Taxidermy Comes Alive! On the Web, the Silver Screen, and in Your Living Room

September 27th, 2011

Taxidermy is never a mundane science,” Rachel Poliquin wrote in her 2009 essay, “Immortal Beauties,” on photographer Mary Frey‘s ongoing taxidermy ambrotype project “Imagining Fauna.” “It is the queasy art of seeing what would not, should not, be seen. It is the art of extending animal form beyond its natural lifespan.”

Poliquin, a life-long taxidermy connoisseur and scholar from Vancouver, taps into the peculiar yearning this art form evokes in her upcoming Penn State Press book, “The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing.” For Poliquin, taxidermy speaks to the intense human desire to prevent a once-living being from decaying into dust, to keep a memory frozen in time, like a 3-D photograph.

This desire explains why the current fashion for taxidermy in the home, which started as a movement among urban hipsters and do-it-yourself artists in the early 2000s, has gone mainstream recently, a half-century after falling out of favor after World War II. These days, it’s popping up everywhere, seen in retail—both Urban Outfitters and West Elm offer paper and plastic imitations of horn mounts and animal trophies, while Juicy Couture is using real antelope, deer, and elk heads to decorate its stores—and even on the silver screen.

Mary Frey's ambrotype of a taxidermied crow, "American Crow," part of "Imagining Fauna." Image via Looking for Bubo, copyright Mary Frey.

Mary Frey’s ambrotype of a taxidermied crow, “American Crow,” part of “Imagining Fauna.” Image via Looking for Bubo, copyright Mary Frey.

In Woody Allen’s valentine to 1920s Paris, “Midnight in Paris”—a riff on the rose-tinted romance of nostalgia—Owen Wilson and Marion Cotillard attend a party at Deyrolle, a 170-year-old shop filled with a menagerie of exotic taxidermied creatures, including zebras, tigers, lions, elephants, giraffes, bears, and birds of prey, caught mid-swoop.

Celebrities like Kate Moss and Courtney Love have purchased modern art employing taxidermy, while comedian Amy Sedaris talks fondly of her “pet” taxidermied squirrel. Martha Stewart recently posted her taxidermy collection on her blog, posing her bears, lynx, red fox, and porcupine in comic situations around her Maine home.

Chic bars and restaurants like Freemans, Home Sweet Home, and the Jane Hotel in New York and Seven Grand in Los Angeles are also incorporating antlers and game trophies in the decor. At the same time, multiple books on the subject are hitting the market: besides Poliquin’s, there are Melissa Milgrom’s “Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy” (2011), Dave Madden’s “The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy” (2010), and Jay Kirk’s “Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man’s Quest to Preserve the World’s Great Animals” (2010).

This means business is flourishing at eccentric stores like Evolution and Obscura Antiques and Oddities (featured on the Science Channel show “Oddities“) in New York City; Paxton Gate and Loved to Death in San Francisco; Empiric Studio, Blackman Cruz, and Necromance in Los Angeles; and Gold Bug in Pasadena—all of which offer taxidermy, bones, and other science- and oddity-inspired antiques and furnishings.

Above, Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson flirt at the 170-year-old Deyrolle taxidermy shop in a film still from "Midnight in Paris." At top, part of the Paris shop's menagerie; image via Deyrolle.com.

Above, Marion Cotillard and Owen Wilson flirt at the 170-year-old Deyrolle taxidermy shop in a film still from “Midnight in Paris.” At top, part of the Paris shop’s menagerie; image via Deyrolle, ©Mark Dantan.

In 2004, three like-minded Minneapolis artists, Robert Marbury, Scott Bibus, and Sarina Brewer founded the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, which, despite the fact that it is not recognized by mainstream taxidermy organizations, has expanded to more than 50 artists internationally. Adhering to a no-kill policy, “rogue taxidermists,” many of whom are vegetarians, use road kill, animals that died of natural causes, discarded livestock, and “nuisance” animals like rats. Marbury, now based in Baltimore, says he believes Internet culture revived interest in taxidermy, and not just because of eBay.

“Taxidermists always feel like they’re being treated like Norman Bates.”

