The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermyby Dave Madden
Why would someone want to create or own the mounted skin of a dead animal? That's the question Dave Madden explores in The Authentic Animal. Madden starts his journey with the life story of Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy. Akeley started small by stuffing a canary, but by the end of his life he had created the astonishing Akeley Hall of African/i>
Why would someone want to create or own the mounted skin of a dead animal? That's the question Dave Madden explores in The Authentic Animal. Madden starts his journey with the life story of Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy. Akeley started small by stuffing a canary, but by the end of his life he had created the astonishing Akeley Hall of African Mammals at The American Museum of Natural History. What Akeley strove for and what fascinates Madden is the attempt by the taxidermist to replicate the authentic animal, looking as though it's still alive. To get a first-hand glimpse at this world, Madden travels to the World Taxidermy Championships, the garage workplaces of people who mount freeze-dried pets for bereaved owners, and the classrooms of a taxidermy academy where students stretch deer pelts over foam bases. On his travels, he looks at the many forms taxidermy takes—hunting trophies, museum dioramas, roadside novelties, pet memorials—and considers what taxidermy has to tell us about human-animal relationships. The Authentic Animal is an entertaining and thought-provoking blend of history, biology, and philosophy that will make readers think twice the next time they scoff at a moose head hung lovingly on a wall.
“Don't let the gory subject matter repel you from this charming account of the cast of kings, artists, biologists, circus performers, and ordinary folks who populate the world of taxidermy. Madden's investigation is marked by appealing candor, literary references, and atmospheric descriptions of (and fondness for) the subculture and its adherents…this book muses with verve and wit on the relationships between human and animal, art and artifact, as well as on the collector's obsession.” Publishers Weekly
“Madden…investigates the subculture of taxidermy…[and] can be a bit tongue in cheek…when he wonders "what would happen if the tables were turned?" and the animals put the humans on display… [A] sometimes chilling tour of an intriguing subculture. ” Kirkus Reviews
Madden (English/Univ. of Alabama) investigates the subculture of taxidermy, a subject he admits is repellant to many readers.
The author attempts to answer the question, "Why do we stuff animals?" Among the many characters in his account are grieving pet owners, local hunters, big-game hunters and museums, including the Smithsonian and the American Museum of Natural History. Madden begins with Carl Akeley, "the father of American taxidermy." Akeley invented many still-employed techniques and moved taxidermy out of private collections and into public displays when he mounted P.T. Barnum's elephant Jumbo. Madden explores why people choose to attend places like Dan Rinehart's Taxidermy School, and he considers the relation between taxidermy and the killing that is called "collecting." He tells us about those who supply taxidermists and their products and methods, and he visits the competitive championships where the results are displayed. He traces the history, from the Renaissance-era Cabinets de Curiosites down to Barnum, and introduces us to freaks like the "Feejee Mermaid" and other manmade monsters like Jackalopes. Madden can be a bit tongue in cheek, too, like when he wonders "what would happen if the tables were turned?" and the animals put the humans on display. "We kill animals for all kinds of bullshit reasons," he writes. However, a "taxidermized animal is a remembered animal, a memorialized animal, and something memorialized is something loved."
Readable, sometimes chilling tour of an intriguing subculture. See also Melissa Milgrom's Still Life (2010).
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Read an Excerpt
Our taxidermy story begins on a cold night in Clarendon, New York, in the winter of 1876. Everyone in town was asleep. The farmers and shopkeeps. The judges with their offices in Town Hall and Frank Turner, the new town clerk. Chauncey Foster, who owned the Clarendon Hotel. The man who ran the gristmill, a miller whose name just happened to be Miller. The schoolteacher, William Stillwell, who pounded insubordinate students with a notched ruler, and the schoolboys trying not to sleep on their bruises. Even the known night owl Dr. Brackett turned in early that evening, the cold being too fierce to get any work done. Irene Glidden, the youngest of ten children—twenty years old and living, still, at home, a brief lifetime of spinsterhood set out unwittingly before her—had fallen asleep before she could remember to throw another log or two in the stove. In the morning she rose early and shivering to find that her pet canary had frozen to death. She fed fresh, dry logs to the dying embers. She tried to get a fire roaring. If she tried hard enough maybe she could wake her canary up. Maybe it could live again. Maybe miracles happened every day.
