The Denver Museum of Nature and Science boasts one of the best taxidermy displays in the nation. These dioramas are the very same ones my mother, as a little girl, gazed upon when she visited the museum for school field trips. When I stroll through these venerable dimly lit halls, she is the younger person. I feel as though I am traveling back in time: these little girls with their faces pressed close to the glass, gazing onto recreated wildlife scenes—any one of them could be my mother.
Maybe that’s because the animals themselves are forever locked in time. A bull elk lifts his antlers in a graceful but incomplete gesture. Two arctic wolves size up a musk ox in a permanent standoff. Near them, a multicolored pack of glassed-in gray wolves stares into indefinite distance suggested by a mural of snowy foothills. Creatures that died decades ago infinitely re-enact imagined moments of their lives, as if permitted to do so by the same slip of space-time that might allow me to see my mother’s childhood self.
The legendary Jonas brothers (Coloman, John, and Guy, not Paul, Joseph, and Nicholas) oversaw the creation of some of these mounts. In 1908, they launched the nation’s first large-scale taxidermy supply business in Denver. The Jonas firm also contributed mounts to the nation’s mecca of taxidermy, the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The rooftop of the Jonas Brothers building near 10th and Broadway still bears its grandiose 1920s-era neon sign, and imposing sculptures of Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep and owls still adorn its lofty corners. The building was home, for a time, to a nightclub called The Serengeti.
Denver is home to another legend in taxidermy: the Buckhorn Exchange restaurant. The Buckhorn opened in 1893 and has hosted the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Roy Rogers, and Charlton Heston. Tourists flock to the Buckhorn for Rocky Mountain oysters and elk sausage, bison burgers and ostrich steaks. They dine with a menagerie of faded, yellowed taxidermy mounts crowding the walls. It’s hard not to imagine the animals as another set of employees, their departed bodies on the other side of the wall—a bored zebra resting a hoof, a coyote stifling a yawn—and when the show is over, they divide their tips and go home.
These are the two faces of taxidermy: austere nostalgia, vulgar kitsch. Taxidermy, the unlikeliest art form, seems increasingly out of place in a society ever more inclined to treat animals as friends and family and not objects and curiosities. Which is why it’s so surprising that taxidermy is hipper than ever: American taxidermy associations are growing in membership and an increasing number of curious artistic types are taking taxidermy classes and building their own collections of mounted animals.
But in a world facing its sixth mass extinction, how will taxidermy survive?
The first mounted animal I remember was a great horned owl at my elementary school. The owl perched in the headmaster’s office on a twist of driftwood, locked away behind a glass case. I visited the office many times just to look at the owl. Taxidermy allowed me to get closer to this owl than any living owl would have permitted. It fascinated, repulsed, and fascinated me again.
Then in high school, just when I was in the midst of an animal rights phase that had me papering the bulletin boards with PETA anti-fur flyers, I took a biology class taught by a taxidermist. Effigies of birds, foxes, and fish filled his classroom. I couldn’t then understand what would make someone love animals in this way, to prefer their empty exteriors propped up with wire and foam. Still, I found myself hanging around after class to stare at the mounts, so close I could see myself in their glass eyes. I loved animals and wanted to be close to them. Here was a way of making a wild animal hold still, forever. Yet the wild animals stilled in this way lose a crucial part of their identity.
America has gone through its own phases of loving and loathing taxidermy. Prior to the 1800s, taxidermy was mostly unheard of: the crude mounts of the time didn’t last more than a few years before insects destroyed them. Vast improvements in techniques and technology during the mid-19th century enabled taxidermists to create durable and increasingly realistic facsimiles of animals. As a sign of worldliness, education, and prestige, taxidermy came into vogue; so much so that it was common for people to have their own pets mounted and put on display. Adventurers collected and preserved specimens from all over the globe, and natural historians relied on these specimens to build their knowledge of the natural world.
Like many things that enjoy almost universal popularity, taxidermy eventually fell hard out of favor. In the 1930s, mail-order courses of dubious quality urged the public to learn to mount birds and animals, promising big fun, big money. Grotesque mounts cranked out by home-schooled amateurs gave all of taxidermy a bad name. The practice plunged abruptly from high culture to low, and there it remained.