“The Internet’s become a cabinet of curiosities,” Marbury says. “You can search to your heart’s content and find really bizarre stuff, filling your computer with JPEGs and GIFs. In many ways, it parallels the traditional cabinet of curiosities, where you have these explorers going out and grabbing anything they could for their Wunderkammers (wonder rooms) in their houses or for museums. In a sense, we’re all walking around with that on our phones now. If you want to collect it, you can find it. I think it desensitizes us a little bit.”

His theory goes something like this: In the early 2000s, people started spending so much of their time in their heads, staring at computer screens, that they felt compelled to collect real, tactile objects that brought them back into the physical world—such as animals that were once alive, with soft fur or feathers, leathery hides or scaly skin, smooth horns and teeth, and even traces of decay that make a connection to the soul of nature and a long-gone past.

The dining room of Ryan Matthew Cohn's Brooklyn apartment. The co-host of The Science Channel's "Oddities" says he styled his apartment after a natural history museum. Photo by Sergio Royzen.

The dining room of Ryan Matthew Cohn’s Brooklyn apartment. The co-host of The Science Channel’s “Oddities” says he styled his apartment after a natural history museum. Photo by Sergio Royzen.

At the same time, young do-it-yourself artists could discover taxidermy instructions with the click of mouse, and find yet another way to reconnect to the physicality of life, even if that connection includes cutting open an animal killed on the freeway and seeing the organic inner workings that kept it alive.

“I think what happens is people make all these virtual collections, and then they want some sort of real experience,” says Marbury, who, for the last five years, has been involved with the wildly popular Carnivorous Nights annual DIY taxidermy contest, hosted by the Secret Science Club in Brooklyn, New York. “It’s why crafting and eating locally grown foods, all these things that are localized and personal, become more important to us and have more value, whether it’s keeping bees or cross-stitching or making your own taxidermy.”

It’s possible that the longing to unplug and reconnect to natural science led to a rejection of mass-produced IKEA furniture and the sleek, space-age plastics of Mid-Century Modern style, which has been en vogue with urban trendsetters for decades. The new antiquers and steampunks of the 2000s are enamored with Victorian elegance, ingenuity, and Darwin-inspired curiosity about animal species and their mutations.

In his living room, Cohn keeps this "Mantel of Domes" with taxidermied birds, skulls, and a mummified hand in Victorian-style bell jars to evoke the wonder of a science museum. Photo by Sergio Royzen.

In his living room, Cohn keeps this “Mantel of Domes” with taxidermied birds, skulls, and a mummified hand in Victorian-style bell jars to evoke the wonder of a science museum. Photo by Sergio Royzen.

Ryan Matthew Cohn, who co-hosts “Oddities” with Obscura owners Mike Zohn and Evan Michelson, says he’s never cared for the Modern look. “You will not find any IKEA furniture in my home,” Cohn says. “I never understood, besides the aesthetic value of clothing, why anyone would try to emulate the 1950s. People were really repressed, and the aesthetic was so cookie-cutter; I couldn’t get away with half my eccentricities back then. During the Victorian times, it was a little bit more wild, because so much was unknown.”

“I never wanted a deer head,” Cohn says. “I’d go to these country flea markets and say, ‘Hey, do you have any monkeys?’”

Instead, Cohn—who also blogs on Tumblr—shared the childhood fantasy of many a New Yorker (including “New Yorker” magazine’s Adam Gopnik): He grew up wanting to live in the epic dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History. With the help of some antique bell jars and barrister cabinets, he’s managed to set up his Brooklyn apartment so it evokes the awe-inspiring atmosphere of a science museum.

“I’ve always liked the aesthetic,” says Cohn, who does not identify with the campy-Victorian steampunk movement, even though he employs early industrial electrical lighting in his decor. “Yes, I’m a little eccentric because I live in a place where besides my electronic devices, such as my TV and my computer, everything is Victorian period, down to my rug and my couch. That’s just how I like to live.”

That said, those on the cutting edge of the taxidermy trend, like Brooklyn-based sisters Hollister and Porter Hovey, who run popular blogs on vintage artifacts and antiquities, often integrate more modern pieces into their decor, which bridges a wide span of decades and has included taxidermied deer trophies, swans, an alligator, and a sheep.

In their Brooklyn apartment, sisters Hollister and Porter Hovey favor a masculine colonial aesthetic with game trophies and paintings of pipe-smoking men that calls to mind 19th-century men's clubs. Photo by Porter Hovey.

