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David Schwendeman, seemingly brought specimens to life, 87

David Schwendeman

The New York Times

David Bruce, left, and his dad David Schwendeman at their taxidermy studio.

NEW YORK — A bald eagle, its wings spanning more than 6 feet, swoops toward an Alaskan riverbank, its talons spread to grasp a salmon. A steel rod, concealed by a feather, is connected to the exhibit case in the Hall of North American Birds at the American Museum of Natural History, seeming to suspend the specimen in midair.

In the Hall of North American Mammals, a sinuous mink, its fur a lustrous chestnut brown, is poised to pounce on a tree frog among the flora of what is presented as the Pine Barrens of New Jersey.

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Hundreds of the specimens that enthrall visitors at the museum on Manhattan’s Upper West Side — coyotes, geese, striped bass, and snakes of all kinds — were captured in seemingly everlasting life by David Schwendeman.

Mr. Schwendeman, the last full-time taxidermist at the 143-year-old museum, died Monday at the home in Milltown, N.J., where he had lived for all of his 87 years. His son, Bruce, confirmed his death.

Preferring the title principal preparer, he considered taxidermy a scientific art form.

‘’He would say you might stuff your Thanksgiving turkey, but not an accurate rendering of an African elephant for display in a museum,’’ said Steve Quinn, manager of exhibitions.

‘‘He was an extraordinary artist, an expert sculptor,’’ Quinn said. ‘‘He could pose animals accurately and scientifically, and at the same time make them aesthetically beautiful. He saw as his goal to inspire wonder and nurture concern for nature.’’

Mr. Schwendeman was the museum’s chief taxidermist for 29 years, starting in 1959. By then, its vast halls of mammals — exhibiting elephants, antelopes, rhinos, deer, bear, and moose, among many other creatures — had been assembled decades earlier. He focused on birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish, particularly from North America.

There is, for example, his covey of quail (connected by fine rods) in midflight.

The proper term for what taxidermists do is ‘‘mount.’’ But that hardly conveys their skills. The process includes making sketches, watercolor paintings, and plaster masks to record details that could be lost as the specimen is skinned.

It involves carefully removing, scraping, boiling, and bleaching the skeleton, then reassembling it with wires, metal rods, or wooden reinforcements. Plaster molds and ­papier-mache forms are sculptured to precisely replicate internal tissue, which then fit into the tanned and preserved skin in the pose to be depicted in the exhibition. Often, the taxidermist must apply paint or varnish for the finishing touches.

‘‘You have to have respect and intuition for the animals to bring out their best characteristics,’’ Mr. Schwendeman said for Melissa Milgrom’s 2010 book, ‘‘Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy.’’

He learned his craft at Schwendeman’s Taxidermy Studio, which his father opened in 1938 in Milltown. His mastery of the family trade led to his hiring by the museum. His son now runs the studio.

David James Schwendeman was born to Arthur and Lillian Falk Schwendeman. Besides his son, he leaves his wife, Irene; three daughters; a brother; and four grandchildren.

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