Until now. If you think of taxidermy as the dying profession of an ever-shrinking cadre of isolated weirdoes, think again: taxidermy is cool, maybe almost as cool as it was during the 19th century. Taxidermy associations are growing their numbers. Art world rock stars like Damien Hirst feature taxidermy in their sold-out shows. Historically, the only books on taxidermy were how-to manuals. Now there are at least five books in print on taxidermy as a cultural phenomenon. Taxidermy even got its own reality TV shows, Mounted in Alaska on the History Channel and American Stuffers on Animal Planet. Cultural commentators attribute taxidermy’s resurgence to the emergence of the authentic, lived-in aesthetic called “shabby chic.” On the Taxidermy.net message boards, full-time professional taxidermists lament the proliferation of teens, mostly young women, who use platforms like Tumblr and DeviantArt to show off their collections of animal pelts and mounts.
No doubt taxidermy owes some of its rebirth to the fact that it’s much easier to do. The earliest mounts were made using the articulated skulls and skeletons of actual animals, upon which taxidermists molded wire, clay, and excelsior to create a body. This time-consuming process had to be repeated for each new mount. But since the 1970s, taxidermists have used prefabricated polyurethane foam forms, doing away with the need to sculpt their own animal bodies. An unlimited number of forms can be cast from a single sculpture. Today’s taxidermists have access to premade plastic noses, pre-set eyes, and forms that come with jawsets—mouths—pre-installed, eliminating much of the painstaking detail work that once separated dedicated artists from crude hobbyists. As one taxidermist told me with more than a hint of annoyance, they’re trying to make it so that anyone can do it.
I think of Duluth, Minnesota as “little Seattle:” It’s hilly, artsy, often gray and wet, besieged by seagulls. A port city on the banks of Lake Superior, Duluth is strangely maritime: a horn sounds several times per day as ships signal to cross under the city’s landmark Aerial Lift Bridge, one of only a few still operating in the nation. The Superior National Forest, Minnesota’s famed North Woods, surrounds the city to the north and west. The city itself boasts a vibrant arts scene and abundant urban wildlife, not to mention a strong hunting tradition. Maybe there’s no better place in the nation to be a taxidermist.
I’m here to see a friend who moved here to start her taxidermy business. She grew up near Moorhead, Minnesota and graduated with a bachelor of fine arts in sculpture from Minnesota State University. Shortly after she completed an internship at the Smithsonian Institute, her mother died suddenly of cancer: one afternoon she felt numb in her back, and within days she was gone: tumors had attacked her spine and nervous system so aggressively and so secretly that there was nothing to be done. I helped my friend clean out her mother’s house. Half-completed crossword puzzles, partly used containers of food, a load of laundry in the dryer—everywhere there were reminders of interrupted life.
Her mother’s death marked the beginning of trouble for my friend: she became depressed, began to drink and talk of suicide, and I feared for her life. One stormy evening, she asked me to come and take her gun, fearing she might use it on herself.
I’m intrigued by her choice of career partly because she’s a lifelong animal lover like me—and it’s baffling, how someone who loves animals can stand working with dead ones—but also because taxidermy seems to be the ladder she climbed out of a darkness that would have consumed her. Here she is, still shy and self-doubting, but building her own business in what is still a man’s domain. She is tough and determined in a way I hope to learn from.
Jaime, I’ll call her, is pretty, though she doesn’t think of herself that way. She’s finely built, serious, and quiet, her small hands exacting and rigorous in all she does. Besides operating her own taxidermy studio, she works part time making gut strings—the old-fashioned way, using real guts—for violins.
Her shop is in an older part of town, across the street from a store selling hunting rifles. Tall windows facing the street display deer heads posed in coy look-at-me attitudes, whitened deer skulls attached to varnished wood plaques, antlers mounted on suede. She takes orders at a desk up front and stocks a shelf nearby with a product to clean and deodorize mounts. In a thick three-ring binder she keeps a careful record of all of the animals she works on: numerous state and federal wildlife laws govern the practice of taxidermy, and the state Department of Natural Resources inspects taxidermists on a regular basis.
