“I’ve been sleeping with my lions and haven’t even thought about going home,” says Tim Bovard, pointing toward a gray bedroll and a bag of clothes in a corner of his workshop. He’s standing beside a pair of Tanzanian lion skins—one male, one female—that were taken out of deep freeze at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles several days ago.
“The skins are about 30 years old, and we have to keep them supple and malleable while we work—day and night,” says Bovard, the last full-time museum taxidermist in the United States.
Large parts of the male’s furry, muscular body are wrapped in wet white toweling, and spray bottles and towel-filled buckets are close at hand in the cramped workshop. For now, the lion is marvelously coiffed in what can best be described as a Mohawk hairdo. On another worktable, the lioness-in-progress lies on her side.
A small polystyrene-and-balsa model of this new diorama, complete with clay miniatures of the Panthera leos, sits on a nearby work surface for reference. Neither lion is in an aggressive or exciting pose, a deliberate choice. “They are grooming and licking themselves like all cats do,” explains Bovard.
Both mounts are surrounded by brushes, needles, boxes of eyes, pins and staples, and vital sheets of data, which list Bovard’s caliper measurements of animal carcasses from every conceivable angle. He estimates it will take about 40 to 50 hours to complete each lion, and he’s being assisted by four volunteers.
In Bovard’s workshop, there are taxidermied birds, squirrels, fish, and a ring-tailed lemur amid the organized chaos of more than 150 tools, plus countless plaster animal death masks—some dating to the 1920s—staring down from the walls. Almost all the dead creatures he works with are “salvage.” They come whole or as skins from zoos, rescue centers, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and collectors, or they are roadkill or birds that flew into windows. Bovard estimates that he taxidermies between 100 and 300 animals per year.
Preserving the subtle distinctions of each creature during the mounting process showcases taxidermy’s mix of art and science. For instance, captive-raised lions are often heavier and have fewer scars because they don’t have to hunt. Looking at the male lion’s face, Bovard explains, it’s clear he was a wild one. What’s more, each lion’s nose is as unique as a fingerprint.
Now 65 years old, Bovard has been practicing his craft for more than half a century and is in some ways following in his family’s footsteps. The La Brea Tar Pits’ famous saber-toothed cat Smilodon californicus Bovard was named after his grandfather John F. Bovard, a zoologist who described its skeleton in 1907.
Tim Bovard’s first mount was a skunk, which he completed using guidebooks at the age of 10. Seven years later, he began a four-year taxidermy apprenticeship in a commercial studio, graduating in 1974. “Back then, we made forms [the animal interiors] out of burlap, plaster, papier-mâché, glue, metal, and tape,” he recalls.
“Taxidermy isn’t about death,” Bovard insists. “We do endless research on living animals. We want to reflect their natural lives in all our dioramas, and that includes the painted backgrounds, mud, flowers, fishes, insects, and even leaves.”
Yet the public’s interest in dioramas of dead animals can wax and wane. The other remaining institution with a full-time taxidermist, the Milwaukee Public Museum, eliminated the position in 2017, and the California Academy of Sciences—with its hundreds of stuffed specimens—did the same well before that. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), Bovard has become a beloved mentor to a new generation of craftspeople. Among them are Daniel Meng, who came from North Dakota and worked on the lions for several days straight, and Allis Markham, who worked with Bovard as a volunteer before joining the museum staff and left to open her own taxidermy studio in L.A. six years ago. Not so coincidentally, several of the people assisting Bovard today have studied with Markham.
Bovard tasks the four volunteers with the delicate process of sewing up a section of the skins. Over the next several hours, he watches each stitch go into the belly of the lioness and into a paw and the legs of the lion, offering a stream of advice about guiding the needle and endless stories about animals.
As the volunteers leave for the day, Bovard gives each of them a mug from the traveling exhibit Cats! Wild to Mild, which he worked on. He has no plans to retire—after these lions, he has many ideas for new dioramas. “I’ve still got thousands of skins in the freezer to work on,” he says.
James Bartlett wrote about biographies of Hollywood celebrity homes for Alta, Fall 2019.