Another canary? Another canary was just a day’s trip away in Rochester, and yet as any pet owner knows what creates the love between the human and the pet is the notion of custody. This animal’s life is my responsibility. Every loss of every pet is met with some anxious mix of deprivation and personal shame. Sometimes sobbing alone in one’s living room is the only reasonable reaction. Miss Irene Glidden’s tears, then, are understandable tears. She had that cold morning in 1876 some complicated feelings of guilt to manage, and she had before her an image no one likes to consider: a bird unmoving, its wings no longer cutting through the air above us.
* * *
Enter Carl Akeley. A small boy, thin. His sandy hair slicked flat on his scalp. In certain brands of daylight it looked painted on. A farmer’s son, quiet and watchful. Fence-picket shoulders and skin as fair as a lady’s handkerchief. She watched Carl enter the house with an empty basket held in his mittened hands. Outside, the wind blew up snowdrifts in slanted curtains of white. Carl said good morning. He left his coat and mittens in place on his tiny body. He was so much like a bird in the frail way he stood beneath Irene that it was too much for her not to keep sobbing right there in her chair.
“Mother sent me for some eggs,” Carl said, not moving closer.
She couldn’t say it. She only pointed to the birdcage in the corner.
Carl set the basket on the floor and walked over. The cage was a shiny brass thing. Baroque, and glowing in the firelight like a lantern. It hung from a hook in the ceiling, and Carl stretched up on the tips of his toes to see inside. There lay the canary. “Oh Carl,” Irene said, standing up from her chair and keeping a distance from the birdcage. “I’m an animal. A monster. What kind of person…?” She drifted off to open the stove and throw another short log in, but by now the fire was blazing. Carl began to sweat. He took off his mittens and stuffed them in his coat pockets, and he pried open the wire door of the cage and reached one hand in.
“I’ll fix it,” he said. The canary was warm to the touch and felt like breath between his fingers.
He had handled a dead animal before. After the cows on his father’s farm had been milked, after Carl had cleaned out the horse stalls in the barn, he liked to walk wordlessly through the woods with another old farmer in town, a man named Os Mitchell, who could train a dog to hunt better than anyone. Mitchell taught the boy how to shoot, and Carl on his best days would clip a bird right out of the air and watch as one of Os’s dogs ran off to fetch the animal and present it to the boy. These dead animals led to nothing. They became dead animals and remained dead animals. Before that morning in the Gliddens’ home, death was the end of something, and then, suddenly, death was not the end, Carl saw. Death was just an accident, an error in the world he thought he could fix. That morning a canary had died, but before anyone knew it a taxidermist was born.
* * *
Julia Akeley was a fire-eyed woman with an acute severity in the brow and a temper none in her household could anticipate. A wronged woman. Her family was wealthy and her husband was poor, having been handed fifty-eight rocky, barren acres on the far eastern outskirts of the property owned by Julia’s father, Thomas Glidden.1 The Gliddens were a large and proud clan, one of Clarendon’s founding families, who, according to Carl’s older brother Lewis, “ruled the public opinion of the neighborhood.” To be a Glidden was to walk through town expecting the faces of its people to reflect envy and admiration. And then there was Julia. Her husband, Webb Akeley, was a man who did not put on airs and had no truck with the airs put on by others. He didn’t go to church; he raised livestock. A couple cows, and few pigs, some chickens. He grew oats and corn and wheat, but the ground was all clay and rock, and Webb never could have been called a successful man. And Julia saw success all around her. Her sisters all married well and lived in tall brick houses in town with four, five bedrooms. As she walked through town, she heard, she thought, them and the other citizens of Clarendon talking about her family—that run-down farm, that boy and his dead animals. It should have been enough to make her leave. Webb wrote to relative Gliddens out in De Kalb, Illinois (where one of them, Joseph Farwell Glidden, became the inventor of barbed-wire fencing), and received word that out there was wealth and bounty. The Heartland. It had so much promise, but Julia wouldn’t leave. Her refusal to break away from the Clarendon Gliddens and their power led, Lewis once wrote, to the Akeleys’ doom: “Our father never had a chance for economic independence in the utterly hopeless agricultural situation to which his wife’s reluctance condemned him for life.”
