Restored animal heads at the Vanderbilt Museum

Twenty animal heads, some of which date back nearly 100 years, were returned to Suffolk County Vanderbilt Museum in Centerport on March 17, 2014, after being professionally restored by a New Jersey taxidermist. (Credit: Newsday / Chris Ware)

A ferocious, snarling black bear stared down George Dante.

He didn't flinch.

Wild animals don't faze Dante. "I have nightmares about people," he joked.

Easy to make light of a bear baring its sharp, yellowed teeth when it's a taxidermy head mounted on a pegboard in your warehouse studio. Dante, owner of Wildlife Preservations of Woodland Park, N.J., has worked for months to restore the bear to its former glory and return it to its home at the Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium in Centerport.

The black bear and 19 other animal heads from the Vanderbilt have had the ultimate mammal makeover -- shriveled noses repaired, antlers tightened and hair replaced, sometimes strand by strand. Now they are starting to be rehung in the Stoll Wing of the Vanderbilt to be seen anew by visitors.

GIFT FROM GRANDDAUGHTER

The 20 heads, some of which date back nearly 100 years, include deer with antlers the size of tree branches, a zebra and a wildebeest from Botswana, two walrus heads from the Arctic, a caribou and two moose heads from Nova Scotia.

Many of them were hunted by Charles Stoll, a former Vanderbilt museum trustee and board president in the 1960s and early 1970s who was part of the Stoll-McCracken Expedition to the arctic in 1928. The Stoll Wing was opened in 1970 and also includes eight life-size dioramas of full-body animals that Stoll collected from around the world. The animal heads hang along the hallways of the L-shaped wing, just below the ceiling.

The restoration was paid for with a grant from a granddaughter of Charles Stoll. Lynnda Speer, who lives in Florida, visited the museum, saw the condition of the animal heads and donated $100,000 from the Roy M. Speer Foundation. Roy Speer, Lynnda's late husband, started the Home Shopping Network, and together the couple launched the charitable foundation.

"I hate to see all that deteriorate," Speer said in a telephone interview from Florida. "I want his legacy to continue and the public to enjoy all he hunted."

'PIECE OF HISTORY'

The grant led to a private-public partnership with Suffolk County, which paid to redo the roof, said museum executive director Lance Reinheimer. The Speer grant allowed the Vanderbilt to enact climate control, have some diorama backgrounds repainted and hire the venerable Dante to do the animal restoration, he said.

Dante's company has built a niche of restoration work for museums. Wildlife Preservations has restored animals in dioramas at the Hall of North American Mammals at the Museum of Natural History. And Dante's been commissioned to create a taxidermy tortoise from Lonesome George of the Galápagos Islands, the last of its species.

"It's such a great piece of history," Dante said of the Vanderbilt animal head collection during the time he was working on them in his studio in January. He popped the eyeball out of a moose to strengthen the soft tissue that holds the fake, doll-like eye in place, molding epoxy to recreate the gland in the inside corner next to the nose.

EVOLUTION OF TAXIDERMY

The heads show the evolution of taxidermy -- for instance, the snarling black bear was presented in attack mode consistent with hunters' lavish stories about wild animals in that time period. "That was done in a classical Victorian style of taxidermy," Dante said. Today, taxidermists would instead be more likely to have the bear's facial expression appear in a more natural way, as though in its usual environment.

The animal heads are used extensively in the Vanderbilt Museum's educational programs for children studying the natural sciences, said Stephanie Gress, director of curatorial services at the Vanderbilt. "You can never get that close to an animal in the wild, or even in a zoo," she said, "where they will stay still and let you observe them."

WHAT Restored Wild Animal Heads

WHEN | WHERE Noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Saturdays and Sundays in the Stoll Wing of the Vanderbilt Museum and Planetarium, 180 Little Neck Rd., Centerport,

INFO Included with museum fee of $7 per adult, $6 students with ID and seniors 62 and older, $3 for children 12 and younger; 631-854-5579, vanderbiltmuseum.org

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