Artifact Taking Care With Broken Things: How I Came to Practice Ethical Taxidermy
“I imagined that spending so much time with a dead thing might make death more understandable.”
I’m working on a full-body mount of a coyote. I began practicing taxidermy four years ago. I practice “ethical taxidermy,” which means I don’t kill things in order to mount them; instead, I pick up things that are already dead. Most of my collection is roadkill—I keep gloves, garbage bags, and a bone saw in my trunk in case I come across something worth saving. (Picking up roadkill is illegal in California, where I live, but I don’t consider it unethical.) Even in the worst cases, something can usually be saved: a bone; a bit of fur that I can make into jewelry, or maybe save to patch another damaged body.
My freezer is so full of dead animals that every time I go to pull out an ice-cube tray, a rock-hard squirrel in a Ziploc bag falls to the kitchen floor. My friends know I collect dead animals, and they’ll text me whenever they find something in their backyard. There are also online forums where you can lawfully source animals from around the country—that’s how I got my badger from Wisconsin, who now stares down from the top of a California bookcase with a bemused expression.
photo courtesy of the author
This coyote is special, though: a whole specimen, in nearly perfect condition. A friend works in federal pest management and had a line on a coyote that had been lawfully killed by a local farmer. The coyote is the largest animal I’ve ever worked with as a full-body mount (that is, not just the head on a plaque, what’s called a shoulder mount) and the most ambitious project I’ve undertaken all on my own, without help from my taxidermy teacher in her professional studio. I work on him slowly, over months, at home in my garage or on my kitchen floor, or in a nest of old towels and garbage bags and newspaper on my dining room table.
I got started by taking classes with Allis Markham, a taxidermist at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles and an award-winner at the World Taxidermy Championships. Allis is tremendously talented and confident and beautiful in a way that would be intimidating if she weren’t also a patient and forgiving teacher. Her classes are almost entirely female, with students ranging in age from teen girls to elderly women. It’s a lot of hard work, and the classes aren’t cheap, which no doubt provides a barrier to entry for people who might otherwise show up just for shock value.
While I won’t deny it’s fun to have a quirky hobby for a conversation starter, I’d rather discuss the fine details of how the work is done, comparing techniques and tools, than try to shock anyone or gross them out. I don’t find taxidermy gross or shocking. I find it gentle and nurturing and beautiful, taking such care with broken things, giving them a second chance.
In one of my earliest memories, I am five years old, in my grandmother’s bathroom in her apartment in Hollywood. I had been walking around outside in sandals, and now I’m sitting on the toilet with the lid down, my legs sticking straight out in front of me, and my grandmother is holding my small right foot in her hand, wiping it off with a warm soapy washcloth while teasing me about how dirty it is.
Suddenly and certainly I know, I am going to die . I am going to die, and my grandmother is going to die, and everyone and everything is going to die. And while I must have known this before—at least, I must have known that pets sometimes died and went to pet heaven—in this moment, I knew it.
From that moment in the bathroom, death was with me all the time, a retinal shadow at the corner of my vision, a word on the tip of my tongue. I felt I needed to do something about it, but at five years old, all I could think to do was pray. Every night I’d pray to God, whom I pictured as a vast blackness flecked with cold white stars. I’d beg him, Please don’t let anyone in my family die, please don’t let me die , and I’d imagine my prayers cast into the sky, landing with a gentle plunk, rippling through God’s still, dark space like pennies in a wishing well.
You want the body slightly thawed, but still cool. If the body is too frozen, it will be stiff and hard to manipulate. If it’s too warm, it may start to rot, leading to what’s called “slippage,” when the fur starts to fall out.
Unfortunately, as someone used to dealing with squirrels and raccoons, I didn’t anticipate that it would take several days for something as big as this thirty-one-pound coyote to thaw, during which time I had to lug the stiff, heavy body wrapped in garbage bags back and forth between the garage and the freezer and the refrigerator and a cooler packed with ice packs from Blue Apron. As with meat you intend to eat, taxidermy specimens shouldn’t be thawed and refrozen; it can lead to bacterial contamination or freezer burn. But I also didn’t have a proper place to leave an entire semi-frozen coyote for more than a day to warm up on his own time, so I had to make do.
photo courtesy of the author
When your body is at the right temperature at last, it’s time to really look at it in earnest. This is the last time it will be whole, and your last chance to get to know the facts of the body. One of my favorite things about taxidermy is how much time you spend looking at things, noticing and recording every detail.
