Maude the Belle Vue tigon and my part in her story…
This fascinating story goes back well over 63 years. Though I did not know it at the time, this project would prove to be one the most technically challenging pieces of work I have had in over thirty years of professional taxidermy. It is written from only a slightly technical standpoint for those with perhaps some knowledge and/or appreciation of the taxidermy process. But whether you are a taxidermist or just interested in her story, I hope you enjoy reading my part in it.
We were initially approached by Henry McGhie BSc MA AMA, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology (Honorary Scientific Associate, Faculty of Life Sciences) Manchester museum, The University of Manchester, about a skin held in store at the Manchester museum, with a view to assessing it for turning it into a display quality mount.
The skin I was to view was from a once very famous “inmate” of the now long closed, but much remembered Belle Vue zoo in Manchester. The skin was that of a Maude the tigon. The tigon is the progeny of the deliberate crossing of a male tiger (Panthera tigris) and a female lion (Panthera leo). Tigons are an unnatural pairing and would never occur or survive as a breeding species in the wild. Like most forced hybridisations, they were/are essentially a vanity project by zoo and big cat keepers. There are many other big cat hybrids that have been tried, amongst them are the huge liger, the biggest cat alive today. There is much information available online about these hybrids which you may wish to research these further. There is also a lot of further information available online about Belle Vue zoo and its tigons. Maude herself can be seen on display at the Manchester museum.
MANCUNIAN NEWSPAPER ARTICLE
There had been three tigons at Manchesters’ Belle Vue zoo between 1936 and 1968. They were a male, named Kliou and his sister Maude, both where bred at a German zoo and bought for Belle Vue in 1936. Kliou passed away in 1941 and Maude in 1949. The last tigon at Belle Vue was Rita, who was there from 1957 to 1968 when she died.
It took some research to discover which of the tigons the skin at Manchester belonged to. Eventually it was confirmed to be that of Maude, one of the two females. This confirmed that, at the time I was looking at it, the skin was well over 60 years old.
The story of just exactly how Maude came to be at the museum is perhaps for another article or writer with the time to investigate it. I do have my own theory, but it is little more than an educated guess. The main intention of this article is to explain and show a little of the back story of how we did Maude and some of the technical challenges she presented after 60 plus years in storage as a neglected old skin.
Cats, of any size, presented in the very best of condition, are an incredibly challenging subject for the most skilled of taxidermists. Maude, due to the great age of her skin, presented some very interesting challenges.
The ideal for a taxidermist to be able to do a “museum quality mount” is a fresh, complete animal in good condition with a healthy coat. A complete fresh body is required to make detailed sketches, take intricate measurements and make moulds and casts for the accurate production of an anatomically accurate manikin (or form) for the skin to be mounted upon. One would normally also study, in detail photos and if possible, live examples of the species to understand better how the animal looks and behaves in life.
Maude had been very poorly when she died and she was also getting on in years. She had lost a lot of weight and condition and we only had her skin to work with. We had no measurements, skull, bones or even any decent photographic reference of these unusual animals from which to work. These above issues, however, whilst being an inconvenience, were not the main hindrance to the mounting of Maude. The issue that made Maude such an incredible challenge was the parlous state of her 60 plus years old skin. There was good news and bad news as far as her skin was concerned.
Maudes’ skin, the good news…
We had no definitive evidence on what happened to Maude immediately following her death at Belle Vue Zoo. However, after I had examined it, it was apparent that whoever did the initial preparation of Maude and her skin, knew what they were doing and her passing must have been planned for. The nature and method of the skinning meant that someone must have intended her to be mounted by a taxidermist at some point. To skin a large cat, specifically for taxidermy, takes time and great skill as every aspect of the skin must be worked on in detail. The removal of the skin is just the start. There are then many hours to be spent in removing all extraneous tissue from every square inch of it. It must then be washed and skilfully salted to preserve it. Freezers in those days were a rarity so time will have been short to do the work. This is why I am sure the preservation of her skin was planned for.Read More
After her skin was removed, cleaned and preserved so well, it was sent on or taken to a commercial tannery to be professionally “dressed” and tanned. Only a high end fully commercial tannery would have the ability to soft tan a big cat skin in the manner it was at the time (late 1940`s or 50`s). On close inspection there were some small markings on the skin which confirmed this theory. Commercial tanneries identify and mark skins by punching a serial number or other marks in the form of tiny holes in the hide. My feeling is that she was tanned by a company like Britz brothers in London. They were one of only a few companies capable of dressing skins in the particular way Maude’s has been done. The general feel of the skin and the colour were strongly indicative of this being the case as it was “soft tanned”, the main body of the skin being very soft and supple, not unlike chamois leather.