Behind the door to the back of the shop, there’s a room for every stage of the taxidermy process. She receives animals in the alley, brings them through the back door, and skins them on a table in the basement. There’s a room for storing the yellow polyurethane forms, called manikins, upon which she mounts the tanned skins. A zoo of animal forms—mostly deer from the shoulders forward, but also coyotes, bobcats, and foxes—crane their necks up from the ground and stare with empty eye sockets. There’s a mounting room, with a semicircle of half-completed mounts holding a silent conference. Shelves and drawers line one side of the wall, full of fake animal parts and pieces: plastic bobcat noses, deer teeth, wolf eyes, coyote ears, fox tongues. There’s a drying room for finished mounts and a room to photograph mounts for her website. There’s even a small room for storing the fake rocks, fake grass, and fake leaves and branches used to create—rather, recreate—the “habitat” surrounding each mounted animal.
“I use plants that are native to Minnesota,” Jaime explains.
Jaime has mastered a diverse set of skills not often acquired in today’s world where the ultra-specialist is king: she is a mortician, an upholsterer, a sculptor, a painter, an anatomist, a zoologist, a natural historian, an entrepreneur. She knows how to recreate, in obsessively precise detail, the muscles that attach a coyote’s ear to its skull. She knows that a deer with long winter hair was killed in December and should not be depicted with green plants. And though all white-tailed deer look the same to me, she can distinguish the big-bodied deer in Minnesota from their slenderer cousins that live in Texas. She knows how to get blood out of white fur, how to patch up exit wounds, and how to save a hide that has started to “slip.” And she must do all of this without offending the neighbors with suspicious smells.
Taxidermy supply catalogs reveal just how elaborate and obsessive taxidermy can be. The McKenzie Taxidermy Supply company’s catalog is over an inch thick and weighs in at a hefty four pounds of glossy pages crammed with strange inventory. Within are all the parts and gadgets and doodads and chemicals necessary to manufacture the bodies and habitats of thousands of species: polyurethane manikins in a variety of sizes and poses, for species from aardwolves to zebras; plastic zebra hooves (cast from actual zebra hooves); a full set of reproduction grizzly bear claws (amazingly realistic!); reproduction horns and antlers from record-breaking mule deer, Siberian ibex, and Dall sheep; artificial duck weed (1600 seeds to a packet) for water scenes; glass eyes with a built-in tapetum lucidum that glows like those of the proverbial deer in the headlights; the Dan-D-Noser, a tool for recreating the bumpy texture of a deer’s nose; fake moss, fake aspen, fake rocks, fake wood; freeze-dried deer feet for gun racks; Timber Wolf brand hand cleaner (removes fishy odor!); a collection of metal instruments that would be equally at home in a torture chamber: fleshing wheels, scalpels, tail strippers, ear openers, brain hooks; tanning solutions, blood removers, skull bleaches, Stop-Rot, and an assortment of other chemicals that would give the good folks at the EPA an aneurysm; a substance called Jaw Juice, used to recreate saliva; Eyez-Brite, an aqueous fluid that recreates tears for glass eyes.
A doe—a deer, a female mule deer—rests on the steel skinning table in the basement. Actually, it’s not the whole deer, just what taxidermists call the cape—the skin from the shoulders forward, plus the skull with the skin and flesh of the head and face still attached, eyes, ears, tongue, and all. This is how taxidermists prefer to receive deer for mounting—the easy gutting and skinning work already done by the customer, the detail work left to a professional. The quality of a mount depends first and foremost on how carefully the animal was skinned; bad customer skinning jobs are the bane of any taxidermist’s existence.
This cape came from a mule deer from Washington State. Found in western North America, mule deer are larger than white-tailed deer, with characteristic wide, branching antlers and large dark eyes. Their namesake ears, big as a mule’s, work like satellite dishes to gather and amplify even the faintest sounds.
Skinning is a race against time. Jaime must meticulously remove the deer’s hide in one piece, including the delicate skin from the deer’s eyelids, ears, nose, and mouth, but if she takes too long, the condition of the deer will begin to go south. The animal has to be thawed enough to be skinned but must remain cool enough not to spoil. If the hide gets too warm, the hair will fall out and the hide will be ruined. Jaime dons a pair of gloves and begins slicing at the deer’s nose and mouth with a scalpel, freeing it gradually from the animal’s skull. As the nose and then the face flops loose, the deer begins to lose some of her deer-ness. A thin ooze of blood seeps toward the edge of the table and a humid, meaty smell fills the air. The bloody skin looks like roadkill. Somehow Jaime will turn this mess into a final product that looks clean, sleek, and most crucially, alive.
