| Lifelike after death: the intricacies of a taxidermist's craft|
|The oldest surviving French creature died on 1 December 2009 at the menagerie in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Kiki, a male Seychelles giant tortoise (Dipsochelys elephantina), was 146. He arrived in 1923, hailing from Mauritius. He would spend winter in the warmth of the reptile house, moving on to the lawn outside in summer. Weighing 250kg, he used to travel in a wheelbarrow, more recently on a fork-lift.|
On 19 June he started a new life in the Grande Galerie de l'Evolution, where a 100 sq metre space has been set aside to tell his story. His resurrection took more than three years' patient work by Christophe Voisin, one of the natural history museum's four taxidermists.
The week after Kiki's death, Voisin received a phone call from his boss Christophe Gottini. "'You're going to do a tortoise', he said and then turned up with it on a cart," Voisin recalls. "I had to think fast. It was only my second tortoise, after another species from Aldabra Atoll which weighed 150kg. There was no room for mistakes: it's the world's oldest-known specimen."
Having removed the skin with a scalpel, he started on the carapace itself, which is more than 10cm thick in places, first with a jigsaw, then finally with a bone saw. Once he had opened the breast-plate he could take off the shell, remove the organs and strip the feet, turning the skin inside out like a glove to remove the bones. As an exceptional measure this process was supervised by a vet, Norin Chai, who did an autopsy at the same time. Usually, dead inmates are taken to the veterinary lab for a post-mortem, to obtain a death certificate. But in view of Kiki's extreme age this hardly seemed necessary.
Once the biological waste had been sent to the incinerator, Kiki's remains only weighed 80kg. Voisin started a race against time and the onset of bacteria. He had to scrape the hide and the inside of the shell, working on it for three days solid. "Reptiles don't smell too good when they're alive, but when they're dead it's horrific," he complains. Then he applied alum salt to tan the hide, which stiffens as it dries. "It was hard as a stone," he says. At this point he had to decide on the animal's posture. Not having the skeleton of the animals he preserves, he builds a complete structure to maintain the right shape and posture.
Take Major, for instance, an orangutan that died at the age of 50. He welcomes visitors at the entrance to the hall, swinging from a branch for all eternity ... or almost. "There isn't a single bone in his body, not even a finger bone," Voisin explains. As he cannot leave any bones, he takes rough moulds of them to avoid making mistakes with the joints, which might affect the way the animal moves. "After all the aim is for the end result to look as natural as possible!"
In the case of Kiki, he strengthened the feet slightly with wire then padded them out with sterile wood-fibre. This technique, which he learnt from his first supervisor, Edgard Gros, allows him to change the posture in the course of assembly. His next boss, Jack Thiney, would sculpt the whole beast out of polystyrene, then dress the statue with the hide. He was an artist, a quality Voisin will not accept for himself, claiming to be "at best" a craftsman. "Sculpture is not my thing," he admits. "I was contaminated by old Edgard."
Once this stage of the project was complete he left it to dry out, a process that sometimes takes as much as two years. A bloom formed on the outside, showing that the salt had cured all the way through. Crusts, which he had to remove with a wire brush, appeared on Kiki's neck. He also had to dye part of the hide, discoloured by the alum, air-brushing it with extra-dark acrylic paint. He varnished the shell too. As it dried it took on a "dry, unrealistic" appearance, whereas he wanted it to look "wet but not glossy". Finally he added black glass eyeballs, which he found in a chest of drawers containing glass eyes for all sorts of animals.
Voisin joined the osteology and taxidermy department 11 years ago, arriving there by an unusual route. "Even as a child I wanted to work with wild animals. That idea guided all the decisions I made at school and afterwards," he explains. He started at Vincennes zoo, a subsidiary of the museum, working as an acrobat, then moved to the lion house. But there tragedy struck. One day he watched, powerless, as a lion attacked his best friend, who died of his injuries. Shortly afterwards he picked up a graphic novel on taxidermy in a second-hand bookstore. He practised on rats on the kitchen table at home, then applied for a transfer to the taxidermy department, starting as a trainee. Gros put him "through hell for a year". Nothing was good enough. "One day, as I was handing over a piece of work, he said: 'That's fine. If you need me, you know where I am," Voisin recalls. "That day I realised I'd completed an important stage, but it was only the first."
"It takes 10 years to become a taxidermist. You have to master anatomy, drawing, sculpture and animal behaviour," he explains. Kiki is the first of his works to qualify for a place in the evolution gallery. When next he passes by, he will have good reason to remember the advice Thiney repeated endlessly: "Think big, if you want to do something well."