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His herd of eight East African elephants, an exhibit in the hall that bears his name, is considered by some the greatest feat of modern taxidermy. In shadow the huge shapes seem to move as a moon through clouds. One young elephant guards the herd with a flared trunk and menacing eye. The elephant seems to be keeping the hunter, no doubt Akeley, from the herd. But the taxidermist mellowed with age, as do many big-game hunters, writing, "There's no fun in shooting zebras and wild asses. It makes one feel uncomfortable."
Akeley died in the Belgian Congo stalking gorillas with a camera. His mountainside grave site is depicted in the painted backdrop of the gorilla habitat in Akeley Hall, where authenticity demanded that an African blackberry bush be reconstructed at the cost of $2,000.
Dave Schwendeman is the only taxidermist now at the museum. A quiet, reflective pipe smoker, he works in a corner of one of the old buildings. Surrounded by mounted heads, birds twisted into natural positions by clamps and hatpins and the more modern materials of epoxy and polyester, he talks of his trade.
"We've been preparing specimens for the new Hall of Reptiles for several years," he says. "We keep live animals up here for study, to get the poses right and to check color and skin texture. A lot of animals die from diseases, of course, and we sometimes kill a specimen for its skin or skeleton.
"Last year we had a Burmese python. The scientist in charge wanted a model of him because this species is one of the very few snakes known to incubate its eggs. Many snakes just lay eggs, bury them and crawl off, but this one coils around its nest of eggs and generates heat by flexing and rippling its muscles. The museum is dedicated to authenticity, so we were going to kill the snake and mount its skin. But first we decided to try another technique."
Schwendeman and members of the herpetology department paid a visit to the Bronx Zoo, python in tow. The snake was anesthetized, then arranged in the coil shape required and coated with plaster of Paris to make a mold of its body.
"Snakes are perfect for this because they're flat on the bottom, no feet or toes that would be difficult to cast," says Schwendeman. "The difficulty was that because snakes are cold-blooded, the python couldn't stand the hot plaster. So when it got to 100� after 17 minutes we took the snake out. We had a perfect mold and the python emerged alive and well. The snake had eaten little or nothing for six months before we molded it; afterward it was very hungry."
The next step was to fill the plaster mold with fiber-glass-reinforced polyester resin. When that hardened, the mold was broken away, leaving a perfect replica of the python. This was painted, scale by scale. Arranged with plaster eggs, it now sits under a piece of Saran Wrap, ready to take its place in the Reptile Hall.
Although new techniques make taxidermy a less funereal art than it was in the 19th century, still it is a dying art in the American Museum. As Schwendeman digs an epoxy salamander from a mold he explains, "It used to be that the museum hired apprentices, and you learned your trade here in the museum. That was true for the tanners, the foreground men, background painters, all of us. But the museum cannot afford large staff's anymore. There is a state training program now that provides me with a helper, but there is no way to tell if he will be a taxidermist finally.