Julia turned cold and cruel. She snapped at her children and nagged her husband. By age twelve, Carl had learned to remain out of her sights, to stay busy with farmwork, to spend his afternoons far out in the woods of Clarendon. When he got home that cold morning he tried to slip noiselessly upstairs and get right to work, but his mother heard his footfalls from the kitchen. “How many eggs?” she called out, and only then did Carl realize he’d forgotten. He was to have left with at least four eggs, his mother had explained, and eight if the Gliddens could spare them. “And they can,” she’d said. Carl had even forgotten the basket. He walked into the kitchen. His mother was sitting at the empty kitchen table, her hands flat on the surface. The canary was safe in his coat pocket, wrapped in a red handkerchief. “I forgot them, I guess,” he said. “Shall I go back for them?”
“You forgot the one thing I sent you over there for?” She didn’t look his way when she spoke.
“Yes’m,” he said. “It was Irene. Her canary—”
“I don’t care about canaries. I only care about feeding this family.” Her eyes were closed and her face held upward as though in prayer. “But it’s clear you don’t care as much as I do. Running around without a head on your shoulders. Your father’s son, that’s what you are.”
“I can go back, Ma.”
“No,” she said. She was looking at him now. “No, you can go up to your room. And stay there. Without those eggs I have too many mouths to feed tonight.”
Carl just turned and ran up the steps. “You won’t be missed,” his mother called after him. It must have been a lie, because by the time dinner was ready she called him down to join them, pleaded almost, though Carl never answered. He wasn’t vindictive so much as busy, absorbed in the task of resurrecting Irene’s canary. How to get started? Every story ever told about the life of Carl Akeley has begun with this fundamental canary, and part of the mythology holds that he knew what to do because of a book he had borrowed from another boy in town—one that, Akeley is sure to explain in his memoirs, “had originally cost a dollar.” It’s shorthand for “humble beginnings”: act 1 in any Cinderella story. Not that taxidermy in the second half of the nineteenth century was such a strange activity for a young boy. This was a kind of boom era for American boyhood. Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was published the very year Miss Glidden’s canary died, and books abounded on how to fish, hunt, and make the world your playground. The children’s magazine Youth’s Companion was in wide enough circulation to have reached even the Akeley household.2 Add to this knowledge the self-sufficiency Carl had cultivated in the face of his mother’s temper—she was right: he truly was his father’s son—and it’s clear that Carl knew what to do with the bird without having to think too much about it.
All the same, he proceeded methodically. First he lay the bird on its back and cut a long incision down the breast, from neck to tail. He used only a small pocketknife, and he took his time. Once he cut away the bulk of the skin he dug into the joints, severing the tibia from the hip, the tailbone from the backbone, the wingbones from the shoulder joints, and the vertebrae from the head. What he then held in his hands was the headless, limbless torso of the canary, shapeless and small like some broken toy. Next he had to remove the eyes and snip out the tongue and scoop the brains from the cranium. Only then was the skin ready for stuffing. He took measurements of the bird before cutting it open and used these numbers to mold from sticky wood shavings called “excelsior” a kind of body. Carl took a sturdy length of wire and fit one end of it into this body and another into the canary’s skull and made a neck. He stuck four more wires into the excelsior and attached them to each severed limb and made thighbones and wing bones. Around this poseable doll went the skin, which he sewed up along the seam, keeping the stitches small and neat.
The eye of a canary is a tiny black orb, with a gloss like obsidian. To fill the eye cavities Carl sneaked a hand into his mother’s sewing table and found two glass beads. The final stage of any taxidermy project is the mounting of the specimen. For an animal in a museum, what’s needed is a re-created habitat built behind a panel of glass. For something a hunter shot, a wooden plaque and some wall space in the den. A pet has its own demands. It was not enough for Carl to make the canary look lifelike. This was an animal gazed upon every day by its owner. It had to look like itself. It had to look as though nothing tragic had ever happened to it.
One Sunday afternoon a short while later, when the weather was still frigid enough to keep herself bundled in a scarf and muffler, Miss Irene Glidden came home from church to find that the cage in the corner of her room was no longer empty, that right there on its swinging perch stood her canary, which she could even push a little, back and forth, back and forth, and she smiled when she saw that the bird didn’t falter, smiled knowing that maybe it couldn’t swing on its own, that maybe it would never sing again, but that she could touch the animal. She could hold it in her hand and it would never fly away.
* * *
The Canary that Carl First Mounted is so central to his mythology that Mary Jobe Akeley, in assembling her 1940 biography, wrote letters to practically anyone still living in Clarendon who may have had information on its whereabouts. She found some success through a man named Glenn Ewell, who tracked the canary’s posthumous flight to nearby Holley, New York, where the Glidden family eventually moved, then to a box in their attic, then into the hands of one of Irene’s sister’s kids. All this thanks to taxidermy, the pet’s careful preservation for eternity.
