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D.C.’s most prominent taxidermist brings his art out of the backwoods and onto the Mall.
On a Tuesday morning in July, Paul Rhymer sits on the concrete floor of a cavernous warehouse in Newington, Va., and sews shut the skin of a dama gazelle. It may sound stomach-churningly messy, but it’s not. “The sewing is the mind-numbing part of the job,” says Rhymer, a full-time taxidermist and model-maker for the Smithsonian Institution, as he passes a needle back and forth through the hide. “This skin is delicate. I have to be gentle. Otherwise, it’ll rip.”
Someday, the gazelle will inhabit a diorama depicting a Saharan environment at the National Museum of Natural History. But first, Rhymer must finish bringing the dead gazelle back to life—or, at least, to a lifelike condition.
Half an hour later, after carefully pulling stitch after stitch through the gazelle, Rhymer needs a break. He stands up and strolls around the warehouse, showing off the menagerie of mounted animals that share his workspace. By the time he’s reached the brown bear, Rhymer looks rejuvenated.
The bear stands upright, front legs slightly forward, mouth open, glass eyes alert. “We made the bear less aggressive,” says Rhymer, who at 6-foot-6 is almost as tall as the giant creature, which he recently remounted. “We brought the arms down slightly, and we opened up the mouth to give it a little attitude.”
Rhymer has been working as a taxidermist for the Smithsonian for nearly 18 years. In his free time, he also operates a taxidermy business out of his basement in suburban Maryland. His work has been internationally recognized: His red-tailed hawk took a second place prize at the 2001 World Taxidermy Championships, and many of his other birds have won Best in Show at regional competitions.
In the American taxidermy community, though, Rhymer is best-known for his work with bizarre animals—species that are off-limits to most practitioners but fair game for Rhymer, who is armed with the Smithsonian’s collecting permits.
“Yeah,” he says with a smile, “how many guys get to mount a two-toed sloth?”
Working for the Smithsonian, Rhymer has traveled from Brazil to Bahrain, collaborating with other museums, checking out their collections, and, of course, bringing back skins. “When a taxidermist treats himself, he goes on safari,” says Rhymer, who in 1996 took a two-year leave of absence to travel and work in Africa, where he helped put together the natural-history wing of the Swaziland National Museum. “You know you’ve made it as a taxidermist when hunters start bringing you their stuff from Africa.”
Preparing the gazelle is part of a larger project that Rhymer has been involved with for years. In 1997, in the first of a series of controversial big-money contributions to the Smithsonian, California businessman Kenneth Behring donated $20 million to renovate the Museum of Natural History’s rotunda and Hall of Mammals. Many of the exhibits previously on display dated back to the days of Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency and were in poor condition. In fact, the Rough Rider shot the collection’s rhino himself.
For the new exhibits, scheduled to be completed by fall 2003, Smithsonian curators sent out a wish list to dozens of zoos around the world, asking for new skins from specific animals should they die. However, some of the old specimens can’t be replaced in this fashion, because their living counterparts are too scarce or, in a few cases, the species is extinct. To wit: In Newington, a rare duckbill platypus from the old Hall of Mammals sits near an extinct Tasmanian wolf, patiently awaiting a makeover from Rhymer.
“Most of the time, when an animal dies at a zoo, the pathologist will go in there and hack it up pretty good,” he says. “We ask zoos to do cosmetic necropsies if it’s possible. But a lot of times, the skins arrive pretty damaged.”
Indeed, Rhymer spends much of his time cleaning and preserving skins, sewing up incisions, and combing down tangled hairs. But his job also involves a second component, which is part sculpture, part engineering. In taxidermy lingo, it’s called “working with forms.”
Forms are the artificial bodies over which skins are stretched. For animals that are regularly hunted, there exist manufactured forms, molded out of materials such as polyurethane foam or twine. But for rare animals—the kind that Rhymer often works with—there are no prefab forms. So Rhymer must sculpt his own.
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For instance, the Smithsonian recently received a number of skins of the Grevy’s zebra, an endangered species found in East Africa. There are no commercial forms for the animals, which are illegal to hunt. However, there is a more populous species of zebra called Burchell’s zebra, which is popular game for hunters on safari.
Rather than start from scratch, Rhymer has purchased a number of forms for the Burchell’s zebra. Guided by precise measurements taken from the actual skins, Rhymer is altering the artificial bodies of one species to fit the skins of another.