Performing taxidermy well requires an intimate knowledge of animals that can only come from rigorous—nay, obsessive—scholarship of their bodies and habits. As I watch Jaime work on a white-tailed deer mount, she’s constantly stopping to refer to pictures of deer and plastic casts of deer ears, eyes, and noses. Binders and books stuffed with photos of animals cram her shelves. As I sit surrounded by photos of deer and casts of deer, deer antlers and yellow foam poured into deer shapes, it occurs to me: this is a way to spend your entire workday surrounded by animals. Taxidermy, then, is truly a profession for someone who loves animals.
It’s true that taxidermists perform brutal work, often with unflinching dispassion. On Taxidermy.net, the world’s largest online taxidermy community, taxidermists hold unvarnished conversations on bloody fur and wounded animals, rotting skulls and skinned carcasses:
“Any good ideas about getting bloodstains out of hair on sheep hides?”
“When he was brought in I didn’t realize his left eye was gone. Only after caping him out I called the customer back to let him know that his deer was missing an eye…”
“I’m cleaning a stillborn goat skeleton and accidentally washed a metacarpal down the sink. Would anyone be willing to send me a set of baby goat legs?”
But taxidermy’s ambition has nothing to do with brutality. Taxidermy’s project is aesthetic. Its aim is not to destroy, but to preserve.
The urge to create this kind of obsessive reproduction is a uniquely American impulse, wrote Umberto Eco in his book Travels in Hyperreality. He referred to this impulse as “reconstructive neurosis.” Americans, Eco argued, simply don’t have as strong a sense of history as Europeans, and so we’re forever trying to anchor ourselves to a vivid sense of history, and of reality. “The American imagination demands the real thing,” he wrote, “and to attain it must fabricate the absolute fake.”
American taxidermists played a leading role in developing the taxidermy diorama as an educational institution: American museums are home to the best and most detailed dioramas in the world. The technological advances in technique pioneered by Carl Akeley—widely considered the father of American taxidermy—gave us the real thing we demanded, and secured taxidermy’s place in the natural history museum. In addition to satisfying Americans’ need for immersive recreations, dioramas offered several advantages over live zoological exhibits: they didn’t need to be fed, for one, and unlike zoo animals, mounted animals could be counted on to hold still and strike engaging poses guaranteed to bring paying crowds.
The United States is also the birthplace of modern taxidermy competition.
As an art form, taxidermy is ideally suited to competition: unlike other forms of art, where quality is subjective, taxidermists always have a real live standard to measure up to. Forming a professional association and holding a competition promised to help taxidermists elevate their work from boorish hobby to fine art by proving that taxidermy could be both scientifically accurate and aesthetically pleasing. The Society of American Taxidermists hosted its first taxidermy competition in 1880. William T. Hornaday won with A Fight in the Tree-Tops, a depiction—lurid by today’s standards—of two male orangutans battling over a female, one ape biting a finger off of his opponent whose face is frozen in a scream of pain.
But taxidermists, notoriously solitary and reluctant to divulge their proprietary methods, proved difficult to organize. The Society of American Taxidermists dissolved just three years after its first exhibition. Nearly one hundred years later, in 1976, the newly-formed National Taxidermists Association hosted its first competition in Denver. The first World Taxidermy Championships took place in 1994. Ever since, taxidermists have been duking out over who can fabricate the better fake.
The World Taxidermy and Fish Carving Championship gathers taxidermists from around the globe for competition that’s as stiff as a freeze-dried trout: teams of judges examine each mount with dental mirrors and penlights. They determine scores using an exhaustive checklist of competition criteria. The checklist for mammals calls for 139 criteria including correct coloration on the interior of the nose, accurate inner ear anatomy, and correctness of the anus and sex organs.
Back in Jaime’s studio, I observe firsthand an example of reconstructive neurosis: She’s putting the finishing touches on a white-tailed deer with a huge rack of antlers. When I make an admiring comment about how real he looks, Jaime sighs and rattles through a list of things—imperceptible to me—that are wrong with him. His eyelids aren’t smooth enough. There’s a little wrinkle on his face right here. There’s too much white hair showing in this nostril.
