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‘Passionate about wildlife:’ Taxidermist who recreated Milwaukee’s gorilla Samson reflects on career

Wendy Christensen (pictured above) recreated Samson, Milwaukee’s iconic gorilla, as part of a 2007 exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum called ‘Remembering Samson.’
Robert Clark
National Geographic
Wendy Christensen (pictured above) recreated Samson, Milwaukee’s iconic gorilla, as part of a 2007 exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum called ‘Remembering Samson.’

Many Milwaukeeans are familiar with Samson, the beloved gorilla who died in 1981 at the Milwaukee County Zoo.

Wildlife artist and world champion taxidermist, Wendy Christensen, made the popular recreation of Samson that’s on display at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

In 1982, Christensen started working at the Milwaukee Public Museum at 19 years old and became the youngest and first female taxidermist hired by the historic museum.

“A job opening in the taxidermy department at the Milwaukee Public Museum was very much a rarity because people stayed their whole careers,” Christensen says. “So when this job became available, I was 17.”

Christensen says the rigorous examination process to even be considered for the job took a year and a half to complete.

“For the examinations, we had to bring in physical pieces of artwork to be displayed without a name, just a number on it, and then we were to be selected by a committee of museum taxidermists at the time,” Christensen says.

“I had to bring in three bird mounts, three fish mounts, three fish reproductions, three mammal mounts, three bird mounts, three wildlife sculptures — one had to be life-size, three reptile mouths, three bird feet and beak color studies — which is paintings of the fleshy parts of birds, three wildlife photographs, three wildlife paintings, and three wildlife sketches.”

During the nearly 36 years she worked at the Milwaukee Public Museum, Christensen created hundreds of animal mounts and sculptures for various exhibits.

She retired from the museum in 2018.

In addition to winning numerous World Taxidermy Championship titles throughout her career, Christensen most recently won the WTC’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2022.

Lake Effect’s Xcaret Nuñez spoke with Christensen to learn more about her passion for wildlife art and how she recreated Samson.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

When and how did you become interested in taxidermy?

Oh boy, I guess I was always destined to become a taxidermist — and I know that sounds silly. But seriously, I had an interest in preserving animals from a very, very young age. I'm extremely passionate about wildlife.

When I was two or three, my mom told me I picked up a minnow out of the bait bucket, and I would walk around all day, petting the minnow. Obviously the minnow had seen better days, but I was just that much intrigued with animals and just wanting to have them a part of my life.

When I was seven, my dad hit a coyote, and I just thought that was such a beautiful animal and if there was some way that I could preserve that. I felt helpless because I didn't know what to do. I didn't know how to do anything at seven.

When I was 12, I took Northwestern School of Taxidermy, which is kind of funny because that’s how all the old-timer taxidermists [got] started. It's a correspondence course by mail. It got me started and I sat in my basement and I started with my pigeon, they recommend you start with a pigeon.

When I was 14, I took a mini course from a local taxidermist, so I could actually see things hands-on, and he was not a great taxidermist. But [the experience] did help me. It helped me pique my interest. And when I was 15, I started working for a taxidermist. That ended up being the person who probably helped me more than anyone, because in that time period, the late 70s, early 80s, you did not have access to all the knowledge that we have today.

Taxidermy was a big secret. People didn't share their processes, [whereas] today, you can learn from the internet, you can get books and video. Back then, there were only a couple of books.

What I'm hearing is you worked your way up to work at the Milwaukee Public Museum. How do you even approach working with such unique animals?

A lot of research. So if you wanted to mount a deer, for example, there are all kinds of commercially available mannequins. The mannequin is what the skin gets glued and sewed and mounted over. And the mannequins are in book catalogs where you can pick different sizes and different poses.

But when you're doing something like an ocelot, a jaguar or primates — those are not commercially available mannequins, so you have to learn how to make them 100% yourself. As an artist myself, I make some of those [mannequins], they're all hand sculpted.

You have to learn the anatomy and the structure and what makes that animal the essence of that animal. That's where the study part is involved.

You really have an eye for detail, and you've sculpted animals like horses and gorillas. How long does it take to work on a large project like that?