In their Brooklyn apartment, sisters Hollister and Porter Hovey favor a masculine colonial aesthetic with game trophies and paintings of pipe-smoking men that calls to mind 19th-century men’s clubs. Photo by Porter Hovey.

“Some parts of the Victorian era I don’t love that much,” Hollister says. “But it was a time when the interpretation of science was so incredibly beautiful. There was an outpouring of beauty through things that you don’t normally associate with aesthetics— from military uniforms to Darwin’s ‘Origin of the Species.’”

The Hoveys (Hollister’s Tumblr and Blogspot pages are simply under her name, while Porter’s is called “Kissssing: A Love Blog“) like to give their animals and Victorian items space to “breathe,” instead of going for the full-fledged frilly and overstuffed opulence of a 19th-century parlor.

“We have ’70s chrome chairs, and our coffee table is bent glass,” Hollister says. “It’s really quite modern, but perhaps closer to 1920s Art Deco. I find it very boring if someone has a gingerbread Victorian home, and it looks like it was lifted from 1890 and no one’s changed it. I’ve toured palaces, and I always find the ornate décor quite dull. If you put just one chair from the palace in a simple room, it would be the most beautiful thing ever. But it completely loses its punch when it’s crammed in with so much similar stuff.”

This table reveals the Hoveys' fascination with antique scientific artifacts. Photo by Porter Hovey.

This table reveals the Hoveys’ fascination with antique scientific artifacts. Photo by Porter Hovey.

Similarly, the store Empiric Studio, which print maker Michael Towey started in L.A. in 1997, sells taxidermy and science-themed decor, often with a ’60s space-age edge. ”An early tag line we used for Empiric was ‘Furnishings for the Home or Lab,’” says Empiric spokeswoman Annie Lockwood Crowninshield. “Our values focus on measurable attributes before fashion and trends; it’s a scientific perspective. The taxidermy falls within the category of ‘things you might find in a laboratory or academic environment.’ It shows respect for knowledge and nature.

“It’s amusing to have a store with an aesthetic theme that is so out of sync with the popular perception of Los Angeles,” she continues. “Our clients love to use science objects for decorating their homes as well as for TV and movie sets. We don’t feel the Mid-Century Modern and Victorian aesthetics are mutually exclusive. Most of our clients are attempting to reconcile their appreciation for diverse periods and styles. It’s challenging, but amazing when successful.”

Unlike clean, streamlined Modern decor, taxidermy is not intended to blend in or serve function before form. “There is always a story behind each piece, even if it is just how the person purchased it,” Marbury the rogue taxidermist explains. “Rather than creating a neutral living space, taxidermy works to personalize it.”

As a kid, Cohn would go scavenging with his dog in upstate New York, and bring home animal skulls and bones they found in the woods. He found inspiration in the bizarre little carnivals with cheap and fake sideshows featuring “the world’s largest pig” or “the world’s largest pumpkin.” When his parents would take him to the American Museum of Natural History, he would come home filled with ideas.

One of Cohn's personal cabinets of curiosities, in his dining room. Photo by Sergio Royzen.

One of Cohn’s personal cabinets of curiosities, in his dining room. Photo by Sergio Royzen.

“I always loved how perfectly everything was presented at the museum,” Cohn says. “Instead of having a skull on a shelf, I would build a little stand for each piece and I would pretend that I was living in a museum. I used to have little drapes that would open. And I’d do carnival performances for my family as the master of ceremonies, saying things like, ‘Step right up!’”

Cohn says he never had a lot of money growing up, so he filled his room up with these strange things he found in the woods. When he got old enough to have a little disposable income, he’d go looking for taxidermy pieces and other antiques.

Hovey admits the “wealthy white man conquering nature” aesthetic is totally not politically correct.

“I never wanted a deer head,” Cohn says. “I wanted things you couldn’t find in America. I’d go to these country flea markets in upstate New York and say, ‘Hey, do you have any monkeys?’”

Cohn thinks the recession of 2009 has prompted a renewed enthusiasm for musty Victorian-era antiques found for a bargain at flea markets and thrift stores.

