Gin and Tonic: A Look into the Subculture of Taxidermists
Taxidermy is generally viewed as the reanimation of an animal form after it has passed. Whether seen as a hobby, an art form, or the creepy heads lining southern houses and quirky antique shops, taxidermy has existed for centuries, and along with hunting and farming had lost popularity in the most recent years. Quite recently, taxidermy has moved from the expected Midwest or South and has begun a movement in New York City. Moving from “log cabins to hipster havens,” taxidermists as a subculture have begun holding classes and shows in Brooklyn and have had individuals get articles in The New York Times. Taxidermy and taxidermists have been a subculture for decades, but now many subsets have grown tight-knit groups of people. These entities have created a really unique and unexpected variance within the subculture due to factors such as location, but why now? Why has taxidermy just begun to gain interest in Brooklyn while it’s been common for decades to see a deer posted on a wall in Texas? Why has taxidermy been more apparent in movies such as the Wes Anderson films or “Dinner for Shmucks” now? What brings this newfound interest to taxidermy so recently is the same reason a fascination has grown for thrifting and steampunk. It is a way to reconnect with older times, a way to connect back to an American tradition usually done by the hicks in flannels but now done by New York City artists. To taxidermy an animal means reanimating an animal that is no more. In the taxidermy of an animal, a preservation of life or legacy is created, similar to the portraits of dead babies when infant mortality was high in the 1800’s. Taxidermy is both a connection to the past, and also a connection to the memory of those who passed.
The first time I was ever introduced to taxidermy I was only six or seven. The Italian kid a year older than me, Joey Verastro, said, “Hey! You wanna see Bambi!?” and to my horror saw a deer head sitting in a box. Roadkill gave me the chills and I refused to touch the frog we dissected my freshman year of high school, but last Sunday I sucked it up and walked into a building full of Bambi’s and frogs. I had entered the Morbid Anatomy Museum, home to the new interest of taxidermy in New York City.
Set in Brooklyn, you did not expect to see a building as peculiar as this when walking through the neighborhood. In fact, this part of Brooklyn felt much less like the city to me and much more like Yonkers. With apartments lining the streets, a few restaurants across, and a New Millennium Motors right across, the Morbid Anatomy Museum stuck out among everything else. It was a black brick block on the corner of 7th and 3rd. There was no mistaking it because the building’s two sides had “Morbid Anatomy Museum” painted in huge white letters. Even before walking in I let out a giggle. “What?” my friend Helen asked, and I pointed. Two statues of saints stood in the glass windows to greet you as you walked in. Just like the ones in a church, only these greeted you to a house of the dead. “Here we go,” I thought, and already had my fingernails digging into my palms.
Just as expected, the first word that popped into my head was “weird”. A whole room lined in taxidermy, but not just taxidermy, there were books and trinkets as well, like any other museum’s gift shop. One box at the register was labeled, “Random Old Photos…$1.50 each.” In fact, a lot of the taxidermy in this opening entrance was for sale. From stuffed animals to skeletons to canned fetuses, the museum had certainly filled the room. The fetuses were the most difficult to look at; I felt my nails dig a bit deeper when I saw those. There were fox tails and antlers, framed bats and four mice spinning on a wheel, and two possum heads, one with its tongue sticking out. On top of one of the sets of shelves that held ducklings and sea life and framed butterflies there were three huge bones—parts of an elephant, I learned after reading the card.
The best way to describe the Museum was as a hole in the wall. Though it was a large space, you could tell that after only being up for five months they had appreciated the pipes in the ceilings and the stairs in the basement that led to nothing but a wall. It all contributed to the scene, a scene in which people of all sorts gathered to look at dead things while eerie music played in the background. One employee there stood out among many. Along with her bright fuchsia hair tossed up into a bee’s nest of a bun was a necklace of bones and a 50’s skirt and shoes. She held a vaporizer in one hand and a bottle of gin in the other (gin was free that day thanks to a killer sponsor). If you looked closely you would see that under the necklace of bones a tattoo of a set of wings stretched over her chest. I watched her as she ran around the basement in a tizzy helping this presenter and that, then sitting down again, exhausted, pulling out her vaporizer and gin to sit back and relax. Another woman who looked like she was in her 50s or 60s had light lavender hair with bangs chopped rather short and wore all black—a black shirt with a thick black belt, a black fur coat slung against the back of her chair, and a black maxi skirt. Her hair was tied up into a scrunchy decorated with bright and big flowers. While my eyes moved past a woman wearing chickens for earrings, I also saw a man. With a gaunt face and shoe polish black hair, he wore a dark grey satin scarf and held a glass of gin in his hand. He looked like a character out of a Mafia movie.
