, tweezers, bottles of formalin solution and little sacks with starch, my tiny workshop looked like a surgery theater. Oh, yes, my husband would never stick his nose in,” Vilkiene giggles. She affirms that replicas stuffed with rags and cotton soaked in arsenic solution last much longer than those dipped in formalin.
With the technological advancement, modern taxidermists do not deal with blood and formalin, and arsenic solutions are gone into history. “I am not sure whether my wife could handle any bloody operation,” Vendelskis grins. His lifetime partner, Virginija, is his devoted assistant in his workshop. “She is great. I started by giving her small tasks and she has proved she is excellent,” the taxidermist suggests. The woman usually prepares forms of would-be reproductions, as well as processes the item’s horns and other body parts.
Vendelskis has been in the business for over 37 years now, and he admits that it earns him a decent living. “I will not turn into a millionaire, but it pays my bills. Quite frankly, I am lucky, I have never lacked orders over the years,” he proudly acknowledges. “If at least four serious entrepreneurs bring me their trophies from exotic countries, it means I will be set for the year,” the craftsman confesses. Nevertheless, he does not want to elaborate on exact rates for his works, but acknowledges that a replica of an antelope’s head costs approximately 1,500 litas (435 euros). For a replica of a full-size antelope, he charges double that. His clients include well-known businessmen, politicians and foreigners. Some of them, particularly Lithuanian big shots, prefer to stay anonymous.
Vendelskis maintains that no taxidermy order lifts his eyebrows in surprise, but some wishes he calls “weird. Recently a Lithuanian emigrant living in Norway ordered a taxidermy replica of a hare with…horns. It looked weird to see a horned hare,” the master admits. The wackiest order came from a Briton who wanted a taxidermy replica of a wild boar’s hind legs, back and extra-size genitalia.
The taxidermy master claims he can fulfill the weirdest wish, however, he never does replicas of domestic animals - cats and dogs. “Quite frankly, most orders come from those who want to perpetuate their passed away felines and canines; however, I always decline the orders. I know that some of my counterparts do them, but I follow unwritten rules of ethics of the craft,” Vendelskis points out. His elder counterpart, Vilkiene, admits to having done many replicas of cats and dogs, though. “There is nothing wrong if loving people want to eternalize their beloved four-legged creatures,” she says. The taxidermist boasts of doing life-like animal replicas. “My small dog would run into the workshop, sniff out a stuffed dog and start licking it or lift up his hind leg.
She is convinced that not everyone can successfully assume the task. “Like in a surgery, a lot of meticulousness, patience and thoroughness are required from a taxidermist,” Vilkiene asserts. Her counterpart in Panevezys echoes this, suggesting, “A slight deviation from the sizes of a form can completely ruin your entire work,” Vendelskis says. To practice taxidermy, he says, one must be very familiar with anatomy, sculpture, and painting, as well as tanning. He regrets that taxidermy has become a conveyor belt-like activity in neighboring Poland, which slashes prices of the craft in Lithuania. “However, those who seek real quality do knock at my door,” Vendelskis asserts.