Amateur taxidermists turn furry road kill into fanciful creations
BALTIMORE — This is not your dad’s stuffed deer head.
After decades of being relegated to man caves and hunting lodges, taxidermy is hip.
Three television shows delve into the art of preserving animals, and its practitioners, who are, as you might imagine, a quirky lot. There are national taxidermy competitions and conferences and even a Brooklyn museum devoted to the art.
At Bazaar, a curiosity shop in Baltimore’s Hampden neighborhood that opened last year, taxidermied ducklings that died soon after pecking through their shells, jars with preserved fox and coyote heads and even a rare albino raccoon are on display. The shop can’t keep up with the demand for the taxidermy workshops it started hosting last month.
Tickets for an upcoming class on preserving moles — and outfitting them with eyeglasses and coffee mugs — sold out within minutes, said Bazaar co-owner Greg Hatem, 26.
“We had people lined up at the door to get in the class,” he said.
Unlike the stuffed bucks and bears of years past, today’s taxidermy skews toward the fanciful. Think two-headed squirrels, goats with fishtails or mice wearing petticoats.
Practitioners are more likely to scour country roads for dead animals than hunt. And, in contrast to the boys club atmosphere in most taxidermy shops, many of the biggest names in taxidermy today are women.
Like any other art
“It’s like any other art,” said Miranda Beck, 36, a Baltimore aesthetician. “It’s so interesting to me to have these wild, untamable animals in my living room, to bring the wildness in.”
Beck vowed to learn taxidermy to mark her 30th birthday and, since then, she has preserved eight animals. And that’s not counting the pets she mummified for friends or the earrings she fashioned from deer vertebrae.
Beck, who grew up in the city, said her closest brushes with wildlife as a child were taxidermied animals in the Smithsonian. A self-described “anatomy geek,” she savors studying animals she would never be able to get close to in the wild.
“You notice the different textures of fur,” she said. “Otherwise you’d never know the difference between the fur of a raccoon and a fox.”
While modern taxidermy — the practice of preserving, stuffing and mounting animals — arose in the 1700s, the current fascination is inspired by the whimsical creations of the Victorian era, said Robert Marbury. He is a Baltimore resident, although he’s also the president of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists.
While traditional taxidermists attempt to create a perfect specimen of an animal in a lifelike pose, rogue taxidermists create chimeras — say the head of a chicken on a body of a cat — or pose animals to make them look human. The works are playful, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and often quite beautiful.
Marbury, whose book, “The Rogue’s Guide to Taxidermy,” is slated to be published in the fall, says taxidermy provides a connection to the visceral realities of fur and bone and death, even — a sharp contrast to the virtual worlds that consume us.
Beck, the aesthetician, was among a dozen people who filed into Bazaar for a winged-guinea pig-making workshop on a recent chilly Sunday.
A partially thawed guinea pig was placed in front of each seat, and participants studied them carefully, picking the furry face they found most appealing. Some of the students looked a little queasy as the reality of the day’s tasks sunk in.
“If anyone needs some fresh air, you can go out the front door,” said Bazaar co-owner Brian Henry, 25. “Or if there’s an emergency, you can go out the back.”
The workshop instructor, Katie Innamorato, 24, handed out scalpels and latex gloves, which, she said, most people prefer to wear.
Innamorato wore a ski hat pulled over her long, wavy Janis Joplin-like hair and a fox tail clipped to her waist band. She peppered the workshop with tales of Banjo, the fox that she rescued from an unscrupulous owner and lived with in a cabin in the woods for several months. Banjo was sweet and snugly, but smelled terrible and had a penchant for stealing brie, she said. Eventually, she gave him to a zoo.
She said she wanted to be a vet when she was growing up but her interest in art — as well as dead animals — led her to taxidermy.
“I used to pick up road kill when I was a kid,” she said.
Innamorato found an elderly taxidermist who, unlike many in the business, was willing to take on a woman as an apprentice.
As an art major at the State University of New York at New Paltz, Innamorato blurred the lines between taxidermy and sculpture, including preserved animals in gallery shows.
“My professors didn’t care, but Health and Safety came in,” she said, explaining that it took months to convince university officials that the taxidermied animals did not pose health concerns.
Innamorato, along with Divya Anantharaman, who is teaching the mole workshop at Bazaar, is a taxidermist-in-residence at Brooklyn’s Morbid Anatomy Museum. She has been featured on two TV shows, “Oddities” and “Odd Folks Home,” and has taught workshops around the country.
Innamorato floated through the classroom, guiding students as they pushed in the scalpels just below the base of the guinea pigs’ skulls. They sliced along the spine, then peeled the skin from the creatures’ muscles and viscera, which, several people pointed out, looked rather like raw chicken.
Jody Sanford, 51, collected the discarded organs and muscles to leave in the woods near her farm in Freeland for other animals to eat.
The guinea pigs used for the class were “feeders” — animals bred to be fed to snakes or other pets. Rogue taxidermists generally do not kill creatures for taxidermy, preferring to use road kill or animals that have died naturally. However, animals that have been killed for food, either human or pet, occupy a “gray area,” said Marbury, president of the rogue taxidermy association.
Such animals are often used for workshops, as they are likely to be uniform, in good condition, and free of diseases or pests.
Eleni Diamantopoulos had her own way of demonstrating respect for her guinea pig. She gave it a name: Eloise.
A graphic designer for the Netflix series “House of Cards,” Diamantopoulos and her wife, artist Nikki Diamantopoulos, said they’ve gotten hooked on taxidermy since Bazaar opened last year. They have several pieces in their Hampden home and gave taxidermied ducklings to guests at their wedding last summer.
Despite her appreciation for taxidermy, Eleni Diamantopoulos said the actual act of cutting into the dead body of a guinea pig made her queasy.
The room smelled like rubbing alcohol — which is used to dry and preserve the skins — and a faint, animal smell a little like cat food.
The work was tedious. After removing the animals’ muscles and organs, the students spent more than an hour scraping bits of tissue off the inside of the skin, a process called “fleshing.”
“It sucks when you’re doing this with a bear,” said Innamorato. “It takes hours and hours.”
The participants then soaked the skins, dried them, stuffed them and sewed them back up. The faces required delicate work, as did preserving the creatures’ fragile pink ears.
Chris Ridings of Staunton, Va., accidentally sliced off one of his guinea pig’s paws, necessitating some painstaking needlework.
“It’s hard to sew white fur onto white fur,” said the 28-year-old social worker.
As the students sewed quail wings to the guinea pigs’ backs, Innamorato explained that the list of animals on which you can perform taxidermy is rather short. Many birds are considered protected species, and can’t be used for taxidermy even when they are found dead. Laws about preserving larger animals, such as deer, vary widely from state to state.
Then it was time for the final touches. The participants rolled little balls of clay under the animals’ mouths to shape their facial expressions. They pushed ball-headed pins into the eye sockets and used wires to adjust the guinea pigs’ limbs.
Kim Kelly, 36, posed her guinea pig with one paw raised.
“I wanted him to be regal, for people to bow down to him,” the Upper Marlboro resident said.
Nikki Diamantopoulos posed her guinea pigs with legs outstretched, as if flying Superman-style.
Leeann Hoerr, a 31-year-old office manager from Bel Air, said she thought her 7-year-old daughter would love the winged guinea pig. She planned to keep it in the bookcase where her family displays special pictures.
“It’s your own design,” she said. “Your own doll in animal form.”