Though I had gone for the taxidermy, many other topics and fascinations were being presented that day. I ran up the stairs to catch the last few minutes of a Victorian Hair jewelry tour being given by my jewelry professor. Once I arrived, the scene had totally changed. Rather than dead animals it had switched to portraits of babies. I watched the tour and looked in admiration at the little hairs woven into ornate and beautiful broaches and bracelets. When we arrived at another wall, the dead babies had been explained. Back when babies died more frequently in the 1800s, it was common to have portraits done of the dead children. I had not noticed this before because the dead infants were being held by their mothers or fathers, and just looked like they were sleeping. I shuddered and shook my head in disbelief, but one word kept bouncing around in my head, “common”. It was common to die at an early age and, of course, memorial was common as well. After the end of the tour we walked into a room off the main and saw, yes, more taxidermy. Some were a bit more avant-garde this time, like the duckling with a little hat, the mouse holding a sign that read “Morbid Anatomy Museum” in script, and a duckling with two heads. There were more canned fetuses, and canned bones that were died purple or blue so that they stood out in the water. Other trinkets laid here as well. Also, there was a shelf of books dedicated to sex, my favorites being The Look of Love and The Anatomy of the Female Pelvis. After sitting in on two lectures, “Seductive Drugs” and “The Not-So-Fun Funhouse,” we went back upstairs to meet Divya, the woman who is allowing me to visit her studio. In her 20s or 30s, she stood tall in her heels. She wore black leather pants, a pink sequin kitty cropped top, and cat ears to top off the look. We met and she looked so excited to have me. Afterwards we left and made our way back to the subway. As we rode back to school my friend Helen said, “Open-minded. You had to be very open-minded to stomach what we saw today.”
I chose to delve into taxidermy because my jewelry professor is involved with it. She not only introduced me to the museum, but to Divya as well. Although connected to each other by taxidermy, both had studied at Pratt and had jobs in the fashion and jewelry industries. Divya compared taxidermy to the tanneries, “It’s so interesting when I told people I was a shoe designer and I worked with leather and snakeskin they were very fascinated by it and they’d picture this glamorous job, but a lot of the tanneries I went to then were way grosser than any tannery I’ve visited for taxidermy. Way more disgusting than anything I have to work with now. You’re using so many of the same raw materials but when you say taxidermy some people are really grossed out.” (Anantharaman) Divya and Karen were not the people one would expect to see taking a dead animal and stuffing it. Karen, a mom with round glasses and a dirty blonde bob, could be a bit more expected to but only after you saw her wearing a necklace of donkey teeth. Her connection to the Morbid Anatomy Museum was strong not only for taxidermy but also for Victorian Hair Jewelry. Divya, however, in her 20s or 30s dressed in black or sequin cropped tops would never be expected to, but she was a self-taught professional. Karen did not sell much of her taxidermy, but instead kept most of it around her house. I asked, “What does your family think about the taxidermy, are they ok with it?” She answered, “The taxidermy is all over the house, I have a pretty tolerant family. They don’t necessarily like to taxidermy. They’re kind of…used to it as much as they can be. They’re certainly not squeamish.” (Bachmann) She also spoke about her favorite piece, “The raccoon heads on a plate are my favorite. I’m forever working on this installation piece called ‘Road Kill Banquet’ in which I take taxidermy I’ve done and stuffed it into my mother-in- laws ugly china which I will never goddamn use. As old ladies will in this country she had the ugliest little teacups and what not. My husband wouldn’t let me throw it out so I kind of got around that by stuffing it with roadkill.”(Bachmann) Divya however had turned taxidermy into her career. After working in the fashion industry and running back and forth from China to the US, the few classes she had taught on taxidermy had gained enough popularity overtime that she had made the move and became a professional taxidermist. Most of her work was sold, but both Karen and Divya explained to me that taxidermy pets could not be sold. While Karen told me about the Chihuahua her student plans to give to her after it has passed, Divya told me about a pet rat and its owner. “Pets are so personal. I’ve done a pet rat that was really funny. When the lady dropped her off she was really calm and collected and wanted a really simple mount with it just sleeping on a pillow. When I gave her the mount she was super happy. But then she started texting me. Weeks later she’d be like, ‘I miss Dolly.’ And this went on for a couple of months and I thought, ok, maybe I need to start screening these people because she needed a therapist. And I can’t be the therapist but I can be the taxidermist. So it came to, OK, I can’t keeping doing this, like I’m at a party, it’s my birthday!” (Anantharaman)
