Why taxidermy, once the domain of camo-clad hunters, is becoming increasingly fashionable

Animal rights organization PETA is engaged in an unlikely war with hipsters over their growing fetish for dead animals. The same demographic that swore off SeaWorld and participated in collective viral outrage over the Japanese theme park that froze 5,000 fish into the floor of a skating rink is the very same one that is also gleefully stuffing dead rats on first dates and collecting art crafted from hooved animals’ discarded feet.

At-home taxidermy kits are flying off shelves as in-demand holiday gifts. Taxidermy, once the domain of camo-clad hunters, is increasingly fashionable.

A dead rat, adorned in a Victorian-era formal tailcoat and bowtie, rides a miniature velociraptor wearing a top hat. The darkly comedic tableau was created at Toronto-based Casual Taxidermy, which offers intensive one-day lessons in amateur taxidermy. Classes run $200 per person. “Transform a deceased rat into a unique and enduring art object,” promises the business’ website.

Couples seeking a reprieve from the standard dinner-and-movie date routine and even parents with young children attend the workshops. Owner Ankixa Risk’s amateur artists may dress deceased mice in Hawaiian shirts and pose them sitting on tiny park benches, but she stresses that each specimen is sourced sustainably. “I adhere to a set of rules that include nothing going to waste and never killing for my art,” says Risk. “Most of the animals I work with are farmed and raised for food, or naturally deceased. All of the meat that comes out of the food-grade rodents and rabbits I use in my workshops is donated to a local zoo to feed their alligators. I work mostly with items that are considered to be trash. Really, I am just upcycling garbage.”

She’s part of a growing ethical taxidermy trend, sometimes referred to as “rogue taxidermy.” Artists Sarina Brewer and Scott Bibus coined the name for this sustainable sub-genre of taxidermy in 2002. The rogue taxidermy movement emphasizes recycling, waste reduction and sourcing specimens from ethical sources. Several prominent rogue taxidermists are even outspoken vegans.

Humans have long been obsessed with dead animals. Ancient Egyptians embalmed cats in lifelike poses, while astrologers in the Middle Ages displayed crudely stuffed animals in their shops. By the 18th century, every village had a tannery where hunters could take their so-called trophies to be mounted. Eventually, taxidermy’s association with hunting and exhibitionist collecting relegated the practice to die-hard hunters in mostly rural areas. For many, taxidermy was seen as cruel, tasteless and outdated. PETA called putting animal bodies on display “disrespectful… just as we’d never preserve and display a beloved human family member.”

“Hunting still exists and therefore taxidermy is still used to make trophy pieces, but there’s a new generation of taxidermists only working with specimens that have died from natural causes,” says England-based taxidermy artist Jazmine Miles-Long. “There is an alternative genre of taxidermy on the rise.”

Miles-Long provides bespoke taxidermy services to museums, art galleries and private clients. She describes her chosen art form as a “difficult and complicated craft that’s often overlooked and misinterpreted.” However, that’s set to change with more and more museums and galleries adding to their taxidermy collections.

It’s not just natural history museums commissioning stuffed wildlife, either. Art galleries are capitalizing on the taxidermy trend by exhibiting artists who combine the age-old practice with modern, and even bizarre, twists. Toronto’s Liss Gallery features the almost unheard of taxidermy of children’s author Dr. Seuss until January 2.

In his typical unorthodox fashion, Dr. Seuss combined beaks, antlers, horns, teeth and shells of deceased animals from his father’s zoo with cartoonish 3D representations of his favourite imaginary characters. The traveling exhibit, titled “If I Ran the Zoo,” includes a blue bug-eyed “Dilemma Fish” with antlers and a “Andulovian Grackler” with a sizeable beak and full head of hair among its 17 sculptures.

In Germany, artist Iris Schieferstein creates zippered-heels shoes made from the hooves of dead animals. London-based Harriet Horton combines taxidermied animals with neon fluorescent lights to create unique pop art. Brooklyn’s Kate Clark gives her taxidermy pieces human faces. The stereotypical moose head mounted on a wall is increasingly a relic of a taxidermy era past.

Still, the practice has a long way to go before it’s viewed on par with other art forms. “Taxidermy is not treated with the same respect as other crafts within our culture and taxidermists themselves are often not listed with the work that appears in museums and galleries,” says Miles-Long.

You may notice that the taxidermists referenced so far in this piece have something in common: they’re all women. That’s not a coincidence. The traditionally male-dominated practice is, perhaps surprisingly, now overwhelmingly female. “When I started, female taxidermists were definitely more of a rarity but now those interested in learning are predominantly women,” says Miles-Long. Taxidermy workshops are often comprised of between 80 to 90 per cent women and the most prominent taxidermy artists of the moment are female.

The reason for this sudden spike in women stuffing dead creatures is debatable; some attribute it to the rise of Etsy-inspired DIY culture or females’ supposed attention to detail and patience for the hours upon hours required to create taxidermy art. Others theorize that, while hunting instincts once drove taxidermy’s popularity, its new rogue form is about preservation and naturalism. The same mentality that’s made farm-to-table cuisine and organic skincare trendy is driving women to preserve precious animal specimens. “Taxidermy is an art that, in the beginning, was about the preservation of nature,” says Risk. “As sustainability becomes more trendy, so has taxidermy.”

“My love of natural history leads me to make work that respects the animal and highlights its beauty,” says Miles-Long. “In museums, taxidermy is the perfect way to encourage children to be interested in wildlife and discover species that would be difficult to see in the wild.”Even alleged un-ethical taxidermy artists are justifying their craft with ethical arguments. In 2011, Miami artist Enrique Gomez De Molina landed in jail after sewing together imported exotic and endangered species. He claims his work, which was exhibited at the prestigious Scope art fair in Miami, raises awareness about endangered animals and represents the dangers of genetic engineering and human intervention. His pieces, however controversial and illegally obtained, have sold for $100,000 a pop.

At its worst, taxidermy can still be a primitive reflection of humanity’s God complex. At best, it’s a blend of science and fine art that can educate and provoke deep thought. Despite the protests of some some animal rights activists, dead creatures have never seemed so alive with possibility.

This piece was originally published in the National Post

Sabrina Maddeaux