“During the recession, people didn’t have a lot of money to go to SoHo to buy pristine stuff,” Cohn says. “If you buy a less-than-perfect antique, you might have to fix it up a little bit yourself, but then you can work with that aesthetic. Why did taxidermy become so popular? I’m not totally sure. But it definitely has, and you see it all over New York City, especially in bars and restaurants. Some of them do it very well; some of them don’t.”

Hovey agrees that hard times fueled the new market for antiques. “What’s amazing is that you can buy all these things for very little now, thanks to eBay and hours and hours spent trolling flea markets. Very few things we have are precious at all, but I love each and every piece. ”

The Hoveys' aesthetic incorporates turn-of-the-century militaria and taxidermy. Photo by Porter Hovey.

The Hoveys’ aesthetic incorporates turn-of-the-century militaria and taxidermy. Photo by Porter Hovey.

The irony, of course, is that this now-affordable style often has colonial, aristocratic origins. For example, the Hovey sisters tend to be attracted to a masculine aesthetic that incorporates taxidermy, turn-of-the-century militaria, fencing swords, and other preppy items that might have been displayed at a 19th-century men’s club. Hollister says it’s a combination of their antiques- and nature-loving mom (large, lacy Venetian mirrors) and their colonial-military-collecting “Tintin”-reading dad (pith helmets and Scottish military prints).

“My favorite thing that we have is this big 1933 portrait of a gentleman hunter and his dog. He’s holding a shotgun and smoking a cigarette,” Hovey says. “It’s like something you’d see at Ralph Lauren, but much quirkier than the generic Ralph Lauren aesthetic would ever be.”

Hovey admits the “wealthy white man conquering foreign lands and nature” aesthetic is “totally not politically correct. But I think you can focus on the beauty of the objects and, at the same time, recognize that the past wasn’t perfect.”

Carl Akeley, the "father of modern taxidermy," and the leopard he killed with his bare hands. Image via the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Carl Akeley, the “father of modern taxidermy,” and the leopard he killed with his bare hands. Image via the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

Carl Akeley, considered the father of modern taxidermy, was one of those swashbuckling manly men who went on many an expedition to Africa. A member of the Explorers Club and a traveling companion to Teddy Roosevelt, he killed a leopard with his bare hands, and his bushy beard would make any Brooklyn hipster tremble with envy. Akeley created the most breathtaking dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, including the Hall of African Mammals, and he was, in particular, known for carving anatomically correct forms for the skins that mimicked the veins and musculature of beasts like elephants and gorillas.

Interestingly, an encounter with a gorilla in the 1920s gave Akeley a change of heart about “collecting” specimens, even though he was still in favor of taxidermy in the name of science. Nonetheless, he declared killing for sport abhorrent and started the conservation movement, encouraging King Albert of Belgium to open a gorilla refuge on Mount Mikeno that’s now known as Virunga National Park, located in the Congo, Africa.

Mountain gorillas, seen in a diorama created by Akeley in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. Instead of stuffing the skins with straw, Akeley carved forms that imitated the musculature of the mighty creatures. Image via the museum's Tumblr blog.

Mountain gorillas, seen in a diorama created by Akeley in the Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. Instead of stuffing the skins with straw, Akeley carved forms that imitated the musculature of the mighty creatures. Image via the museum’s Tumblr blog.

These days, it’s easy to take our familiarity with nature for granted. Children and adults alike have numerous opportunities to learn about exotic animals, by seeing them in person in simulated habitats at nearby zoos, as well as in books with color photographs, on the Discovery and Animal Planet TV channels, and through Internet images, videos, and live zoo cams. Back in Victorian times, taxidermied African savannah dioramas were probably the closest anyone living in industrializing New York City might come to seeing so many exotic animals in their native environments.

Marbury asserts that our world of color photographs, and TV and Internet videos, has actually made animals even more abstract in our minds. “In contemporary society, we are raised with animals all around us. But not real animals; they’re almost totem animals: Bears are big and clumsy; foxes are sly; lions are proud, etc. We think of animals as being a part of our lives, but few people have real access to them. Taxidermy is not ‘real access,’ either. Victorians in the urban environment only saw exotics in diorama, but many contemporaries have never seen a platypus in the wild or even in a zoo. Llamas, ostriches, red pandas, flying foxes, lyre birds—most of these are still conceptual for people today.”