Helen, who lived in Texas all eighteen years of her life until coming to New York this year for school, said it well, “Divya’s not the type of person you see taxidermying in Texas. At home everyone has at least one deer on their wall and that’s because the big guy with a beard and a flannel shot it. I see a lot of taxidermy in antique shops but not like this,” (Minor) referring to Divya’s studio in Greenpoint. A few blocks away from the G Train on Java and Provost, Divya’s studio was on the third floor and was set in a small room, not even to herself as she shared it with a friend who was a painter. We walked in and were immediately greeted with a “Sorry for the mess, guys,” to which Helen and I glanced at each other with a perplexed smirk. When Divya had warned us of the mess in her studio, Helen expected vats of chemicals while I assumed the worst (as in animal guts on the table). So, as she showed us around and allowed us to take pictures I watched with much appreciation. This studio was no bigger than the size of my room and she only had half of it to work with. There was a table with tools on it similar to the pliers I use for jewelry and there was a pig with two heads on it. As you looked from wall to wall everything was covered in taxidermied masterpieces. Unlike the classic deer mountings, these were fairytales. A fawn standing in a patch of flowers; the deer had eyelashes long and silver, similar to ones you buy at Forever 21, and the flowers continued up to the fawn’s mouth and covered it delicately. “It was way in the beginning when I just started. And this guy said he had two deer fawns that he had found in his dad’s freezer. He said one of them was a tanned skin and the other one was whole. After calling me back a few months later and changing his mind saying that both deer were tanned, he sent them but didn’t send them overnight. So my doorman gets this dripping box and luckily knew what I did and put it in the employees’ freezer for me and even texted me a picture because we were so close. But I get this box and immediately know that they weren’t both tanned. So I just threw the box in my freezer and didn’t want to look at it for a while but finally just did it. The tanned skin was destroyed; all the hair had fallen off but the whole surprisingly worked out. It was a mess to clean; it was dripping with all sorts of body fluids. But, yeah, so after that disgusting bloody bodily fluid mess I got to make that beautiful blooming little cute guy over there.” (Anantharaman) Across from the deer was another fairytale scene but this time a young fox. Two pheasants, many skulls painted with the galaxies, and little mice lined the rest of the workshop. Nothing phased me until a rat laying on its side on the table caught my eye unexpectedly. After we looked around for quite a while I finally asked, “How do you keep it so clean?!” and she looked at me confused and said, “No, I already apologized, it’s really quite unorganized.” I replied, “Not that, the smell!” I could not understand how a room full of dead animals could not smell terrible, but it did not. The room smelled like Divya did, a bit like perfume. She laughed, “Oh, I understand. Yeah, it’s really not that bad if you skin the animal quickly; that’s really the only time you smell anything bad. The first time I skinned an animal it maybe took three hours, but now I can do it in fifteen minutes.” “It was really hard to find something in Florida that I could try because of the heat. So when I was up in New York for school, I went on this hike upstate and I found this tiny frozen squirrel. I thought, “This was meant to be!” So then I took him home and skinned it. It took forever and I was exhausted, so I left the skin in salt and thought I’d see what happens. A couple days later I mounted it and it didn’t turn out any way I wanted it to, but I was totally hooked.” (Anantharaman)
Karen had told me to research rogue taxidermy and later brought up ethical taxidermy. I thought they were the same, and that being ethical was what made you rogue. What I discovered later was that rogue and ethical were two totally separate things, and you did not have to be rogue to be ethical. While talking to Divya, I realized there was not really a large gap between the taxidermists in Brooklyn compared to the taxidermists who were hunters at all. When asked if taxidermy were an art form, Divya answered with a strong yes, but, to my surprise, when I had asked her to put that into context with location, she still explained it as an art for every taxidermist, “People don’t think it’s an art for the hillbillies in the flannels that shoot the deer left and right but it is. They have to have an understanding of the anatomy. It takes a steady hand, it takes finesse, and, of course a strong stomach, but it is the art of taking something 3D, making it 2D and then making it 3D all over again. In terms of location it’s different but the same. It’s really like any profession; it changes as the old people die and the new people come. A lot of people talk about a divide but there’s a real respect between the rogue and the traditional. The people know it’s such a small crowd so they want to stick together.” (Anantharaman) Both women showed their ethics of animal rights differently. While Karen explained that she was an animal rights activist who only wears fake fur and eats meat that is sustainably sourced, Divya told me about using the entire animal, “I have ivory as a jeweler that I received and worked back with way in