Sculptor of the dead
Steam wafts out of a large simmering pot as Katrina McCormick gingerly pulls out a spoonful of bones. “Not ready yet,” she says. “You can see the fat hasn’t quite come off.” It will take a couple of days.
This is not a winter-warming broth. McCormick – one of two taxidermists at the Australian Museum (AM) – is cleaning the bones of an Asian Golden Cat (Catopuma temminckii), a gift from Taronga Zoo.
For some animals and birds, she also uses a colony of flesh-eating beetles. She says they make a “snap, crackle and pop sound” as they chew off every remnant of muscle and cartilage. Another choice is to let the carcasses rot down in compost.
Animals come to the AM from zoos, National Parks or are collected on expeditions. McCormick keeps the animals in what looks like a shipping container but is actually a walk-in freezer packed with different carcasses, including dolphin heads. They are all waiting in the queue to be prepared either as a collection specimen or display mount.
Frozen specimens are thawed, measurements taken, data recorded and tissue extracted for DNA analysis. For a specimen that is destined to become a mammal study skin, McCormick makes an incision in the chest, and then peels back the skin – similar to pulling off a wetsuit. “I extract the skull and majority of the skeleton. The foot bones remain with the study skin as the claws are attached,” she says.
If the animal is destined for study not display, she lays it flat and fills its body with Dacron, cotton and wire. Display animals are instead put into a lifelike pose and given glass eyes.
McCormick became a taxidermist after receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of Fine Arts, Canterbury University. She started her career in Christchurch, New Zealand, by working for a commercial taxidermist before coming to Sydney.
“I was a makeup artist for dead animals," she chuckles. She’s now had a 15-year career at the AM, starting as a volunteer and honing her profession by learning on the job.