Pets are one of the most obvious ways we make order out of the teeming and daunting animal kingdom. If there were a class system of animals, pets would surely be at the top: The Animals Allowed into Our Homes. In the dark, early days of taxidermy, pets were among the top candidates for preservation. The ancient Egyptians believed in the immortality of cats, and so wealthy citizens would embalm their pet cats after they died, preserving the vessel for that dear soul’s return. And one of the oldest mounted specimens still in existence is the African gray parrot that belonged to the Duchess of Richmond, a mistress of Charles II. Before her death, she stipulated that her beloved pet, should it outlast her, must be preserved and displayed alongside her own effigy in Westminster Abbey. The Duchess died in 1702, and, as though in grief, the parrot died weeks later.
By no means are birds the only pets we find preserved throughout history. The Natural History Museum at Tring is a kind of satellite wing of the museum in London—a more intimate museum experience inside what looks like a quaint Tudor mansion. Tring, a town thirty-five miles northwest of London, is also host to the world’s most extensive collection of mounted dogs. They’ve got a spaniel’s head, emerging out of a small block of woodwork like a convict from the stocks, but the good people of Tring have chosen to keep this in storage. Which is a total shame. It could be such an instructive image. There is something very unsettling about the fist-sized head of a dog floating on a wall several feet from the floor. It’s impossible not to imagine the body that went with it. Why didn’t the original taxidermist go to the small trouble of preserving the dog in its entirety? A dog-head mount feels, then, like a bit of a cheat, and suddenly all game heads—moose heads, pronghorn antelope heads, zebra heads—feel like cheats. A deer’s head on a wall reminds us that the owner had neither the money nor the space to exhibit the whole of the animal he killed (or had killed). A dog’s head on the wall reminds us that game heads of any sort do taxidermized animals a small but noteworthy disservice.
The museum at Tring has plenty of full-size dogs on display—hundreds, actually. There’s a pair of Irish wolfhounds, standing proudly erect with chins up as if under official inspection. There’s a ratty old poodle dating to 1907 with a haircut that looks far more accidental and scattershot than the one we’re familiar with today. A high-eared Welsh corgi standing with its head at a slight, curious tilt. An English pointer, pointing. A Pekingese named Ah Cum, born in 1875 and supposedly the patriarch of the entire breed in England. None of the pets can be petted. All are locked up behind glass panels. Some date back to the Victorian era—a time when gentlemen visionaries had a field day with taxidermy and handled animal skins like the shells of 3-D cartoons they could pose and bend to suit all kinds of gentle whimsy.3 A Mexican lap dog dates to 1843 and is, thus, one of the oldest mounted dogs in the history of museum taxidermy. Today it resembles something like a guinea pig caught in a wind tunnel.
In a guidebook to the dog collection, Kim Dennis-Bryan and Juliet Clutton-Brock claim the dogs “are unique because they are not just representations of their species, like a stuffed lion or tiger would be; each dog has a personal history that is linked to human social history.” It’s one reason that a stuffed pet makes most people uneasy: it wasn’t just an animal, it was somebody’s animal. It was some part of a person’s family. My vegetarian friends argue effectively against another form of animal classification: edible and inedible. Bessie is large and stands around outside all day eating grass, whereas Fido is loyal and sits by our slipper-clad feet at dinnertime. This doesn’t make Fido any less fit for eating than Bessie. But we do this. We create these classes, and this thinking is almost hardwired into our minds: “By 10,000 years ago,” write Dennis-Bryan and Clutton-Brock, “the relationship between people and their dogs was already well-established and irrevocable.” Pets are honorary humans, in a way. They are animals we give names to and read personalities from like we do meaning from Zen Koans.
* * *
One summer afternoon, I learned that my friend Sara’s cat was dying. I asked her whether she’d thought about getting him preserved. “It’s not too expensive,” I said. “Maybe a couple hundred dollars.”
We were floating around in her pool, the overhead sun baking our skins slowly. It was so bright I had to squint, and even through the glare off the water I could see her looking back at me as though I’d suggested feasting on the carcass.
“That’s so creepy,” she said. It was the end of the conversation. When I pressed her to explain why, she said, “It just is.”