Carl Akeley had a change of heart about his work on a 1920s expedition to a gorilla habitat in Africa. Image via the American Museum of Natural History.

Carl Akeley had a change of heart about his work on a 1920s expedition to a gorilla habitat in Africa. Image via the American Museum of Natural History.

Hollister Hovey acknowledges her disconnection from nature, but that’s part of what inspires her to employ taxidermy in decorating. With its unique mix of animals and one-of-a-kind antiques, her and her sister’s design aesthetic allows them to step out of their apartments’ dim, bland urban hallways and into a fantasy world of their own creation.

“If I ever had a country home, I would probably make it less rustic,” she says. “Right now, it’s so nice to have that kind of comfortable feeling of country and to have the bits of nature brought into a completely urban environment. In our building’s hallways, it’s dark and boring. There’s just nothing ornate about it at all. So when you walk into the apartment, it’s a huge surprise. The juxtaposition of that interior compared to the exterior is important. If you’re in the country, it’s not as special because you have real nature to appreciate when you’re there.”

In that sense, she’s making her home a space for self-indulgent whimsy much like the aristocratic protagonist Jean Des Esseintes in the 1884 French novel “Against Nature.” In 2009, “Oddities” co-host Cohn and three partners, Amber Doyle, Jake Mueser, and Simon Jacobs, opened Against Nature, a store named after that book, in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, they sell gentlemanly Doyle Mueser bespoke suits, custom jeans, taxidermy, and Navajo-style jewelry that Cohn creates. These silver and turquoise pieces, a trade taught to Cohn by an 80-year-old Ralph Lauren jeweler, resemble the bracelets, rings, and concho belts sold by late-19th-century Native Americans to East Coast Victorians who would tour the Southwest on trains and bring home souvenirs.

Taxidermied elephants appear to charge in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, American Museum of Natural History.

Taxidermied elephants appear to charge in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, American Museum of Natural History.

Like Esseintes, the Victorians were obsessed with collecting and filling their homes with extraordinary story-worthy objects, whether it was a Navajo rug or a cabinet of curiosities stuffed with mutated and deformed scientific specimens. At the time, the famed showman P.T. Barnum was traveling the world with his carnival featuring side shows, including the famous science hoax “Fiji Mermaid,” billed as a voluptuous sea vixen, which was really the frightening torso of a mummified monkey sewn to the taxidermied body of a fish.

In the mid-1800s, decades before “Against Nature” was published, British taxidermist Walter Potter was also making a name for himself, but unlike Akeley, he didn’t put his straw- and sawdust-filled animals in natural habitats. Instead, he created elaborate anthropomorphic scenes wherein cuddly kittens sit around a table having afternoon tea, or fuzzy rabbits study at desks and write on slates. He also taxidermied a few disturbingly deformed critters, including an eight-legged cat and a lamb with two heads. Displayed in his Bramber, Sussex, museum for more than 100 years, this collection was seen as the ultimate embodiment of Victorian eccentricity.

But in the mid-20th century, thanks to Akeley’s conservation movement and the rising interest in animal rights, people became more and more uncomfortable with the dioramas seen in museums all over the Western world, raising questions about where the animals came from. In her 2008 post-doctorate paper, “The Matter and Meaning of Museum Taxidermy” Poliquin explains, “Museums are no longer uncritically accepted as the cathedrals of nature that they were during taxidermy’s heyday in the 19th century … Museums with 19th-century roots have been criticized as complicit with the colonial project, and their collections branded as imperial archives.”

A 1930s photo Walter Potter's Rabbit School diorama, when it was still on display at his Bramber, Sussex, museum. Image via Wikipedia, Creative Commons license.

A 1930s photo Walter Potter’s Rabbit School diorama, when it was still on display at his Bramber, Sussex, museum. Image via Wikipedia, Creative Commons license.

Beyond changes in social politics, there’s also the “creepy” factor that some taxidermy elicits. For example, despite the increasing acceptance of taxidermy—and the long-held European tradition of honoring beloved pets like hunting dogs by having them taxidermied after death—the Potter collection with its strange deformed-looking kittens is still considered just a bit too weird for mainstream, modern animal-loving tastes. Damien Hirst, the artist who cause a stir in the 1990s exhibiting real rotting cow’s head covered in maggots and a dead shark suspended in tank of formaldehyde, was one of the few who expressed interest in purchasing the whole Potter collection when it went up for auction in 2003. Instead of selling all of it to him, Bonhams auctioned it off, item by item.

