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The art of living forever: Equine taxidermy

Story highlights

  • From race horses to war horses, museums display taxidermy equines
  • Includes Comanche, lone survivor of 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn
  • Taxidermy involves stretching real animal skin over artificial frame
  • Enduring allure as animals teeter in realm between life and death

"Horsey!" scream the children staring in awe at the glossy chestnut thoroughbred towering above them.

Their tiny hands press against the glass encasing Australia's most beloved race horse -- Phar Lap.

But despite their excited squealing and impatient jostling, the impressive 1.74-meter tall gelding will never lower his glassy stare in their direction.

He'll never twitch his ears, flick his tail, or gallop down the race track with the remarkable speed which made him a national hero during the darkest days of the 1930s Depression.

Phar Lap has been dead for 81 years.

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His body however, looks barely a day over six-years-old, frozen in time thanks to taxidermy -- the art of stuffing animal skins for display.

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The champion thoroughbred is one of many legendary taxidermy horses exhibited in museums around the world -- forever ready to run their next race, charge onto the battle field, or star on the big screen.

"Taxidermy is a way to immortalize their story, as well as their actions and deeds," said Michael Reason, curator of the Phar Lap exhibition at Australia's Melbourne Museum.

"Museums are all about experiencing `the real thing,' so presenting a preserved specimen is a way of doing that."

Equine legends live on

From Napoleon's horse, Le Vizir, on display at the Army Museum in Paris, to actor Roy Rogers' trusty sidekick, Trigger, exhibited at a U.S. TV network, the intriguing world of equine taxidermy is far from, well, dead.

"What makes preserved famous creatures so different from hunting trophies or natural history specimens, is that most taxidermy is about preserving the animal's form -- you're not really trying to capture the spirit of the animal," said Rachel Poliquin, author of The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing.

"With famous creatures such as Phar Lap, you're preserving it because the animal has done something which is more than animal -- it has qualities such as courage, fortitude, endurance, which we like to think are in the human domain."

Enter Comanche

There is perhaps no horse which embodies those virtues quite like Comanche.

The gelding gained legendary status as the sole survivor on the U.S. Cavalry side of the 1876 Battle of the Little Bighorn -- fought between General Custer's troops and native American Indians.

Two days after the clash which killed hundreds of combatants, Comanche was discovered on the battlefield -- badly injured, but alive.

When he died from colic 15 years later he was buried with full military honors, while his skin was preserved.

Today, long after the soldiers who rode him have turned to dust, Comanche's taxidermy body remains standing to attention at Kansas University's Natural History Museum.

"Comanche stands for many more things than being the lone survivor on the Cavalry side -- he stands for the relentless march of the European settlers across the great plains and the war against the Indians," said Leonard Krishtalka, director of the Biodiversity Institute at Kansas University.

"Why do we taxidermy animals, or make wax models, or copy archaeological monuments, or hold historical re-enactments? I guess it's a way of understanding history better, of bringing it to life."

Strike a pose

But taxidermy, much like history, is never free from our own manipulation.

When cowboy actor Roy Rogers had his sidekick, Trigger, stuffed in 1965, it was in a pose befitting a screen star.

Rearing on his hind legs and wearing an elaborately studded saddle, the golden palomino who appeared alongside Rodgers in dozens of films, was auctioned for a whopping $266,500 to cable company RFD-TV in 2010.

It appears that in death, Trigger had become larger than life.

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"A taxidermy animal is just the skin of the animal, and of course the skin has no inherent shape or pose." Poliquin said. "And that's where the artistry and the human manipulation become involved."

"Are you going to pose the lion sleeping or attacking an antelope? All those decisions come in manufacturing the ultimate spectacle."

Art imitating life

While taxidermy attempts to recreate animals, it actually uses very little of their original parts.

Instead, the skin is usually stretched over an artificial skeleton and preserved with chemicals. Features such as glass eyes or synthetic tongues are also added.

"You have to have a solid knowledge of anatomy," said Krishtalka.

"One of the big problems with early taxidermy, was that the skin was susceptible to insect infestation.

"Virtually all the animals that have been stuffed before 1960 have great quantities of arsenic on them and still have to be handled with gloves."

Alluring animals

There is something both disconcerting and mesmerizing about coming face-to-face with animals who teeter in the realm between life and death.

In the case of our hero horses, there is also a deep emotional turmoil at play -- we hold these animals in such high esteem that we feel compelled to stuff them for display.

Perhaps Poliquin sums up the enduring allure of taxidermy best: "There's a psychological twist that you can never fully get to the bottom of."

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