My sister refused to preserve her cat, Theo, which was fine by me since Theo was a demon of a thing that hissed and spat and bit at my legs whenever I tried to come within three feet of him. “It’s not that I’m opposed to that,” she told me, carefully, as though preserving animals were some dogma I’d recently adopted. “It’s just something I didn’t want to do.” Likewise, my parents refused to preserve the family dog, Duke, when he died, which was a shame since he had such a thick coat and spent so much time lying still on the floor it wouldn’t have been much of a change. “What would we do with it?” my mother asked me, and I made notice of the neutral pronoun.
The veterinarians who euthanized Theo and Duke gave their owners four options. Pet preservation was one of them; both vets had companies they referred grieving pet owners to. Or the pets could be embalmed and returned for burial in either a backyard or what my mother apparently calls “a doggy cemetery.” Or they could be cremated and returned in an urn. In the end, my mother and my father and my sister went with the fourth option. Both pets were left in the hands of the veterinarians, who placed the animals in a box and lit them on fire and burned them down to ashes. These ashes they threw away in the garbage. It’s one way, I suppose, of honoring the dead.
* * *
Pets today are preserved not by conventional skin-and-mount taxidermy but by freeze-drying, like we do with flowers or food for astronauts. There are multiple reasons for this. One is that most conventional taxidermists won’t touch pets because too much is at stake. We know these animals too well. A hunter, by contrast, knows his quarry for seconds before he pulls the trigger. Pets have a whole set of characteristic gestures and expressions that no still image can capture in full. Don Franzen, a taxidermist who specializes in freeze-drying, puts it this way: “I’ve had deer heads mounted in the shop, and customers walk right past them. I guarantee it when people walk into my shop they’re not walking past their pet.” In other words, pets are recognizable animals; get the hang of the jowls wrong or the shape of the eye, and you’ve got a tearful customer on your hands—or, worse, one who refuses to pay. (Carl Akeley had so much riding on those black beads he stole from his mother.) Another reason for freeze-drying is that it outperforms taxidermy at re-creating a pet’s original form. Pets are fat animals, as a rule. They’re well fed and comfortable. It’s very difficult to re-create this layer of fatty tissue when you sculpt a bodyform over which to drape the skin. Freeze-drying requires no bodyform. The animal is its own bodyform.
What made Don Franzen a taxidermist was a pheasant he once brought in to some taxidermy shop in his hometown of Wilmington, Illinois. “It came back looking like shit,” he says. “And so I said to myself: I can do this just as good.” That was maybe thirty years ago.4 What made Don Franzen a freeze-drying specialist, however, was a great deal he got on a freeze-dry machine. That and the Web. Google “pet preservation” and you’ll find more than five hundred hits with dozens of companies and independent taxidermists who will take your dead pet, pose it to your liking, and put it in a machine that sucks out all its moisture. What results is a pet that will last forever. And the industry is growing. Franzen now receives in the mail at least one pet a week.
Freeze-drying sounds like a cleaner and more humane alternative to skinning an animal, but it’s not. Franzen makes a small incision to start, choosing a spot on the body that’ll be hidden on its final pose. “The wife is fantastic at stitching,” he says. “I can’t even find the seams when she’s done.” Through this incision he removes all the internal organs: the heart and liver and lungs and stomach and intestines. All of it. These can survive the freeze-drying process, but they shrink and lead to warpage in the pet’s hide.5 Next he wires the pet from forepaw to rear paw in a kind of crisscross fashion, turning it into some furry action figure. Eyeballs are all water, so Franzen has to cut them right out. Then he runs a drill up into the skull cavity and scatters the brains. “They’re more of a grease product than anything else,” he says, and one wants to argue. Brains are the little electric worlds in which our pets remember us. They hold our nicknames and baby talk, the smells of our sofas and of that one time we brought them to the beach to kick up sand and chase crabs. Brains hum and throb with every honest emotion. But a taxidermist is not a man who fetishizes biology. Organs aren’t the seats of emotions. They’re by-products, waste. Only the skin matters. The coat. The shape of the frame of the body. These are what the customer will look at, and so they’re given the utmost care. Once the pet is sewn back up it goes into a wash of Dawn soap and warm water. Then another bath of fabric softener. Then the coat is blown dry and brushed, and in the end it’s just sparkling, like a kennel-club best of show. The pretty carcass is then posed in accordance with customer demands and put into the freeze-dry machine, where it’s frozen well below zero degrees Fahrenheit. A vacuum pump converts all crystallized water into gas vapor, which is sucked out of the chamber. The process takes about a week. What results is the same pet you lost—dead, still, but impervious to bacteria and decay. A pet that looks like it’s only sleeping. A pet that’s going to outlast you.
