The Ancient Art of Animal Stuffing

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By JT

Flushing the dead goldfish down the toilet bowl is a thing of the past with the steady increase of “aftercare” services for pets, especially when burial just isn’t an option. Pet owners are taking advantage of other ways in which to not only honour, but to keep their beloved animal after they have passed on, through the use of taxidermy. And word on the street is if you want your pet dog or cat done, Sammy Funari is the one to call.

Tucked away in a desk drawer in Funari’s garage are a handful of thank-you cards from his clients, commending him for a job well done. “Thank you for the beautiful work,” one reads. Another has a lottery ticket attached. Funari also recalls a bottle or two of red wine over the years. “It makes me proud and I enjoy my work more,” he smiles.

Not many people would know by looking at him that he’s in fact a licensed taxidermist and that behind the closed double-door garage of his picturesque rural home in Minto, NSW, is a collection of mounted animals great and small, all produced with his skilled hands.

Funari has been a keen taxidermist now for years after learning the craft from his cousins in Italy who used to work for African Safaris. “I went for a holiday up there and ended up staying for three months with them just learning taxidermy,” he explains. “And I’ve been doing it ever since with the idea that when I do them I do the best I can for everybody and for myself.”

For most enthusiasts, it’s a trade that isn’t taught in colleges or schools, but taught on the job with a more experienced taxidermist who, if lucky enough, will pass their secrets onto you. The word “taxidermy” is a term to describe the way in which a recently deceased animal is reproduced in a three-dimensional, life-like representation with the actual skin fitted over an artificial armature. It is a trade that dates as far back as the early 1700s when the demand for leather and hides grew and hunters began bringing in trophy game to be mounted. Today, it seems like a dying art, but Funari sees it as something that gives him not only a challenge, but also self-satisfaction in a job well done. And it shows in the initial reactions of his clients upon seeing the finished product.

“Some of them can be in shock because they didn’t expect it to look so alive,” he says. “They just look at it and start crying ‘he really looks at me’ or something like that. The majority find it quite good and are happy with the job, but 2 or 3 percent will find a part of it to complain about.” The mixture of comments and opinions he receives from clients about taxidermy work in general has always kept him entertained. “Deer people will ask me, ‘why would you get a dog done? That’s ridiculous.’ Then people with the dog will say ‘why would you get a deer head done? That’s just cruel.’ They just can’t understand each other’s reasoning,” He laughs.

Using materials such as fur, silicone, paints and resins, Funari insists on building each mount from scratch and for good reason. He says that a lot of taxidermists, especially in the United States, use fibreglass moulds, which can often draw away from the individual characteristics of the animal. “Every job is different; every dog is different, every cat is different. There’s no one mould to suit them all.” And while over the years the technique and resources used in taxidermy have vastly improved, Funari has only one gripe: “The eyes are getting very hard to get because taxidermy is not as popular as it used to be.”

Though understandably with any line of work, especially one as personal as this, there are a few ups and downs with customer service, with the most common problem faced, is when owners never return to pick their animal up. “Often they get talked out of it by family or friends,” he says. “So they end up paying half of the deposit and don’t pick it up so I get stuck with them.”

With an average price range of around $500 for each animal, Funari shows his expensive collection of animals left behind: two little terrier dogs, two Staffordshire Bull Terriers and a 22-year-old moggy cat from Victoria – just for starters. “When they first die owners just want it done. But then during such time after it’s finished, they end up getting another pet and they don’t come back and get this one.”

Luckily, Funari has a resolution to the costly set back, having worked with collectors, museums and television production companies like Channel 9, they are able to hire or buy the animals for their collections or for advertisements. “I had dogs that they used for advertising for dog and cat food, so they do eventually start to pay themselves off,” he laughs.

But first things first: what are you supposed to do when Spot dies? “Bring it here straight away or put it in a deep freezer,” instructs Funari. “Wrap it up in a towel, keep it nice and dry, especially with birds as they have to be kept dry, otherwise the feathers will be stuffed up and never come out.” Not only that, but he suggests making sure you go to a good taxidermist. “He has to been keen to do it, not do it just for the money,” Funari says. He points out that the main problem with taxidermists getting a bad wrap is because people would get into the trade with the idea that it was quick money. Because of this, the results were disastrous, as they had failed to properly learn their craft and take their time doing a decent job.

Funari also insists that, “they should also know their animal.” While some may not be knowledgeable on deer, when looking at a mount on his wall, Funari explains that a hunter who knows his subject very well, will be disappointed in this particular job. Having acquired the deer’s head through another taxidermist, Funari points out a number of faults in the work: “This has a fibreglass dog’s head underneath it or something, not a deer’s,” he begins. “The glands under the nose have been pushed up under the eye and the nose is completely different to a deer; it’s not flat.” The same could be said for pets, which is why he stresses finding a skilled taxidermist who takes the time to do a good job.

Funari carefully explains that the length of time spent working on each animal depends on the size of the animal, with an average production period, from start to finish, usually spanning a few months. “You’ve got to make the frame up, clean and tan the skin, and put them back together,” he says. “I keep an eye on them every day to make sure they’re drying up the way you want it and when I get to the stage I put them to shape, I often walk around them for hours sometimes, to figure out if I’ve done anything wrong, if it’s different to the proper photo – things like that.”

While the key to taxidermy is to create a realistic likeness to the animal, Funari urges people to keep in mind that their pet will look a little different. “All dogs and cats will look fatter when they’re done because they have a lot of loose skin when they’re alive, so you have to fatten them up,” he says. “Also when they bring the animal in, I ask them to bring me a photo so I can do them as close as possible to it’s likeness.”

Funari also stresses that taxidermied animals are not toys and should be kept in a safe place. “You will find that someone will take their pet home and kids will play horsey or something and end up pulling an ear off, and that’s a thousand dollar job just destroyed by little monsters,” he says. “With birds I’d recommend putting them up on a wall or a glass cage so they don’t get damaged.” Funari reveals that any animal will last 80-100 years but it has to be in the right temperature and protected from damage and mites. “If they’re well kept like the museum does, they will last forever. If you put the animal on a bed or a lounge, people come in and touch it and eventually it’s going to wear out or break.”

When asked if he would ever get his own dogs mounted when their time came to an end, he pauses for a moment. “I don’t think I would want to do my dogs because I couldn’t work on my own animals.” A wry smile then spreads across his face. “I would probably get some other taxidermist to do them,” he laughs.

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