Outback taxidermist Cassandra Hall gets creative with dead animals of all shapes and sizes
Ms Hall first got a taste for taxidermy from her father while he was skinning foxes. (ABC Central West: Donal Sheil)
When taxidermist Cassandra Hall was first asked by a New South Wales wildlife park to skin and stuff a 1.7-tonne American bison, she thought they were joking.
They were not, and after three days of skinning, four weeks of tanning, and nearly 600 hours of work, the job was done.
“I’m amazed that it all worked out, it all went to plan,” she said of the huge and unusual job.
Ms Hall, who is based in the far-west NSW town of Hillston, said her passion for taxidermy could be traced back many generations.
“My dad’s grandfather was a drover so he already knew the leather and the tanning [and] plaiting of leather,” she said.
“He did a lot with whips and rawhide.”
Cutting teeth on fox skins
When she was an infant, Ms Hall’s father would hunt and skin foxes for additional income and it was here she got her first taste for the profession.
“When he was pegging out the fox skins, here I was, sucking on the hammer [as a teething ring],” she said.
After completing her first boar’s head at 19, Ms Hall started exhibiting her taxidermy in the hardware store where she worked with her then-husband.
From American bison to a kangaroo, there are only a few animals Ms Hall hasn’t worked on. (ABC Central West: Donal Sheil)
When her marriage ended eight years ago, she decided to pursue taxidermy full time.
“I thought, ‘well, no mucking around now, time to get serious’,” she said.
Ms Hall said her transition to professional taxidermy brought her new-found independence and also silenced her critics.
“My ex-mother-in-law was like ‘oh, you don’t want to do that’. She would always be looking down on it, thinking it could never be anything,” Ms Hall said.
“It’s nice to have actually proved a few people wrong.”
Hundreds of hours and one bison
Having cut her teeth stuffing boars and bucks, Ms Hall faced her greatest challenge when approached to work on the recently deceased bison.
Given the enormous weight of the animal’s 5-centimetre-thick hide, Ms Hall said every stage of the job required a bespoke approach.
When the month-long tanning process was over, the weight of the bison’s hide was ‘only’ 150 kilograms. (ABC Central West: Donal Sheil)
A small gantry was needed to lift the caged hide into a specially made tanning vat, where it spent more than a month submerged.
Ms Hall continually ‘fleshed’ at it, removing excess fat and tissue until the skin was only half a centimetre thick.
Once complete, the stuffed bison was returned to Altina Wildlife Park in Darlington Point in an oversized horse float equipped with surveillance cameras, so those driving could ensure it travelled intact.
“I think I charged for about 300 or 400 hours [of labour] but that’s nothing,” she said.
Obsessively tinkering and adjusting the bison’s frame led Ms Hall to invest what she said was more like 600 hours.
“I really get a lot of self satisfaction from knowing that things have worked out,” she said.
“Like looking at the bison and people looking at him and thinking ‘thank goodness it’s done’.”
Can we taxidermy native animals?
Although Ms Hall does own a stuffed kangaroo, she said anyone intent on stuffing a native animal should first contact the Department of Environment and Heritage in their state prior to calling a taxidermist.
After being charged excessive prices from US retailers, Ms Hall decided to make her own tongues and noses. (ABC Central West: Donal Sheil)
She said taxidermists could not accept native animals killed or harvested illegally and praised strict regulations regarding Australia’s endemic fauna.
“[Native animals] should be allowed to be here [but] the pigs, the goats the deer, they’re just brought in,” she said.
“I know that every animal has a place but you’ve got to harvest some, so those ones that aren’t native, they’re the ones to go hell-for-leather on.”
One-woman show in isolated outback
Living more than 680 kilometres west of Sydney, Ms Hall has had to stay self-sufficient to keep her business financially viable.
Creative solutions have been Ms Hall’s principal panacea for rural isolation.
The huge cost of importing taxidermy materials from overseas led her to start crafting homemade tongues and noses, in addition to tanning hides in plastic tubs in her backyard shed.
“[The molds are] taken from real pig noses and real pig tongues curled up and frozen with silicon — which sets really rapidly — poured over them before they have the chance to thaw out, so it’s pretty tricky,” she said.
“If I had not decided to start making some of my own products that I used to import, I wouldn’t be able to do it.”
With a growing portfolio that already included a lioness, an American alligator, and a bongo antelope, Ms Hall said the future was bright for her burgeoning business.
“You can always take [an idea] from somebody else’s [work] and put it into your own and it really has improved my work,” she said.
“There’s always more you can learn.”
While you’re here … are you feeling curious?