Poliquin writes that taxidermy “is the queasy art of seeing what would not, should not, be seen.”

But such odd-looking and poorly made Potter-esque critters from once-cute pets are exactly the sort of taxidermy pieces Cohn and his ilk are attracted to.

“One of my prized possessions—and other collectors have come into my home and offered me crazy amounts of money for it—is a prop from the original ‘Addams Family’. It’s two taxidermied domestic cats wrestling. Actually, if you flip them around, it looks like they’re dancing. But they’re crudely done. Apparently it was bought from Warner Bros. back in the day, and it was one of the props that they just weren’t using anymore.”

Rogue taxidermists often cite Potter, and even Barnum, as an influence—putting their taxidermied creatures into similar anthropomorphic settings, dressed as people or mimicking human social rituals. “Potter’s ‘The Death and Burial of Cock Robin’ is a beautiful tableau, almost religious,” Marbury says.

Sarina Brewer's taxidermy art piece "Capricorn" caused a stir on the Internet. Photo courtesy of Sarina Brewer.

Sarina Brewer’s taxidermy art piece “Capricorn” caused a stir on the Internet. Image courtesy of Custom Creature Taxidermy Arts  ©2011 Sarina Brewer.

Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists co-founder Sarina Brewer also breaks with mainstream taxidermy by combining animals to make fantastic cryptozoological creatures like the chimera, a mythical hybrid of lion, goat, and snake. Her lovely capricorn (a goat with a fish tail) piece became something of an Internet sensation. “That piece is terribly beautiful and somehow rises above kitsch,” Marbury says.

Combining animals is a way traditional taxidermists can cheat in competitions, to present the most perfect specimen, which is why mixing is generally frowned on. But even traditional taxidermists are not above making jokey jackalopes (jack rabbits with antlers) or pine boogeys (deer tails fit with teeth and eyes). Many MART artists have made chupacabra, single-horned nardogs, Fiji mermaids, and ADAM, or “A Dead Animal Man.” At least one rogue taxidermist says it comes from a God complex, the subconscious desire to create new life forms, Marbury says.

A vintage "jackalope" postcard, showing the popular cryptozoological critter of the American West.

A vintage “jackalope” postcard, showing the popular cryptozoological critter of the American West.

Like many MART artists, Marbury, who has made feral creatures out of recycled plush toys, is influenced by the history of cryptozoology, from Pliny the Elder’s “Naturalis Historia” to Jorge Luis Borges’ “Book of Imaginary Beings” to the Montauk Monster washing ashore on Long Island.

“It is pretty important for people to believe in things they cannot prove,” Marbury says. “Outside of religion, I think people need to feel that the world has not been totally explained yet, that there is some mystery and magic left in the world. Even the strictest of scientists leave part of their minds open to mystery. That’s how they discover new animals every year.”

While most people in the Western world are still enchanted by such mysteries, they are less often faced with death, which is probably why taxidermy, like Victorian death photos, can make modern folks feel a little creeped out.

Zach Braff cuddles with Rowdy the taxidermied dog in the TV sitcom "Scrubs."

Zach Braff cuddles with Rowdy the taxidermied dog in the TV sitcom “Scrubs.”

“I do think that taxidermists in general always feel like they’re being treated like Norman Bates,” Marbury says. “They call it the ‘Psycho’ response. But if people are collecting taxidermy without some knowledge of, or essence of kitsch, then there’s something wrong, too, because that’s part of it. There’s definitely this sense of contradictory aesthetics.”

That said, in traditional taxidermy, the kind you find at Van Dyke’s, Cabela’s, Research Mannikins, or Taxidermy.net, Marbury explains, animals most often appear as if they are alive, and even when animals are portrayed as dead, it is taboo to show them bleeding. Defying that, MART artists like Brooke Weston and co-founder Scott Bibus make death explicit in their work, portraying the animals that look bloody, battered, or discolored with signs of decay.

