A TOUCH OF FROST – THE ART OF FREEZE-DRY TAXIDERMY.
BY: Chris Redlich.
Here in Australia, there is little known about taxidermy by the general public. If you’re a hunter though, it’s quite the opposite. Trophy hunters across the nation have many quality taxidermists to choose from.
One up there with the best is Markus Michalowitz, of Down Under Taxidermy and Hunting. I first met Markus well over a decade ago on a guided hunt for my first rusa deer. It was a fantastic outing and I secured a great stag in the beautiful surroundings of Queensland’s Mary Valley on a cool spring morning. Naturally the rusa was mounted by Markus and I was pleased with the end result.
A year later I hunted another rusa stag that was a ‘cracker head’ by any standards. I am not usually fussed on scoring trophies but Markus had it officially measured by Australian Deer Association (ADA) representatives. It registered 198.5 on the Douglas Score System, equal to the number 41 of the ADA’s top 50 free-range rusas of that year. I had the stag mounted with a sharp left-hand turn and alert pose. The upshot was a smart-looking, life-like taxidermy that stood out.
Markus was so thrilled with his work that he took the rusa with him to a taxidermy convention. As people passed through his booth, the rusa caught their attention and they loved the look of my trophy. After all, trophies are meant to be observed and a good taxidermy makes for a pleasant reminder of that memorable hunt.
Born in Germany and raised in India until the age of seven, Markus and his family moved to Africa and back to Germany before settling in Australia in 1981. Markus’ passion for hunting started at an early age, tagging along with his father on treks in India and Africa. After migrating to Australia his interest never waned, hunting for wild dogs, hares and pigs on their family farm. Later he pursued mostly red deer and rusa from the Mary Valley district and gradually progressed to directing clients on hunts. He has successfully been a guide on many trophy hunts here and in Africa.
Markus’ links with taxidermy started when he was a teenager, wanting to mount that hard-earned trophy he had just secured but not being able to afford it. He believed that if he was going to continue his fervour for trophy hunting economically, he would try his hand at amateur taxidermy. He probably didn’t realise it at the time but this was the inspiration for starting taxidermy professionally many years later.
When I interviewed Markus for this article, I discovered that he had only being doing taxidermy for the general public for about a year before he mounted my first rusa. If experience is anything to go by, I was none the wiser and judging by the quality of the mount you would be forgiven for thinking that he had been doing it professionally for years.
Traditional skin to polyurethane form mounts has been the ‘bread and butter’ of Markus’ business for the past 15 years. For the previous eight he had been undertaking an alternate form of taxidermy that involves a freeze-drying approach. Freeze-dry taxidermy is a very slow procedure of freezing the trophy by extracting all the water contained within the animal in the form of vapour from a low pressure vacuum. The vapour is collected by a condenser and turns back to ice before being extracted. A gradual rise in temperature removes all remaining moisture that may be left in the animal. Still confused? For ease of understanding, Markus likens this method to meat dried from freezer burn. Freeze-dry is an accelerated form of boiling the moisture out by freezing.
Unlike conventional taxidermy where the skin is removed, prepared and treated by chemicals then reapplied to a polystyrene form, the freeze-dried animal is preserved whole. This leaves the animal’s body intact with minimal shrinkage and without damaging the original structure, making the trophy appear life-like and realistic. The original skin colours are also less likely to be affected by the freeze-dry process.
Generally, most small animal taxidermies are now encouraged by Markus to be freeze-dried as there is less modification and recreation involved to achieve that life-like look. With less work spent on recreation the trade-off is a much more competitive price to have an animal preserved.
Freeze-dry taxidermy is not just for the trophy hunters though, as he restores much adored family pets that have passed away. Pets that are preserved for a grieving family are treated with the utmost respect during the taxidermy development. Markus said it’s really important to ensure the desired look from a family pet is just right. You cannot imagine how people would feel if they arrived to pick up their taxidermy pet only to find it wasn’t looking the way they expected. Much prior consultation with the pet owner is conducted to achieve success, including photos provided to him by pet owners with the exact position they want to have their dead pet presented.