Freeze-drying can preserve an animal in any pose imaginable. You can make a dog perpetually chase his own tail, for instance, or have a cat do the moonwalk. Franzen sets the levity of this decision squarely on the shoulders of his grieving customers. “I let them tell me what kind of pose they’re looking for,” he says, “but I recommend they put the animal in a sleeping mode because it’s a lot less creepy.” It’s his word, creepy. Sara’s, too. When our loved ones die, we bury them or we burn them. Those are the preferred options. No matter how quickly the industry might be growing the fact remains that freeze-dried pets give people the full-on creeps. Even Franzen, a man who preserves pets for a living, admits to some general discomfort. “God, could I freeze-dry her myself?” he says, referring to his aging Brittany. “I don’t know. I want to remember my animal in the field hunting birds the way she does.” In other words, he doesn’t want to remember her as a statuette gathering dust in his house. “I don’t even have pictures of my parents around,” he adds, cryptically. “But that’s just me.”
Another taxidermist agrees that she couldn’t mount her own pets, but for her the problem was the condition of the carcass. Her ferret, when it died, had suffered from internal bleeding. “I couldn’t have made myself look at her insides in that condition,” she says, and here we have another key difference between pets and nonpets. Whether we be museum collectors or everyday sportsmen, we hunt animals at the peak of their physical conditions. We want the proathletes of the wild kingdom, the supermodels. We want, however, to grow old with the animals we choose as pets. This creates problems for the pet taxidermist. I mean, no amount of expertise can turn Betty White into Bettie Page.
Who, then, are these people who can happily keep dead pets around? What is it they have that the rest of us don’t? Franzen told me a story about a woman named Sheila, who called him once, asking about preserving her pug, Roxy. Roxy spent eleven years traveling with Sheila and her husband from Massachusetts to Florida and back again, and Sheila wasn’t about to let something as paltry as death stop Roxy from joining them on future trips. She had concerns about climate. She had concerns about the threat of decay. Franzen assured her that Roxy would look the same as she always did. “Good,” Sheila said, “because I’m going to want to put her in a casket.” Franzen said he didn’t recommend freeze-drying for a burial. It is a very costly procedure, he said, and time-consuming. “Oh no. You don’t understand,” Sheila said, patiently. “When my husband or I die, Roxy will be buried with one of us.”
“She shocked the hell out of me,” Franzen said. “But some people are just so emotionally attached to their pets they can’t live without them.” Nor, it seems, can they die without them.
* * *
We understand grief as an automatic extension of death. For grief to begin, run its course, and conclude, the cause of the grief—the absence of the loved one—must be rendered material by the absence of the body. Present for a time, yes, but then buried and gone forever. To stuff a pet is to keep the beloved around, right there in the corner of the room, long past the grieving stage should be over. The owner of a stuffed pet must still be grieving, we imagine, or must never have fully gone through grief. The owner of a stuffed pet must not have been able to come to terms with the death of the pet and thus might send its corpse off to a man like Franzen or a boy like Carl, who stopped the decay and made it look (kind of) alive. The owner of a stuffed pet is an outsider. She is Faulkner’s Emily, without the stench emanating from her house.
Or is she? One of the Web sites I have bookmarked is the discussion board at Taxidermy.net. There, taxidermists come together to give one another tips on how to run a taxidermy business out of the home or how best to care for a bearskin after the hunt. They also bicker like coots over politics (leftists: tread lightly) or issues related to the industry as a whole. It’s this forum, “The Taxidermy Industry,” I troll most often, and it was here that I found Joshua Knuth, a taxidermist from Oshkosh, Wisconsin, who gave me maybe the strangest pet-taxidermy story I ever heard.
“It was about ten years ago,” he said. “I was in school in Wisconsin and doing taxidermy on the side, and this magician found me on the Internet. We agreed on a price, and I mailed over a contract for him to sign; and then he sent me his snake, a fourteen-foot boa constrictor. He’d had this snake for a long time, and its name was Beth.” Beth, Knuth explained, died of cancer, and the magician wanted her mounted in a specific position so he could continue to use her in the show. The snake was more than a companion; she was an asset. She was maybe even a celebrity. To deal with the high shipping costs, Knuth agreed to drive the mount to New York City, where the magician and Knuth’s brother lived.