I look closer, peering right up the buck’s nose, but still I don’t see it.
Moscow Hide and Fur in Moscow, Idaho— “the west’s largest fur house”—sells an astonishing array of hides, pelts, bones, beads, sage bundles, and leather to taxidermists and crafters, artists and artisans, American Indians seeking supplies for traditional regalia and teachers looking for deer bones and snake skins for biology classrooms. The company’s website—which hasn’t been redesigned since the ‘90s—offers llama skulls and raccoon tails, shed antlers and abalone shells, dried pheasant feet and hand-dyed faux eagle feathers.
In a section marked “tanned furs,” I seek out my unofficial spirit animal, the coyote, on the vague notion that I’ll have a better chance of recreating a species with which I identify. I order the cheapest one, an ordinary-colored, slightly damaged skin of a coyote’s head and shoulders, a bargain at $29.99. The tanned skin is soft and supple. It arrives in a box stamped wildlife.
The coyote mounting kit from Van Dykes Taxidermy ($58.25) comes with everything else I need: foam manikin, hide paste, glass eyes, Critter Clay, and instructions. After soaking the skin in salt water to soften it, I’ve ended up with a wet, floppy affair that smells like wet dog. Not good. Right away I face a conundrum: am I supposed to depict this coyote as an individual or simply as an archetype, a member of a species? Is this the metaphysical Coyote with a capital C, or should I try to imagine and recreate the life of this particular coyote? I decide to go with the latter, only I know nothing of this coyote’s life, except that it’s larger than average and so it—he?—was probably male. While taxidermy’s first priority is accuracy, it also allows us to interpret and edit animals as we please. I decide to attempt a masculine bearing and a sly expression. A coy ‘yote.
You won’t understand how little you know about an animal until you try to mount one. The skin doesn’t fit quite right. It’s too loose in some places and too tight in others, so I have to shave the manikin down in some areas and build others up with clay. The fur keeps getting tangled in the thread I use to sew up the back, resulting in a bunched, visible seam. How far should the eyes protrude from the orbits? How does Jaime do this? A depressing realization occurs to me: I am a shitty taxidermist.
My finished coyote falls far short of World Taxidermy Championship standards. Cockeyed and coiffed like a show dog, it would never fool a real coyote. Reassuringly comical, it wouldn’t be out of place on the wall of a barbecue joint. It isn’t a heroic attempt at resurrection made all the sadder by the utter permanence of death. It gives the uncanny valley a wide berth. It reminds me of nothing.
The altimeter on my car’s GPS unit reads over 10,000 feet as I climb Highway 50 west through Colorado into the Rocky Mountains, and the twinge in my sinus is all the proof I need that I’ve been out of my home state too long. I’m weirdly self-conscious of it, as though people will see me rubbing my temple and instantly recognize me as a flatlander. It’s a blustery grey day in mid-March, which is antler season in the Gunnison Basin. The region’s elk have shed their crowns and antler hunters on foot and ATVs have taken to the snowy foothills to look for the cast-off antlers, which can be worth a hundred dollars or more for a single shed and several hundred dollars for a big matched pair. Some hunters amass pickup truck beds full of antlers. People turn them into pens, craft them into chandeliers, or sell them for ten dollars a pound to the Traders Rendezvous in Gunnison, which bills itself as “Colorado’s largest antler shop.” That’s no small thing in a state boasting a population of 300,000 elk, the nation’s largest.
The Traders Rendezvous on Tomichi Avenue is covered in antlers, and outside is a wooden wagon piled high with weathered, chalky antlers: mule deer, moose, and caribou, but mostly elk. Inside, every square inch of available space, including the ceiling and much of the floor, is stocked with preserved animal parts: antlers, skulls, hides, mounted heads, and full body mounts. One of the back rooms is dedicated solely to exotic African mounts. There are far too many mounts for the available wall space, and as a result, piles of disembodied deer heads stare blankly up at the ceiling, as a steady stream of customers strolls through, admires, and talks shop as if there is nothing, at all, strange about any of this.
