Renowned alumnus continues family taxidermy tradition
Flesh-eating beetles are not normally mentioned in dinner conversations, but when the cast and crew of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” broke bread with Rutgers alumnus Bruce Schwendeman, this was the main topic of discussion.
With three generations of taxidermists, the Schwendemans have established a name for themselves — a reason for Hollywood to turn to Schwendeman for expert advice on critters and crawlers.
By definition, taxidermy is the craft in which the skin of a dead animal is removed, treated and repositioned over an artificial body to create an illusion of life. But Schwendeman wants to emphasize that his craft combines the visual aestheticism of art and the deductive knowledge of science.
Schwendeman is technically a taxidermist, but prefers to call himself a “taxidermologist.”
“Taxidermist[s] — a lot of them just do the work, but I research and study its history and consult with museums and nature centers and other people — book writers, authors, artists,” he said.
The family tradition began when his grandfather, Arthur Schwendeman, was nine years old. He would skip school to hunt, fish and trap outdoors. Afraid the hooky-playing habits would prevent him from graduating, Arthur Schwendeman’s teacher proposed a compromise — if Arthur Schwendeman attended class, he could learn about taxidermy after school.
Over the years, Arthur Schwendeman practiced mounting — the process of putting the skin onto a mannequin — in his friend’s studio until eventually he mastered the trade. When he married his wife, Lillian Falk Schwendeman, the two opened Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio on South Main Street in Milltown, N.J. — the same store Bruce Schwendeman works in today.
Lillian Falk Schwendeman was responsible for skinning the animals and handling customers, and her husband took care of mounting the treated skins. The couple worked side-by-side for 50 years.
Arthur Schwendeman passed the trade onto his son, David Schwendeman, who Bruce Schwendeman said had a natural artistic talent for woodcarving, painting and sculpture. After gaining some recognition for their craft, The American Museum of Natural History offered both father and son a job in New York City.
Arthur Schwendeman wanted no part of city life, but David Schwendeman decided to give it a shot. For the next 30 years, David Schwendeman would travel by bus to and from the city, where he was eventually promoted to the museum’s chief taxidermist.
Although Bruce Schwendeman would apprentice his father and grandparents on weekends and evenings after work, he never pictured himself making a living out of taxidermy. Instead, he studied forestry and wildlife science at Rutgers, and then attended graduate school at North Carolina State University to study population dynamics, animal behavior and parasitology.
However, Bruce Schwendeman began to notice his grandfather was ailing and moved back home to help him with the business. Arthur Schwendeman taught him the trade until he passed — 40 years later, Bruce Schwendeman still keeps the business going.
Today, everyone in the family has a role in running the business and even a few of his nephews dabble in taxidermy. But Bruce Schwendeman has doubts that he will pass on his skills to the next generation.
“I think I was brainwashed into it but Abby, my daughter, can do whatever she wants, and we’ll just evolve the business as necessary,” he said.
Bruce Schwendeman still has no regrets in pursing higher education and believes it has helped him immensely with taxidermy. His education has given him the tools and knowledge to find answers, think critically and process and utilize information.
He works with a diverse array of animals, including insects, birds, mammals and fish. For each mount, he applies his knowledge of the working tools, anatomy, physiology and parasitology.
The process of mounting a deer head, for example, takes approximately 10 to 12 hours — on a good day.
When a customer brings a deer head into his studio, Bruce Schwendeman first needs to check tickets to make sure the animal was not illegally killed.
The U.S. government cracks down on fish and game violations — so he always needs to take caution. For instance, he remembers two game wardens from Alaska visiting his studio to investigate a case.
Once breaking through all the legal tape, Bruce Schwendeman measures the carcass and begins making incisions to remove skin from the head meat and skull. The skin then needs to be fleshed, so he uses different tools like brain spoons and eye hooks to snip all the meat off to give it a uniform thickness.
After, he takes the skin to a tannery where it will be treated to give it a leather-like texture. Then the mounting process begins.
‘Taxidermy is the movement of dermis, the skin. So you adjust the skin over that mannequin using different adhesives and mâchés and things,” Bruce Schwendeman said. “That’s the true definition of taxidermy: adjusting the skin over the artificial body.”
Once the skin is mounted, he sews up the incisions, carefully hiding the stitches. He tucks in the lips, grooms the animal, waxes certain areas and puts the glass eyes in place. Some animals, like rainbow trout, lose color after death, so sometimes Bruce Schwendeman needs to paint on color.
“When I’m working on an animal, I think about that animal,” he said. “If I was that animal, what would I be doing? It’s so cool.”
A deer head costs about $600, but considering the time and cost of materials, Bruce Schwendeman said he does not make much money. His trade is a lifestyle choice, and dignitaries around the world have recognized his work — including novelist Philip Roth, sculptor Kent Ullberg, researcher Bob Ulbrich and actor Doug Allen.
But Bruce Schwendeman’s priority is conservation — whether an animal’s body is preserved to educate the public in display at a museum, pay tribute to a species or function as a family heirloom.
He has restored the carcasses of some of the world’s most interesting animals, including the Vanderbilt Museum’s 32-foot-long whale shark, the world’s largest mounted fish.
After a year and $100,000 from the Save America’s Treasures grant, the project was finished — but ironically cited as an example of wasteful government spending on the floor of Congress.
He also worked on the American Museum of Natural History’s biodiversity exhibit by mounting rare animals from the Central African Republic, such as galagos and pottos.
“They collected two forest robins, and we mounted one,” he said. “[Those are] the only two known to exist.”