“I drove a small Saturn at the time, so the snake was woven through my car, through the trunk. Its tail stuck out a bit and the head came out in front of me and out the driver’s side window. Imagine the look on the tollbooth attendant’s face when I pull up to pay on the turnpike! So a long and uncomfortable ride out ends without incident, other than the woman manning the George Washington Bridge toll booth who was terrified of snakes. She started crying and couldn’t stop. I was having trouble holding it together.”
On the day he was to pick up the snake, the magician arrived with his assistant, “a busty blond woman wearing a glittery-gold, low-cut showgirl outfit,” Knuth said. The magician had a handlebar mustache and wore a black cape. “We are here for Beth!” he cried and handed over the check, and before Knuth knew what to say they’d loaded the snake in their car and left.
“The guy was a nut job,” Knuth said, “but at least I got paid.”
So maybe those who get their pets preserved aren’t necessarily connected to an animal on an emotional level beyond what most of us find rational. Maybe they’re just eccentric. A freeze-dried pet can make a good conversation piece, a good joke. Witness Rowdy, the mounted Labrador kept by the roommates J. D. and Turk on the sitcom Scrubs. In several episodes, they’d leave the dog in front of a neighbor’s apartment door and then chastise Rowdy on his being returned. “We don’t know why he always goes to your door,” J. D. says in one episode. “Do you have a stuffed cat?”
* * *
In 1798, the English poet Elizabeth Moody published her first collection, called Poetic Trifles. One such trifle was “An Address by a Gentleman to His Dead Dog; Which Was Stuffed, and Placed in a Corner of His Library”:
Yes, still, my Prince, thy form I view,
Art can again thy shape renew:
But vain I seek the vital flame
That animated once thy frame.
Extinct the vivifying spark,
That tongue is mute—those eyes are dark.
In vain that face I now explore;
It wooes me with its love,—no more.
No more thy scent my steps shall trace
With wagging tail and quicken’d pace.
Nor e’er again thy joyful cry,
Proclaim thy darling master nigh.
Alas! thy shade alone remains,
Yet Memory all thou wast retains;
Still on thy living image dwells
And all thy winning fondness tells.
She courts the muse to spread thy name
Beyond life’s little span of fame.
Well pleas’d could verse stern death defy,
And bid that Prince may never die.
We imagine plastic-eye technology wasn’t so hot in 1798, not like it is today. And today it’s quite good. For dogs, a taxidermist can usually substitute wolf eyes, of which they make dozens and dozens of kinds. What size do you need? What color? Some brands even have reflective backs such that when you shine a light on the eye it gleams back at you like a tiny headbeam. And yet Don Franzen suggests a sleeping pose. A lot less creepy. What he means by this is that the eyes are the windows to the soul, proverbially, and here, it’s a window looking in on an empty room. This is what the gentleman is mourning in the first part of the poem, and this is why pet taxidermy has not made many converts. And why it may never. A stuffed pet is a dead thing. It’s not a monument to something that once lived and then died. It’s a dead thing.
But the second half of the poem argues the opposite. “Still,” it says, and “Yet.” The stuffed dog is more than a portrait, does more than a portrait can do. The stuffed dog is like statuary, except more authentic because the materials used to re-create the body are the materials that used to be the body. In the end, the stuffed dog is a tool of memory, personified in the poem as some light deity, able to resurrect all the good times the gentleman shared with the dog. So the dog lives on eternally. The pet, in fact, outlives the master. Moody’s poem is more than two hundred years old, which means that stuffed pets are even older. The technology may have changed from the eighteenth century to the twenty-first, but the desire to keep a deceased pet around in one form or another has remained, unchanging, unfaltering in its hope that Prince the dog may never die. Or Beth the python. Or Roxy the pug.
Or the famous frozen canary of Clarendon, New York. The canary’s name has been lost from public record, but the bird itself is still intact. That niece of Miss Irene Glidden held onto the bird long enough to donate it to the American Museum of Natural History. And there it sits, today, shut up in a box on the floor of some dark room. The canary is more than 135 years old, but it hasn’t aged a day.
Copyright © 2011 by Dave Madden
Meet the Author
DAVE MADDEN is a professor at The University of Alabama. He lives in Tuscaloosa and co-edits The Cupboard, a quarterly pamphlet.
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