“People tend to respond to me and my group like we’re alternating between blood-lust hillbillies and snobby, gallery-smart hipsters, and that’s it,” Marbury says. “Those are the only two things you can be. The answer is obviously somewhere in between. Most taxidermists I know are interested in it from a sincere, naturalist point of view. They have a real love of nature, even if the work they’re producing is a little questionable or dark. Quite honestly, nature can be dark.”

Esteemed British artist Polly Morgan, a member of the U.K. Guild of Taxidermists, made a splash in 2005 with her mournful pieces that depict animals just after their moment of death, rather than before. A chick in a bell jar looks curiously at the limp body of its pigeon friend; a white mouse with delicate pink ears and tail is curled up in a wine glass, almost as if it passed away gently in its sleep.

In Polly Morgan's "Morning" from 2007, a taxidermied robin is caught in a pane of glass. Image via Flickr, copyright Polly Morgan.

In Polly Morgan’s “Morning” from 2007, a taxidermied robin is caught in a pane of glass. Image via Flickr, copyright Polly Morgan.

Belgian graphic designer and taxidermy artist Annick Debaillie of Aldo Workshop asserted in an interview on Poliquin’s blog that people who are uncomfortable with taxidermy are in denial about the way people use animals every day. “Perhaps people with outspoken opinions against taxidermy don’t like to be confronted with the fact that animals are killed,” she says.

After all, animals are still exploited as beasts of burden on farms, and as suppliers of material for coats, sweaters, shoes, belts, blankets, and sofas. Rodents and bugs are quickly murdered when they infest homes. Even the wildly popular feather hair weave trend spread by Ke$ha is leading to senseless and wasteful deaths of thousands of roosters. And of course, animals are killed and processed daily to make the hamburgers, bacon, and chicken nuggets we buy prepared at fast-food chains and grocery stores.

In 2008, the artist known as Banksy put taxidermy and animatronics to use to comment on how blissfully unaware most Americans are when it comes to how food gets to our tables. At his temporary storefront, “The Village Pet Store and Charcoal Grill,” a taxidermied leopard lounged on a tree branch in one cage; in another, a Potter-esque bunny put on makeup in a mirror. In yet another, chicken nuggets sipped from a container of barbecue sauce, while fish sticks “swam” in a fish bowl.

Aldo puts it this way on Ravishing Beasts: Today’s contemporary art projects “question the human uses and abuses of animals. As taxidermy becomes rare and less in demand due to our changing awareness of nature and wildlife, control on wildlife trade, wildlife protection, taxidermy legislation, etc., the value of antique taxidermy increases and a different kind of collector surfaces.”

Today, of course, naturalists, animal lovers, and environmentalists of all stripes have made the culture more aware of such abuses toward animals, particularly when a species is on the verge of extinction. That makes taxidermy and bone collecting a particular minefield for collectors. For example, our national bird, the bald eagle, is so well protected, it’s illegal to even own one feather. Human skeletons sales are highly regulated lest anyone turn to grave-robbing, or worse, to obtain one. Any animal used in taxidermy after 1947 must have paperwork documenting that it died naturally or by accident.

“Anyone working in rogue taxidermy should consult their state’s Department of Natural Resources,” Marbury says. “Some states do not allow people to collect roadkill; others need you to tag the animal with the state before claiming it. Do not collect birds of prey, song birds, migratory birds. There was a huge owl die-off in northern Minnesota a few years ago, people would find the owls and try to get them taxidermied only to find out it was illegal to possess the owls. No endangered animals allowed; even if it as something you found in your grandparent’s attic, it is still illegal. Almost anything needs to have tags to prove where it came from and how you got it.”

The unique interior of Belgian taxidermy artist Annick Debaillie's apartment, filled with her work and creative inspiration. Image via Rachel Poliquin's Ravishing Beasts blog.

The unique interior of Belgian taxidermy artist Annick Debaillie’s apartment, filled with her work and creative inspiration. Image via Rachel Poliquin’s Ravishing Beasts blog.

A June article in “American Hunter” mocked young urbanites in places like New York City or Los Angeles who want to visit a trendy restaurant with moose heads or antlers hanging as decor, but want nothing to do with hunting, or the process of how the animal got that way.

Executive field editor Frank Miniter ruefully posted: “So I asked the bartender at Home Sweet Home, a tavern not far from Wall Street, ‘Who shot the lion?’ His eyebrows fluttered as if it had never occurred to him that someone had once put a bullet in the beast before he remarked, ‘I think we got that at an online auction or something.’ No kidding.”