I'm assuming you're referring to Samson — in order to do him, it required a lot of research on what made him unique to himself, not just a gorilla, but I had to capture Samson's personality and expression.

Samson took a year, approximately, because I was actually on public display making him. [The museum] wanted me to make him in front of the public, so even though that is something I probably could have done in a quicker time fashion, the whole exhibit was up for a year.

The horses you referred to are King Tut's horses. They are ancient Arabian. I spent probably a couple of months doing research on what made ancient Arabians of that time different than our modern Arabians.

The first [horse] took me a lot longer because of all the research and so I think he took eight months, and then the second one was like five months. It went a lot faster, but that's all painstakingly, hand sculpted.

When I did all the mammals for the rainforest [exhibit], I think I did 43 animals in a year and a half. So it just depended on the time frame, if we had a time restraint and how many specimens I had to do.

In 2009, Wendy Christensen (pictured above) entered her recreation of Samson into the World Taxidermy Championships and came away with three top awards: Best in World Re-Creation, Competitors' Choice Award, and the Judges' Choice Best of Show.
Photo provided by Wendy Christensen
In 2009, Wendy Christensen (pictured above) entered her recreation of Samson into the World Taxidermy Championships and came away with three top awards: Best in World Re-Creation, Competitors' Choice Award, and the Judges' Choice Best of Show.

Can you walk me through the process of how you recreated Samson?

In the case of Samson, he is 100% artificial. The Samson on display at the museum is called a recreation, and the reason he is recreation is his skin was not mountable.

So, Samson died in 1981. There was a taxidermist who was hired to mount him for the zoo. So that gentleman came out, and he skinned Samson, and he made a death mask of Samson. Then, Samson’s skin sat in his freezer for three or four years. Then, eventually, the [Milwaukee County Zoo] relinquished Samson to the [Milwaukee Public Museum].

So I went to flesh [Samson’s skin] and prepared it for tanning and all the process that's required. And his skin was what we call slipping, which means the outer layer of the epidermis was peeling off in large pieces with the hair. So that made [Samson] unmountable. So I saved his skin because it was very valuable scientifically. He was a wild captured gorilla and his DNA and everything could be used for research.

Then, when it came to making the recreation, we had a president at the time of the museum and I had proposed the idea [to him] of making this recreation — he said “I like it, and I want you to do it in front of the public!” So we started out the first messy stages of the process in my studio with a webcam on me. So you could log in from home and watch me actually making Samson in my studio. Then we took him downstairs and put me making [Samson] on display and built a whole exhibit about gorillas all around it. It was very, very popular, really a cool exhibit.

So we had his skeleton and Samson was one of the largest gorillas ever in captivity. So there is a company by the name of Bone Clones that makes artificial casts of things. So they had an extra large male gorilla that I purchased the skeleton of, it's made of plastic. And then looking at [Samson’s] real bones, I lengthened each one of the [plastic] bones to make it Samson-sized.

So from that bone structure, I then bulked up all of the muscles and all of the body anatomy using two-part foam that you mix together, it expands and hardens quite hard. Then I carve it. Now that's his body.

When it came to [Samson’s] face, I took that death mask that the other taxidermist had made and I completely retooled it. When you have a death mask, a cast of a dead animal, that's exactly what it is, a dead animal. So you don't have any muscle tone, you don't have blood pressure, you don't have expression. So I had to put all of that life back into [him]. It was very critical that I make those eyes — people who knew Samson, he always looked at you out of the corner of his eyes, in disgust. It’s just kind of funny, he had an attitude and people loved his attitude. So I had to capture that. So then I worked on getting the eyes set right.

When it came to making his hair, I implanted the hairs one hair at a time from the back of the nape of his neck, all the way down to his chest. Because Samson’s skin was saved, I sent six different parts of his body hair to a company that makes hair for Hollywood, for the movie industry. It took back and forth like five months to get the right blends [of hair] and the hair is made out of acrylic, yak hair, and goat hair.

Then the hands and feet and the chest — I took casts of actual gorilla skin, and I made stamps kind of and I stamped all the skin texture into the hands and the chest and everything.

So it's a long story. But basically, that's how I made him. 


Xcaret is a WUWM producer for Lake Effect.
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