the 80’s when it was less regulated. But now I have this ivory from the elephant that has passed so long ago I will not work it because it creates demand. I wear fake fur and I won’t wear old real fur because it creates demand from people that see you wearing it and are maybe less ethical and don’t even give a crap about where it comes from.” (Bachmann) “My personal ethics is using the whole animal. So I eat the meat and even feed my cat the organs. I mean I use everything but the poop. If my fiancé and I get a deer, it’s like we’re set for the whole year; it’s just so much meat.” (Anantharaman) What I learned after talking to both Karen and Divya was that ethical taxidermy was as undefined as ethics; there was no one answer and a lot of gray areas. While Divya supported the taxidermy done by hunters, Karen did not appreciate it as much. Divya explained, “A lot of people think that the traditional guys like the ones who go hunting shooting stuff left and right are unethical, but they’re doing it within the law. It’s a very regulated thing. I think it’s very unfair for people to come up to me and say, “You’re ethical and they’re not” but the law itself is ethical. I think the whole field’s ethics, whether you’re rogue or traditional, are overlooked.” (Anantharaman) Karen has mostly found her animals as feeder animals, such as mice, and roadkill. “I must be the weirdest parent at my daughter’s school. I was picking my kid up from school one day and I saw a pigeon on the road. So I started doing the happy dance and I had a bag with me and I picked it up, wrapped it up, and put it in my purse, and my daughter’s librarian saw me doing it. Yeah she doesn’t talk to me the same way”(Bachmann). While Divya also gets roadkill, she also has many connections with farms and is able to taxidermy many animals through them because they are stillborn. “The farmers sell these stillborn animals and, yeah, they make a buck but then I get to turn it into art.” (Anantharaman)
I asked each woman, “What tool do you think every taxidermist needs and why?” Karen answered with a smile, “Scalpel to open up the animal, your fingers to peel off the skin, and a needle and thread to sew that thing back up,” (Bachmann) and so did Divya, “A good set of knives. They do everything…like everything.” (Anantharaman) I questioned, “How do you think the general public views taxidermy?” Divya answered, “A lot of people think it’s like, oh, you must want to kill everything, but I didn’t say I’m a sociopath; I just said I have this job. I went on a hike with some girls and a flock of ducks flew by and one of the girls said, ‘Do you just want to shoot all of them?’ and I thought, no, I just want to enjoy my fucking hike. If one of them drops then that’s that but c’mon, do you think I’m that terrible of a person that I want to kill everything? I think it really speaks to this curiosity and this discomfort that we have with death. We’ll go and buy the chicken from Whole Foods and it’s in this beautiful package with a nice story but if you really think about it someone has to kill it; it doesn’t just grow on a tree and then fly into the container featherless and ready to eat…Yeah, people don’t think death exists in the world. That’s a change that’s happened over the last 50–100 years. No one recognizes that death exists; It’s crazy.” (Anantharaman)
“The whole appreciation for things from 100 years ago or 150 years ago and the fascination with the Victorian Steampunk revolves around a less modernized and less technological age—that’s appealing.” (Bachmann) I was surprised when Divya had a similar response to Karen’s, “Everyone wants to revisit old times.” (Anantharaman) When Karen and Divya answered my question about why taxidermy was gaining popularity now, I thought back to the Morbid Anatomy Museum. I did not think about the taxidermy, but instead the room with the portraits of the dead babies. Though I had already gotten a better understanding of taxidermy when I was there, Karen’s answer had given me more understanding. These taxidermists were artists; they were not these gruesome people looking to shred and stuff an animal. You had to know the body of the animal, and with that knowledge you were able to reanimate that animal, and almost bring it back to life. That was why I had thought of the babies. Here were parents who had to hold their dead child, but they did it to have that memory. These parents held their dead children so that they could later look at the picture and think of their child, and think of holding him or her. That was the legacy given to these animals as well—to give that dead mouse on the side of the street a new purpose or give the stillborn who never even saw life a place in a museum or a person’s home adorned in flowers from a fairytale. That was why I could stomach this paper. I thought of the act of having to cut open a dead animal and reshape it, but I was taught to see beyond that and appreciate the art and reconnection to life that went with it. “When I started taxidermying that first mouse the first thought was, ‘Oh, my god, it’s coming back to life’.” (Bachmann)
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Anantharaman, Divya. “Interview with Divya Anantharaman.” Personal interview. 10 Dec. 2014.
Bachmann, Karen. “Interview with Karen Bachmann.” Personal interview. 5 Dec. 2014.
Minor, Helen M. “Talk with Helen Minor.” Personal interview. 10 Dec. 2014.