Marbury agrees with that sentiment and think it’s an important part of the discussion. “There is a delicate battle going on in the world of hunters,” he says. “They are restricted and taxed and challenged by naturalists, and they feel attacked. In many ways, they are. One taxidermist I know collects money for his organization to fend off the ‘cult of the anti-hunters.’ He’s not too far off.”

Members of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists, however, aren’t afraid to get their hands dirty, even digging through Chinatown fish market dumpsters in the name of art. The group also hosts parties called Master Class/Game Feeds around the U.S., where an animal used for a taxidermy demonstration is then prepared and served as food, not letting any part of an animal go to waste. A vegan version of the same dish is also prepared and served.

A scarlet ibis seen at the Deyrolle taxidermy shop in Paris. Image via Deyrolle.

A scarlet ibis seen at the Deyrolle taxidermy shop. Image via Deyrolle, ©Mark Dantan.

“We did this Master Class in Los Angeles with a squirrel and then we made squirrel chili,” Marbury says. “We do this because I think that you’re limiting yourself if you don’t bring into the conversation the food industry and the clothing industry. I believe this makes the scope of the gray areas discussed a little more tangible. People do eat squirrel, and in Europe right now, it’s become a big delicacy again. However, it’s illegal to sell squirrel as food in the United States, so you can’t buy it from a butcher.”

Marbury made sure to first check with the California Department of Natural Resources to affirm it was legal to both import and cook the squirrels.

“Rogue taxidermists have a real love of nature, even if the work they’re producing is a little dark,” Marbury says. “Quite honestly, nature can be dark.”

Still, at the event, “this woman started freaking out. I would not call her an educated activist because her response was to say ‘squirrels are nice’, and that was the gist of her argument. Squirrels are inherently neutral, and if you think they’re nice, that’s on you. I can’t tell you how many people I know who have been attacked by a squirrel. They’re animals. We have this thing where we’re okay if you’ve got antlers on your wall. Somehow it’s different if the animal is deemed ‘cute.’”

One risk with employing newly made taxidermy, though, is the smell, particularly, if an amateur taxidermist did not take the time to clean off all the flesh attached to the skin. However, collectors like Cohn don’t have to worry about that, if their poorly made pieces are 100 years old. More often than not, when a piece smells bad, Marbury says, it’s actually the stench of strong bug repellant for beetles and moths.

“We actually had to throw away the sheep because it got moths and they ate the wool,” says Hollister Hovey. “That was quite sad because it’s like having a neat piece of art in your house. You become attached to it, and form a lot of memories. It was a piece of inspiration that led to me to other great things.”

Trophies displayed at Debaillie's apartment. Image via Ravishing Beasts.

Trophies displayed at Debaillie’s apartment. Image via Ravishing Beasts.

On her blog, Ravishing Beasts, Poliquin explains that taxidermy continually fascinates her because it’s “unique, frequently wrong, and altogether compelling.” It’s likely that all these complications and contradictions make taxidermy so appealing. Today’s taxidermy artists and collectors often want to startle people and engage them in conversations about the treatment of animals and the nature of life and death.

“I think we all experience dissociation from nature to varying degrees and it appears to have negative and positive consequences,” Empiric’s Crowninshield says. “Using bits of animals in the home has been happening for a rather long time. I don’t expect it to go away any time soon.”

4 comments so far

  1. Marianne Dow Says:

    Lisa – what an excellent article. You covered so many facets of this odd hobby. I loved all the photos, and the quotes. It was rivetting. Well done!

  2. Rex Says:

    NOPE! Chuck Testa!

  3. Clare Says:

    The Torrington Gopher Hole Museum in Alberta, Canada houses a collection of dioramas featuring Richardson’s Ground Squirrels in comic situations. A bit more Walter [and Beatrix!] Potter than anything Victorian, it has proved a hipster-kitsch goldmine since its inception in 1996.

    http://www.roadtripamerica.com/places/gopher.htm

  4. A Bouts Says:

    All the above is fine work but like what commenter Rex said nobody can beat Chuck Testa’s works of art. Here are some samples http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LJP1DphOWPs


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