SA Life

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June 12, 2015

Death and life

He may work in a basement laboratory full of weird tools and knives, but the city’s only taxidermist is much more interested in keeping animals alive than seeing them dead.

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  • Words: Farrin Foster
  • Pictures: Josie Withers

On an underground floor in one of the SA Museum’s back buildings, CityMag is looking at what appears to be a giant reptile head rendered in durable bright pink plastic. The man who made it – Jo Bain – had very little information to model it from.


Taxidermy is an intricate, several step process. Jo says that while you may be able to properly prepare several rats for display in just one day, a fatty animal such as a duck would need a whole day to itself and a large animal like a horse could take almost six weeks to complete.

“One of the things that’s really cool is that we have wonderful plesiosaur remains in Australia, but most of them don’t have heads,” says Jo – the Museum’s taxidermist and anatomical model maker.

“If you look at the predators that were in the ocean at the same time as the plesiosaur – one of those predators actually had a head that was 4m long. If you were a large aquatic animal like that the last thing you would want to do is struggle with prey, so they would just chomp off the head first thing.”

For most people, this is an interesting story of long dead times. But for Jo it’s a 110-million-year old fact that makes his job today much harder.

Charged with building every animal model seen in the SA Museum, Jo would typically create the  plesiosaur’s head by sculpting it in reference to and
measurement of fossilised remains. In light of Australia’s unique head shortage, he has to instead call on his extensive knowledge to intuit how this body part would look.

“We’re lucky to work in a building with about 50 or 60 of some of the best scientists in the world. If I don’t know something, I can go ask and in 20 minutes I’ll get 20 years’ worth of knowledge distilled down that I can use to finish the model,” says Jo.

“The other part of it is that because I’ve been pulling apart animals since I was 10-years-old – you can recognise things. After working in this so long you get a sense of how things should work.”

Taking up taxidermy as a hobby at 10-years-old might seem unusual, but Jo comes from four generations of family who knew the craft – so animals and methods of preserving their bodies were always a part of his life.

After an initial interest in becoming a vet, Jo was enthralled by taxidermy and model making as he developed the belief it would help in the protection of fauna. Using only animal bodies that have died of natural causes or as roadkill, he follows a strict set of ethics in his work and is dismayed by the “trophy” culture so often associated with the field.

“I see what I do as an interface between the scientists and the public,” he says. “We need to be doing more to look after the extraordinary fauna we’ve got – showing people that is the ultimate purpose.”

“If you’re talking commercial taxidermists it’s quite a different story. There’s that trophy aspect… and to me it’s quite grotesque.”

While he admits that some parts of his daily work – the skinning of dead animals for example – are off-putting, these considerations pale in significance when compared to his dedication to animating a lizard,  plesiosaur, kangaroo or whale in just the right way to capture the public’s imagination.

As Jo spends hours sculpting with resin, plasticine, foam, acrylic and sometimes skin and bone, he is working to preserve more than a single animal’s form – he is working to preserve entire species.

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