Trophies aren’t exclusive to whole life-size forms and the freeze-dry route can also accommodate head and shoulder mounts. The capability of the freeze-dry progression for your trophy does have its size limitations due to the dimensions of the vacuum chamber. Markus has a compartment that measures 900mm in diameter by 1800mm long. As you can imagine it’s not possible to fit a life-size sambar or water buffalo in a container of that mass but depending on the pose, a life-size, ‘bedded chital deer’ would not be out of the question. Velvet antlers work very well.
“The freeze-drying process will preserve the velvet more naturally than the traditional method of preserving with formaldehyde,” Markus said. Wild boar shoulder mounts are also popular with the freeze-drying chamber.
Recently, the family farm where we had been living was sold and our time there was drawing to a close. I decided that I wanted something to remember the farm by. I had hunted a lot of foxes on and off over the past few years and with spring nearing, I wanted a life-size fox with a winter coat as a memento.
As it turns out we had a fox hanging around close to the house for a few nights and I decided to have a crack at him. With the aid of a Mantis 50 caller and the help of my son with a torch, the cheeky adult fox succumbed to lead poisoning from my .22-250 Rem at around 90m. Considering the fantastic job Markus had done on my wild dog trophy a few years earlier using the freeze-dry technique, I had no hesitation having my fox organised for similar taxidermy.
Firstly, to present our trophy for freeze-dry taxidermy required little preparation. All we had to do was wait for the body temperature of the fox to disperse. Rigor mortis is a good indication, but it’s important that before it sets in, to place the animal in your desired transportation position. I stationed the fox on some newspaper, tucked the legs, head and tail in and waited for the body temperature to drop. I then double-bagged it in garbage carriers and labelled it before putting it in my game chest freezer.
As you can imagine, a .22-250 at 90m can be destructive on thin-skinned ferals but the projectile entered just below the chin and exited the neck, missing the spine. Although it had a nasty exit wound it was a triangulated flap of skin that Markus easily stitched up with minimal sign of damage. Had the projectile hit the spine the damage may well have been irreparable.
Upon transportation of my trophy on ice, it was thawed to allow work to start. The innards were removed along with the brain and eyes treated with a chemical. The animal is then set to a desired pose.
The setting duties include the installation of new eyes. One of the advantages of freeze-dry taxidermy is being able to retain the animal’s original features, like the tongue. For an open mouth display the original tongue will look more life-like, compared with a plastic tongue used in traditional open mouth forms. My fox is set to a standing on all fours pose with his head propped and right-hand turn. His mouth is opened, displaying the original tongue and a mean set of chicken eating cutlery (teeth).
Upon setting the pose, the trophy fox is placed into a freezer for 24 hours. After that, it’s removed, checked again and placed into the freeze dry chamber. It will remain there for approximately three to four months depending on the animal size until it is completely dehydrated. It’s definitely not a fast occurrence and I guess for such an important thing as a prize trophy or beloved pet it’s encouraging to know that the job isn’t rushed in any way. Once the freeze-dry episode is complete, the trophy is removed and just like traditional forms, all the finishing touches to enhance the overall appearance are added to complete the taxidermy. The time arrived to pick up my fox and I was pleased with the outcome.
Markus is setting the standard for quality taxidermy and repeat business is testament to his workmanship. He is recreating all manner of small animals for people. Many pigs, wild dogs, feral cats and birds have been freeze-dried for educational and display purposes by various local governments requiring these services.
He employs a staff of four at his Kandanga-based premises and hopes to continue delivering quality work to the public well into the future. Markus has prices for traditional taxidermy forms but not for the freeze-dry form. While generally freeze-dry taxidermy is cheaper, fixing prices on such a diverse array of animal recreations is difficult and costs are available on request for your favourite pet taxidermy or trophy.