I weighed the coyote and measured its every dimension so I could reconstruct him later. Then I stretched him out on a sheet of butcher paper and traced his body, first on his side and then on his belly, labeling the position of all his joints. I photographed him from every angle, paying special attention to his face—getting the face right is what separates beautiful work from the stuff that ends up on Bad Taxidermy Tumblrs. I would be removing his eyes, so I wanted to look at them now; capture their shape and color and how they were set in his head. This is the last time he’ll be whole and my last chance to get to know the facts of his body.
To do a case incision, you lie the animal on its back, hind legs spread apart, and make a single clean scalpel cut from the inside of one ankle, up along what would be its inseam, and down to the other ankle. Skinning requires great care and precision as well as knowledge of anatomy. When everything is going well, it’s a deeply satisfying task and when I get into a rhythm, I can do it for hours without noticing the time pass except for a growing stiffness in my neck and shoulders from bending over. You gently pull the skin away from the flesh until you see a little glistening silver web of connective tissue, which you neatly sever with a scalpel, and then the freed skin pulls away a little more, and it’s pull, slice, pull, slice, the skin sliding off in one whole piece like pulling off a sweater. (When I was a toddler, my grandmother would always say, “Skin the bunny!” as she pulled a sweater off over my head, which seemed creepy at the time but is in fact an extremely accurate description of skinning a bunny.)
When skinning goes badly, it’s maddening. I completely ruined the coyote’s first shoulder; I just could not figure out the anatomy. I spent an hour turning his body this way and that and wound up putting several holes in the skin, at the place where his front leg meets his chest. I was exhausted and felt like crying, but I was also working on a deadline—I had to finish before it rotted—so I had to keep on, my back tightening up until I could hardly stand. Finally I got it, messily and too late, and then it all clicks— This is how a coyote’s shoulder works —and the second front leg was a dream.
I kept the feet, tail, and head wrapped in cool wet cloths, and every once in awhile I stopped and applied Stop-Rot to the exposed skin with a paintbrush. The coyote was a full-body job—because he was so big, I often had to brace part of his back leg against my chest or lean his head on my thigh as I sat on the floor. After a long night I finally went to bed reeking of death, but by now I hardly notice the odor at all.
Death is everywhere in my house. I have a death mask on display in my living room. I wear antique jewelry made from the hair and bones of long-dead men and women. I collect Victorian post-mortem photographs. And of course, I have a freezer full of dead animals.
You might imagine that as a young person I was morbid and brooding, but in fact I was and am generally cheerful and energetic. My obsession with death didn’t make me feel hopeless; instead, it animated in me a desire to understand and master the fact of death while I was alive. I became a spiritual dilettante, trying to find something in philosophy or art or religion that would allow me to look death in the face. I was a fifth-grade vegetarian, a bad poet. I started doing yoga in middle school along with a VHS tape, standing in mountain pose in my living room, and when the instructor on TV told us to “send energy up out of the top of your head,” I’d stretch up so hard, trying to reach beyond my doomed body. I kept praying every night, but instead of wishing away death, I asked God, Please let me understand, please make me ready, please make me not afraid .
Throughout my life I’d have stretches of time when I was distracted from this quest, but pregnancy was my first period of real calm. I felt whole and sufficient, a healthy animal living in an animal’s deathless present. I ate what I wanted, slept when I wanted, went running and swimming and stretching, and I turned my attention inward, into the sticky viscera of my secret self. At night, sometimes, I’d pray to my daughter instead of to God, picturing her heartbeat as a twinkling star in the dark space inside my body.
Beatrice was born a few days after I turned thirty in a relatively quick, uncomplicated delivery without pain medication. Nothing I had ever read or chanted or swallowed or inhaled could have prepared me for the ecstatic passion of labor. Flooded with endorphins and steaming with blood, shaking with so much adrenaline my hospital bed kept slamming into the floor, I was held in place by pain so vast my mind couldn’t hold it. It wasn’t bad or good. Like God in his heaven, the pain simply existed, without qualities or dimensions. Like God in his manger, it was a form of salvation that came from inside the messy matter of the world. Finally I thought I saw death—not in my periphery, but straight on, looking right at me.
By the time I got to the coyote’s head, I’d done four exhausting legs and feet, grappled with the shoulder, and figured out how to deal with the scruff of extra skin coyotes carry around their neck from their days as pups.
The head is the most important part. You have to work in sections, releasing the front and then the back and then the front again; one section opened up allows you more give in the others. On one side, you skin up the back of the neck and skull, and release the ears, preserving their delicate internal structure, then turn each ear inside out and carefully skin it all the way to the tip. On the other, you have to carefully skin the animal’s jaw, preserving the lips and the soft pad of the nose, then release the eyes, keeping the lids intact, until front and back join at the top of the head and suddenly, after hours of putrescent exhaustion, you have two pieces: a skin and a body. You can preserve the bones, if you choose (I keep the coyote’s skull and feet); then you pack the slick, clean skin in salt and throw the body away.