The taxidermy mounts call for exaggeratedly expensive sums: $799 for an impala head, $8,000 for a rather shabby African lion. While I can understand why a trophy hunter would want to have their quarry mounted, I find myself wondering who would drop this kind of scratch on an animal they didn’t shoot.
The son of the shop owner is managing the place on this day. He’s good-looking, in a kind of nondescript, all-American kind of way, and humors me while I ask him a dozen stupid questions. The Traders Rendezvous sells different things to different people, he tells me. Hunters buy t-shirts. Tourists buy single shed antlers to grace the mantelpiece, kids buy antler whistles and keychains, and dog lovers buy antlers cut into chew toys. Furniture makers buy antlers by the pound to create chandeliers and lamps and bases for tables. But the shop sells most of its taxidermy mounts to the wealthy people who keep summer lodges in ersatz mountain resorts. They buy mounts to give their cabins a rustic feeling. They buy recreations of animals they didn’t shoot in order to give their cabins an ambiance they don’t have.
In Colorado, it is also legal to pick up the skulls of winter-killed elk. After the rutting season, bull elk have depleted their energy and many of them don’t survive the harsh mountain winters. Their skulls and bones litter the foothills. Bouquets of elk skulls take up an entire wall of the Traders Rendezvous. It’s tricky to untangle their antlers and get the one you want. I’ve chosen a skull with a gracefully swooping rack of antlers that sets me back about $300. After some Tetris-style rearrangements, I succeed in wrestling the huge elk skull into the back of my Subaru.
As I drive home with the antlers slicing across the receding mountains in my rearview, I am conscious of the line I have drawn. I would never dream of displaying a mounted elk head in my home. But there is something about a skull that I have somehow deemed permissible—despite the fact, or maybe because of it, that there are no glass eyes upon which to drip Eyez-Brite, no plastic teeth airbrushed to yellowy cud-chewing perfection. The absence in a skull’s blank orbits is conscious and self-referential.
Taxidermy faces an uncertain future. Technology has made taxidermy ever easier to do, helping to ensure its survival in a world where few people have time to learn rigorous and difficult trades. Soon, glass eyes with a built-in reflective tapetum lucidum won’t be enough—our reconstructive neurosis will demand blinking eyes, eyes that swivel in their sockets to follow your gaze, maybe even eyes that cry. Taxidermy will approach the real as a curve approaches its asymptote, getting ever closer but never quite arriving. And as more and more of us live in apartments without so much as a potted plant on a fire escape, we will demand recreations of nature to satisfy our longing for the real thing.
Yet our impoverished natural world and its imminent sixth mass extinction mean that there will be fewer wild animals to employ in this purpose. We’ve already closed the curtain on thylacines, Carolina parakeets, and Yangtze River dolphins. Amur leopards, mountain gorillas, and countless more uncharismatic and unloved and undiscovered species wait in the wings to take their final bows. Some level of extinction is always present—biologists call it “background” extinction. Our present rate of extinction is one thousand times that of the expected background rate. Scientists project that the future extinction rate may reach ten thousand times the normal rate.
When I asked Jaime what drew her to taxidermy, I thought she’d explain that her chosen career combines her love of animals and sculpture. I was surprised to learn that her primary motivation is to preserve animals before extinction and global warming wipe them out. She believes the sixth extinction is inevitable—a fate that I, frankly, have a hard time seeing a way out of. If we’re ever able to resurrect species such as the thylacine or passenger pigeon, it will only be because taxidermists of the past preserved their DNA. We’re losing our animals, but by subscribing to what Eco called the “philosophy of immortality by duplication,” we’ve found a way to ease the loss.
Throughout my visit, Jaime reminded me with great sadness that climate change has put Minnesota’s moose on track for extinction in the state by the year 2025. The Department of Natural Resources has poured millions into investigating the reasons behind the decline of Minnesota’s most iconic animal with no recourse but to hold grim press conferences to tell us in quiet, stunned voices what we already knew.
Taxidermists have given us something—a response, no matter how unsatisfying—to take with us into the sixth extinction. But I will be at a loss for words. When I am my mother’s age, and I’m at the Denver Museum of Natural History, I wonder what I will tell those little girls with their faces pressed to the glass, gazing in on effigies of arctic wolves and polar bears, asking why we preserved them when we could have been saving them.