Rhymer approaches the project with a perfectionist’s fussiness. Before he even began modifying the forms, he visited the National Zoo and photographed a bevy of Grevy’s zebras in various poses. He also consulted the diverse printed resources that sit next to his desk: Amazing Animals of Australia, The World of Bats, and an extensive collection of Ranger Rick magazines, which Rhymer has been saving since childhood.
That last reference tool is hardly the most childish thing in Rhymer’s office. Close to the zebras-in-progress, a poster of Britney Spears dressed in a zebra-striped shirt hangs against a backdrop of zebra skin. A nearby sign reads, “Taxidermists describe a new mammal species.”
Rhymer, 40, was born in D.C. and has spent most of his life in Maryland. He currently lives by himself in a house in Takoma Park, which also doubles as his studio and personal Hall of Mammals. A sculpture of a giraffe, wrapped in Christmas lights, stands on his front stoop. A mounted seagull from New Zealand flies through his living room. His first squirrel hangs out in the basement.
Like most taxidermists, Rhymer learned his craft outside the classroom. “Taxidermists tend to be self-taught. It’s a real informal kind of industry,” he says. “Besides, the kind of guys that tend to be taxidermists don’t care too much about degrees.”
In school, Rhymer focused on visual art. After graduating from Poolesville High School, he completed a two-year studio-art program at Montgomery College, where he immersed himself in painting, illustrating, and sculpting.
Rhymer learned the art of preserving and mounting animals from his father, Dan Rhymer, who like Paul once worked as a taxidermist for the Smithsonian. “He taught me the old ways,” says Rhymer of his father. “A lot of taxidermists today only know about the new products and techniques. They don’t know how to build their own forms.”
An avid collector of everything from old taxidermy books to animal skulls, Rhymer is particularly fond of his father’s memorabilia. Dan Rhymer’s first taxidermy license, issued by the State of Tennessee in 1957, hangs on a wall in the basement. Rhymer has also saved his father’s Boy Scout merit badge in the discipline. One of the badges that dates back almost to the Boy Scouts’ inception in 1910, it was discontinued in 1953.
“Taxidermy isn’t politically correct enough for the Boy Scouts,” says Rhymer, who nonetheless feels right at home among Takoma Park’s flute-and-djembe set. An avid outdoorsman who spent some time following the Grateful Dead, Rhymer describes himself as being far to the left of your average hunter-taxidermist. “I’m probably the only taxidermist in America who voted for Nader,” he quips.
Although some of his neighbors might disagree, Rhymer’s Green Party sympathies are evident in his approach to his work. Currently, he’s testing a new eco-friendly chemical for preserving blue crabs for Taxidermy Today magazine. “I don’t like to use formaldehyde,” he says. “It’s really nasty, carcinogenic stuff.”
Rhymer writes for Taxidermy Today whenever he can get away from his work with the Smithsonian or at home. He is also an editorial contributor at Breakthrough, a magazine “devoted to the serious wildlife artist.” And several times a year, Rhymer attends taxidermy conventions, where he participates in competitions and leads instructional seminars, all in the name of advancing his art form. “In the last 20 years,” he says, “the American taxidermy community has decided that it has a lot more to gain by opening up and not being so secretive. There are still some guys who won’t show you anything, but they’re a minority. That’s still the way it is in Europe and Africa. The guys who do taxidermy there treat everything as a closely guarded family secret.
“Taxidermy is more popular now than ever before in this country,” he notes. “There’s some beautiful work being done right now.”
A recent issue of Breakthrough features an article by Rhymer in which he walks the reader through his 37-step process for mounting a golden lion tamarin, a South American primate that is one of the world’s most endangered mammals. Other articles in the issue include “Ears: The Other Windows to the Soul” (about mounting deer ears) and “Cat Got Your Tongue?” (about mounting the tongue of a mountain lion).
Despite his ongoing work with animals that most taxidermists would be lucky to see on the Discovery Channel, Rhymer says he usually avoids an elitist approach to his writing assignments. One of his upcoming articles for Taxidermy Today, for example, will dish out advice to parents looking for a simple, effective way of mounting their kids’ first catch.
Rhymer will even mount those fish himself, for upward of $150, depending on size. Many of his own fishing and hunting conquests, however, are memorialized not with forms and glass eyes, but in a home photo gallery he calls his “Wall of Shame”: Rhymer, family members, and friends posing in camouflage outfits, standing near pickup trucks, and brandishing their rods and rifles.
“This is how I nurture my inner redneck,” he says. “Besides, I don’t need to have everything in 3-D.” CP