As an aside, it is not surprising to me that somebody at the zoo decided to keep Maudes’ skin for mounting. Someone there clearly recognised the high value of a tigon’s skin. Manchester’s last tigon, Rita, was valued at $12,000 dollars or so (alive) in 1963. At today’s prices (2017) this is around $82,000 or 50K sterling! To a collector her skin would have commanded a very high price, due to its extreme rarity. Obviously this is largely conjecture on my part, as I can only guess at why Maudes’ skin was so skilfully preserved following her death, but the great rarity and very high value of her skin must surely have played some part in that decision.
Maudes’ skin, the bad news…
Unfortunately, as regards taxidermy and mounting her skin, the good news ended and the problems became apparent. On close inspection, it became increasingly clear that as far as producing a viable mount for the museum was concerned, we were up against a set of very serious issues with her ageing skin. Basically, in spite of her skin being so well tanned and dressed initially, in the over 60 years since her passing, her skin had deteriorated to a very considerable extent. Maudes’ skin had, at some stages, been stored in less than ideal conditions over the years, contributing to its poor condition. The museum I must add, at the time I saw the skin, kept it in perfect conditions, which probably prevented it falling apart completely. I had needed to do some testing on the skin to get a more accurate assessment of exactly what I was dealing with.
pH values – Acid and fat burn
I tested the pH of the skin. The results demonstrated that the skin had a pH of around 3. This is very acidic and not at all what is required. This was vary concerning as a tanned skin should have a value of around pH7 (effectively neutral). Long term, the acidity damages the skin by breaking it down, compromising its integrity and strength. Effectively it would tear very easily if subjected to even small pressure. The skin needed to be treated if possible to raise the pH to a more stable level.
The skin was also slightly greasy, probably due to the oil (fat liquor) applied to the skin as part of the finishing and softening process by the tannery. This too needed to be addressed by some careful degreasing.
Whether the skin was eventually mounted or not, if something was not done to rectify the low pH and the oily issue, the skin would continue to deteriorate and ultimately break down completely rendering a unique, valuable and irreplaceable specimen lost forever.
The overall assessment
Maudes’ skin then, was weak and very unstable. Any gentle pull could easily rip it; the skin of her face was very weak and would easily tear. The nose was hard and shrivelled and the ears, though tanned, had not had the cartilage removed and they too were shrivelled and as hard as plywood. The lips and whisker bases were also very thick and had no stretch or flexibility. There were no whiskers, no eyebrows and some bald patches on her face. The foot pads were also rock hard and when looked at closely, there were many small holes and tears all over the skin.
The single biggest problem we faced with Maudes’ skin was that no water or water based treatments, whatsoever, could be put on or near the skin. This may sound insignificant, however, any taxidermist knows that a fully dry, commercially tanned and dressed skin will require some “wetting back”/soaking or at least dampening to mount it. This is to allow for it to be correctly applied to the form. Washing it was completely impossible; in some areas around the loins it could barely support its own weight if it got wet or was overworked. A tanned skin will normally be very strong (like leather), allowing it to be pulled around on the form over the hide paste (skin glue) to position it. Most large mammal skins are mounted onto the underlying model using a thixotropic water based glue to aid stretching and moving the skin. With Maudes’ skin, we did not have these luxuries.
After patch testing on small areas of the skin, it was clear that she could not be mounted using any of the normally accepted methods. This left me with some serious head scratching about how to go about stabilising the skin to achieve a viable mount with it. It would require some unorthodox techniques to overcome these problems and be able to make her look presentable as a mount for a leading provincial museum. To this end I started to test and develop some ideas and techniques, to see if I could apply them specifically to her skin. I took far more time than I wanted to to research these ideas, but luck and happenstance allowed me to work out some viable solutions to the main problems of no water near the skin and stabilising it. Consequently, after further consultation with Henry McGhie at the Manchester museum, I took the decision to go ahead with the project.
Taxidermy of Maude
Having taken the decision to mount the skin, I now had to stabilise and prepare it. This required some further R&D before I was able to treat the skin itself. It took me something over four months to treat the skin and stabilise it sufficiently to be able to mount it. I deliberately aged and acid burned some old spare skin samples to replicate the state of the skin. Then experimented with various methods to stabilise and mount the skins with no water or water based materials. Some of these “fixes” would not be tested until I finally mounted the skin.
Due to the condition of the skin, we had decided upon a position with her lying down, as most of the skin would not stand being pulled or stitched and I would have to align and bond many of the seams, rather than stitch it in the traditional way. A lying down pose would minimise stressing the skin more than was absolutely necessary.
I purchased a commercial tiger form from the USA as a base from which to work. The form was not only far too large (40%), it was also anatomically so far from what we had to achieve as to be almost useless for the tigon. I would essentially use it as little more than a block of foam to sculpt from. The proportions were so far out it was useless. With hindsight, I should have just sculpted it from scratch using a basic foam block as my start point.
