Sticky Fingers

Confessions of a teenage taxidermist

ONE DAY WHEN I WAS12, I sat eavesdropping and snickering at the top of the stairs as my parents discussed some creepy kid in our Jackson, Mississippi, neighborhood. The snickering stopped when I realized—cue melodramatic organ music—that the creepy kid was me.

"This is awful," said my dad. He was a pathologist, which means he worked on dead bodies and tissue samples all day. He knew awful.

"Well," my mom rationalized, "maybe this will lead to an interest in surgery later on."

They were co-retching over my decision, which I'd announced out of nowhere, to take up taxidermy as a hobby. Understandably, they wanted to know why. Why had I decided to become a pint-size ghoul? Was it something they'd done?

No. It was something I'd done. And the really weird part is that I'm glad I did it. Even today, with my fingers free of their long-ago aroma of bird blood, I recall my motives, which seemed pretty sound at the time. I'd had a run-in with the juvenile authorities, and I needed a Boy Scout–flavored hobby that represented a return to innocence. I chose taxidermy because...well, I guess because I was a weird little bastard.

But I also blame Teddy Roosevelt. Around this time, I read a biography of T.R. and eagerly noted that the bully president had been a boy naturalist himself, one who shot and stuffed his own birds and small animals. Since I came from a hunting and fishing family, this seemed like just the thing. I saw myself loping through the woods with a shotgun and a sketchpad, "collecting" specimens as I filled my expanding lungs with clean, woodsy air.

So I bummed some money off Mom, sent for a mail-order taxidermy course, and raided my dad's old autopsy bag for necessary tools, including a razor-sharp scalpel, curved needles, and all the gauze I could grab.

Have you ever tried taxidermy at home? No? Well, believe me when I say it ain't easy. To mount a bird, you start by making an incision down the front and skinning the thing in one clean, undamaged piece—an act that requires adult dexterity and lots of patience. I had neither, but I did have a powerful pellet gun that I used to collect all too many sparrows in nearby backyards, and for naught. Skinning was too difficult. Months passed, but as the carcasses piled up, I never produced a feathered friend suitable for mounting.

That changed the next year, when Dad moved the family to Garden City, Kansas. Uprooted to this distant prairie outpost, I plunged into more serious bird hunting (doves, pheasants, and ducks) and became grimly serious about honing my taxidermy skills. Eventually I got it. My first successful mount was a sparrow that I stuffed with a lumpy artificial body, and whose glassy-eyed look of reproach ("Why me? Why this?") haunts me still. I mounted a starling. Then a wood duck. My crowning achievement came when I mounted a flying pheasant as a Christmas present for my oldest brother. It was a damn good job, too, and you should have seen the look on big bro's face when he opened that box!

And, yeah, there were bad moments. Like the day a bird-phobic member of my mom's bridge club rounded the wrong corner in our house and nearly had a thrombo. Or the day I found a dead coyote by the Arkansas River and dragged it home, thinking I could mask the stench with hair spray and tan it into a fine, soft rug.

Before long, I quietly transitioned out of my taxidermy phase for good, but I still take a measure of pride in my work. These days, I don't hunt—in fact, I strive to make my backyard an irresistible bird sanctuary, to offload the karmic debt. And sometimes, when it's early and the finches are just raising their voices in song, I'll look at my hands, think about what might have been, and quietly say, "Ewwwww."

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