After the coyote skin spent a week packed in salt, I mixed up a combination of acid and more salt in a bucket to a pH of two and gently lowered the coyote inside. I sealed it up and let it sit for about a month. Every few days, I pulled him out, checked the pH, and gently shaved away flesh and fat that I had missed the first time. I don’t have a fleshing wheel yet, so I had to do this with a scalpel and a wire brush, and the flesh comes off not in big satisfying sheets but one slimy gray speck at a time. I watched the skin turn a lurid bluish white under the effects of the acid bath. Then I put the animal into a second stew of chemicals to tan it, turning the perishable skin into leather that can last for centuries.
Once the skin has turned into leather, it’s time to build the body. The inside of a mounted animal is a patchwork of little fixes. For small animals like rodents or birds, it’s common to build the body form from scratch, rolling together little bundles of wood excelsior wrapped in cotton string. Some taxidermists sculpt large forms entirely by hand as well, but it’s more common to start with a pre-made foam form you then whittle and shape with carving tools. The form is fitted with wires that help support the body’s pose. From Allis I learned to hammer ear liners out of thin sheets of lead formed around an anvil, and to fill empty body spaces with epoxy and clay. Clay is also used to sculpt the bulge of muscles underneath the skin. Incisions—and whatever holes you accidentally made while skinning—are sewn up with a needle and clear fishing line.
photo courtesy of the author
As you work, you study dozens of photos of similar animals from every angle. You try to see how they move, where they hold their weight, which muscles are taut and which relaxed. You learn fine and subtle details about the growth pattern of their fur or feathers. When I mounted my fox, I learned that a fox’s pupils aren’t perpendicular in their skull, but set at a slight angle, the tops angling inward towards the brow. Now whenever I look at an animal I notice the set of their eyes, and how each animal’s eyes are different, both from other species and from one another.
Before I started taxidermy, I imagined that spending so much time with a dead thing—holding it, weighing it, turning it over in my hands—might make death more understandable, but it hasn’t. Still I keep digging into the body—through skin, fat, muscle, organ, bones—digging for the secret, but the secret isn’t there.
A few days ago, my daughter Beatrice (now eight years old) came into the living room after bedtime and told me she was worried because someday she and all our family will die. She said it flatly, as she sometimes does when she’s been mulling over something for so long in her solitary thoughts that by the time she says it aloud, it’s already a little over-chewed and flavorless.
I told her I was scared of dying, too, and most people were, and I didn’t know what to do about it yet. And then I found myself saying, “That won’t happen for a long, long time, when you are very, very old.” It was the same bland evasion that had infuriated me coming from my parents.
I remember suspecting my parents were keeping the real knowledge of death from me because they thought I wasn’t ready to know the truth, but of course they didn’t know it, either. They weren’t ready then, just as I am not ready now. After almost forty years of thinking about death every day, I can’t believe I have to come back here and start all over again.
So I told Beatrice that I didn’t know why people die, or what happens after, or how it feels, but that I still hoped someday I might understand. That with time and concentration and patience, I thought someday she might, too. I told her that if you are privileged enough to have a good death, not cut short by violence or illness or misfortune, and if you are privileged enough to have a good life, with space and time to put your mind to it, I think it’s possible to die with grace and courage.
And then I told her my wish, the same thing I’ve been wishing on every penny I’ve thrown in every well since I was five years old. I wish that when I die, in the last instant, I finally understand, and I’m ready, and I’m not afraid.
Finishing a mount is something like Dead Animal Beauty School. There’s a lot of pinning and tucking and tweezing and fluffing. The goal is an animal that appears warm, vital, and present, suspended forever in the middle of its mysterious life.
I painted the parts of the coyote’s skin not covered with fur, since the natural pigment in a coyote’s nose or toe pads will fade over time. I cleaned the fur with Herbal Essences dry shampoo and a hair dryer. I added a tiny dab of Mod Podge to his nose and lips and eyes to make them look slightly wet.
The coyote is displayed in my living room, with a badger and some starlings and the death mask and the framed photos of my children and a lot of arcane books of theology that I thought I understood in college but did not understand at all. Sometime soon I’ll try again, with the theology or with some other thing. I’ll go and sit in the garage, head bowed over a strip of stubborn flesh, and pray to God in his perfection, distant and whole and clean; to Mary, shaking in sweat, with blood-covered thighs; and to Jesus, before and after death—and whatever messy process put his body back together again.