Do it yourself, differently

If you visit Alison Raleigh at home, in Hoboken, New Jersey, one of the first things you’re likely to notice is all the taxidermy:

There’s a deer head in the bathroom, a stuffed pheasant and crow on the mantel, a ram’s head in the study. She bought a lot of it on eBay. But some of it, she made herself. “I was collecting all this taxidermy,” said Alison, 40, a stay-at-home mother of two. “Then I thought, why can’t I just do it? I’m not squeamish.” There are those who may say that do-it-yourself taxidermy is taking DIY just a little too far. But not Alison, and many others like her, who are learning this time-honoured tradition in classes offered across the country, including natural history museums, nature centres and even restaurants.

And doing your own taxidermy, Alison was quick to add, is the only way you can make sure the animals are ethically sourced. That’s right: For those who want to make sure the moose and deer mounted on their walls have been treated at least as humanely as the free-range cows slaughtered for their burgers, there is now ethical taxidermy.

Mickey Alice Kwapis, 23, a self-taught taxidermy instructor in Cleveland, is one of its proponents. The animals she uses - rabbits, squirrels, mice, guinea pigs - were not killed for art’s sake, she said. They were raised and painlessly euthanised to serve as food for reptiles and large cats. Mickey gets them from a company called Rodent Pro, which supplies animals to pet stores and zoos.

Alison, who learned taxidermy earlier this year in classes held at the Morbid Anatomy Museum in New York, takes a similar approach. Like Mickey, she gets her animals from reptile feed companies. And she makes use of the entire animal, feeding the innards of the mice she uses in her mounts to her dog.

“My dog is on a raw food diet,” she said. What exactly constitutes ethics when it comes to taxidermy, however, depends on whom you consult. Allis Markham,
however, sees it a little differently. “Using animals killed for pet food is the same to me as factory farming,” said Allis, an assistant in the taxidermy department at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and owner of Prey Taxidermy, which creates mounts for Hollywood productions and offers how-to courses. “Just like the meat I eat, the animals I use for my taxidermy can’t have been raised in an
industrial way.”

Allis gets animals for her classes - typically starlings, quails, squirrels, ducklings and raccoons - from pest control operators who would otherwise have disposed of them in a landfill or from game breeders after the animals have died a natural death.

The larger animals she uses in her film work, like deer and peacocks, were either killed by hunters for food or died of natural causes in captivity. “There’s no shortage of invasive species killed for abatement or animals that died naturally,” Allis said.
But she draws the line at stuffing people’s departed pets. “I’m not going to be able to put life back in its eyes the way the owner knew and loved it,” she said. Allis has decorated her own home with some 30 mounts, including a black bear, impala, antelope and jackal buzzard.

While ethical codes may vary, most taxidermy classes are popular enough to have waiting lists. Students and instructors tend to be women in their 20s, 30s and 40s. Men take the classes as well, instructors say, but usually with a girlfriend or spouse. Courses can cost $100 to $500 (including supplies) and take several hours, which may be spread over a couple of days. Lessons on skinning, disemboweling, wiring the animal and making a mould are followed by lots of grooming and preening using tweezers and blow dryers, to get the animal looking as fresh and lifelike as possible.

“It’s kind of like sculpture, kind of like painting, almost like hairdressing, almost like sewing,” said Nina Masuda, a graphic designer in Los Angeles who has taken three classes with Allis, in which she stuffed a starling, a quail and a squirrel. “I thought it would be all science-y, and I’m, like, fluffing up this bird’s hair, trying to give it some volume.”

Nina’s mounts have been naturalistic, but students in other taxidermy classes often create anthropomorphic pieces: mice sipping tea from tiny cups, say, or a rabbit strumming a tiny guitar. And then, there are the so-called rogue creations, like ‘Game of Thrones’-inspired three-eyed ravens, or bunnies with squid tentacles.

Alison, in Hoboken, has made one mouse with quail wings and another
wearing little clogs and drinking a glass of wine; she has also created a tableau of two mice embracing on a heart-shaped pedestal, as a present for her husband. “He said it was the most romantic gift he’d ever gotten,” she said.

Her friends’ reactions, however, have been mixed. “Half of them say: 'Oh, that is so disgusting. How can you do that?' And the other half say: 'Neat! Can do you make one for me?' ”

But Alison’s new hobby is not as odd or macabre as some of her friends might think. In fact, there’s a historical precedent, said Brian Schmidt, a taxidermist at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. “Back in Victorian times, people, especially women, used to do a lot of taxidermy, putting it under glass domes or in quilts,” Schmidt said. “So I guess we’ve come full circle.”

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