Mapping the skin
If, as in this case, there was only a skin to work with and no carcass, bones, skull, measurements or any other anatomical reference, the only way to produce an accurately sculpted form on which to mount the skin was to use anatomical reference points on the skin as a guide. This is known as “mapping the skin”. There are points on any skin which can be measured and quantified relative to each other. These points, once measured and noted, will provide almost all the critical measurements to be able to produce an accurate form. The difficulty is filling in the gaps, turning featureless measurements into a muscular anatomical landscape on which to set the skin to create the illusion of the live animal. It took some time to achieve the basic outline I needed and the more I fleshed out the model, the clearer it became that when Maude passed away she was somewhat emaciated, probably due to the illness that killed her. Because she was to go on public display, I did not want her to look too thin and bony, so I reduced some dimensions very slightly to allow me to let her look very slightly more filled out and fuller in her physique. She would still look thin, but more like a lithe cat than a terminally sick one. As her skin was so delicate, I cut an exact copy of the skin in cloth to trial fit, instead of the skin, to reduce handling to a minimum. I only tested the actual skin on the form at critical points in the process.
I dismembered the huge form anatomically; legs off at the joints as and where they would be on a real carcass. Then cut the torso of the form down to produce the basic physique, minus the legs, neck and head. I then marked and sculpted the main anatomical points, such as the line of the spine and the pelvic area. She was to be lying down, head up, so the position and shape of the spine is absolutely critical and must form the basis of the entire mount. I measured and carved the curve of the spine a
nd the subtle rotation of the torso, from lying sideways at the hips to being upright through the shoulders. I used the ilium and the head of the femurs as my reference points on the hind quarters and a point between the shoulder blades (scapulas) on the forequarters. These marked points, then marked on the corresponding parts of the skin, would form the solid points of reference to work from for the rest of the making of the form. The measurements taken from the mapping of the skin earlier would dictate all the dimensions of all her anatomy going forward.
Once the torso had the basic anatomical shape and was fitting her skin, I moved to work on the head. The face of a big cat is its main feature; its expression, mood and demeanour are all in there. The skin of the head was in a bad state, so I needed to spend some time on it, to prepare it so it would mount. All big cats are a challenge to get the face right, so I was concerned about how she might look if I could not get the skin of her head into a good state to mount. Big cats are either right or they look awful.
Because there was no tigon skull to work with, or other known measured reference, I borrowed a small tiger skull from the museum and made a basic cast of it. I then mapped the skin of her head, by taking what measurements I could from it and applied them to the skull, by sculpting onto it. I used this 3D sculpture as my main reference to sculpt the basic shape of the head and muzzle onto the resized polyurethane head form which would go on the main form. Preparing the skin of the head was quite challenging, as the skin was hard and quite thick in some areas and so weak it would tear in other areas. Thinning it was high risk, but I had no choice if I was to be able to mount it. It’s not possible to put detailed features and expression into a hard and thick skin. I took some of the thickness down by grinding it away very carefully with a dremel, very gingerly. Other areas had to be backed up and strengthened to prevent them from spitting. The muzzle and all the whisker follicles were very delicate and the whiskers themselves were long since absent altogether. Finding replacements for those was a mini project in itself.
The skin around the eyes was also very thick and had to be thinned. I had to cut away the nose completely, as it was never going to be useable in its state and relaxing it was not an option. The same applied to all the foot pads. Her ears too were a problem, as the cartilages were as hard as wood and again, relaxing them was not possible. I had to open them dry (not easy) and remove the cartilage which took over 6 hours (per ear). They then had to be rebuilt to the correct shape. I spent two full days in all, just on the ears. By way of comparison, I can completely remove the ear cartilage from a red deer in about 6 minutes. In all the preparation of her head skin and the form took about 4 days. This did not include the actual mounting of the skin or the finishing work.
The back legs were made using the legs I cut from the tiger form. The tigons’ legs would be so different in size, proportion and position by comparison to the huge lumps from the tiger form, that I carved them from scratch.
Amongst many other things, we replaced every whisker and eye brow using bird feathers, individually selected for size, shape and accuracy, then placed into the correct position. Her nose is entirely sculpted from epoxy, the pads of her feet had to be remade. Her ears had to be almost completely remade. All the holes and tears and bald patches have hairs individually glued in place to hide them.
Maude tested my patience, ingenuity and ability to its limit, far and above any mount I have done in over 35 years. However, I am very proud to have been able to work on her and sincerely hope that she will now be seen by another generation of people, who would otherwise never be able to see this incredibly unique animal from Manchester’s recent past.
Tigons do not exist in nature, they are a vanity project for humans, crossing species which should never be crossed. Tigers are naturally solitary and demand huge home ranges; lions in contrast are highly social, within a pride. This conflict within the hybrid can cause them to suffer both physical and psychological issues in life as a result. Maude’s amazing story can help to educate us that some ideas should be left in the past.