If Taxidermy Is Wrong, I Don't Wanna Be Right
Two documentaries, 'Big Fur' and 'Stuffed,' set out to show that this sticky-fingered branch of natural history is full of beauty and wonder. Do they succeed? Our reviewer, who knows a lot more about the subject than he ought to, says yes.
When I was 13, holding a scalpel that I’d “borrowed” from my dad’s old autopsy bag—a big step in my quest to learn the difficult art of taxidermy—there was one thing I never would have seen coming.
Wait. What? Be patient. We’ll get to me and my weird hobby in a minute. For now, I’ll just add that my late father was a respected pathologist who had no part in what happened and shouldn’t be blamed. Nor should my mom, who briefly deluded herself into thinking my interest in taxidermy possibly meant I wanted to be a surgeon.
As I was saying: I wouldn’t have predicted that The New York Times would someday think taxidermy is cool, but this very thing has happened in the 21st century. Granted, the Times doesn’t cover the subject like it’s a normal beat, but if you cruise its archives, you’ll see that it comes up surprisingly often, usually in articles that try to convince you there’s a “taxidermy craze” underway (fact check: there is never a taxidermy craze underway), or that it’s an art form popular among hipsters (there’s truth to this one, since taxidermy is inherently Goth), or that displaying stuffed animals in your Manhattan or Brooklyn apartment is a cool design choice (it is not).
For me, picking the best story in this genre came down to a pair of heavyweights. The first is a 2014 profile of Gregory Speck, a “socialite, celebrity journalist, and author” who filled a big Midtown apartment with around 200 taxidermy specimens, including a bison head. “He was the wooliest bully I had ever seen, so I called him Buffalo Bill,” Speck says, trying way too hard.
But the win goes to a piece published in 2003 under the headline “From Found Objects, A Gothic Décor.” It stars a hipster couple, Erik Sanko and Jessica Grindstaff, who live together in “a small, exuberantly overstuffed apartment in TriBeCa.” (Overstuffed! Get it?) Sanko was a well-known bassist who’d played for the rock group Skeleton Key and John Lurie’s jazz band, the Lounge Lizards. Grindstaff was an artist who liked to make dioramas and music boxes using old pieces of taxidermy. “On a worktable in the living room, she had attached the flattened body of a mouse to the head of a small bird,” the story tells us. “‘That’s wrong on so many levels,’ she said. ‘But it’s so right.’”
No, Jessica, it’s wrong. On all the levels.
Occasionally, a writer uses a more conventional approach and simply says taxidermy is gross, which prompts a mixed reaction from me. On one hand, I have to agree: it can be kinda gross. But as a former teenage taxidermist, I feel defensive and protective.
That’s why I was excited by a letter to the editor the Times published in 2013, because it provided a useful rundown of what modern taxidermy is really like. A book reviewer had written that taxidermy workshops are creepy places filled with “dust, fumes, stench, viscera and decay.” She got clobbered by an avenging correspondent from Ontario, Canada, named K. Kilburn, who was married to a professional fish taxidermist. Kilburn, a no-nonsense sort, said her man ran a clean operation.
“Fish taxidermy requires expertise with a great range of paints and finishes,” she wrote. “Careful removal of all possible traces of flesh from the skin, which is then tanned and treated so there are no future infestations of insects—and no decay. There is no dust—dust is the enemy of good taxidermy. Chemical fumes and any temporary odors are removed by powerful fans.”
This was a rousing defense of the art form that so many people love to hate. It almost made me want to put on rubber gloves and try it again.
I mention this letter because I’m here to discuss two documentary films about the bleakest of hobbies, one of which, Big Fur, stars a Kilburn-like pro named Ken Walker, a blue-collar workhorse from Alberta who has ambitious dreams. The other film, Stuffed, goes in the opposite direction, getting in deep with several men and women who use taxidermy for highly refined artistic purposes. (Big Fur, directed by Kansas City, Missouri, filmmaker Dan Wayne, debuted earlier this year at the Slamdance Film Festival; on August 11, it will be released by 1091 Media for on-demand streaming and, later, subscription streaming. Stuffed, which was directed by Erin Derham, who is based in Asheville, North Carolina, is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. There will be a watch party and live chat with the director on August 19.)
I was nervous that Stuffed would feature too many Grindstaff types, and in the early going, this seemed well-founded. The first person we meet is a woman from Los Angeles named Allis Markham, who certainly looks like a hipster: she has tattoos, wears vintage clothes, and sometimes rocks a set of jet-black bumper bangs. But on closer inspection, I realized that Markham is awesome. Describing her life’s path, she says she was in a rut, doing a corporate job in marketing, so she decided to give taxidermy a try. She paid her dues by going to a two-week taxidermy school in Montana—the kind of place where commercial taxidermists who do deer heads and largemouth bass learn their trade—and then she volunteer-apprenticed with Timothy Bovard, a master taxidermist at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Markham later created an L.A. business called Prey Taxidermy and has appeared on the cover of LA Weekly. She’s also participating in the watch party with Derham.
“I am definitely a bird addict,” she says while putting the finishing touches on a superb starling, a native of East Africa. (The specimen she’s working on was legally obtained from an aviary in the American Southwest.) “Birds are design,” she adds later. “They are dressed up, they look certain ways to attract each other, and that is fashion.”
It’s a nice moment, but it also brings to mind a blanket observation I have about both films: they make taxidermy seem prettier and neater than it is, though I’d say Stuffed does an adequate job of showing you what it looks like when a bird, mammal, or fish is “prepared” for mounting. In most cases, the first step is removing the animal’s skin from its body in a single piece, while somehow managing to keep several of the body parts—such as, in the case of a bird, the feet, leg bones, wing bones, skull, and beak—attached to the skin.
This is an extremely difficult process, and it’s also a mess. So the filmmakers, eager to not send audiences screaming into the night, don’t dwell on that side of the game. Instead we get shots that look like backstage preparations at the Westminster Dog Show: taxidermists using blow-dryers to puff up feathers and fur, delicately sculpting clay bodies, and painting lips with tiny brushes. Big Fur is especially bloodless, since the central subject is an animal that hasn’t been proven to exist: Bigfoot.
Wayne, who’s making his directorial debut with Big Fur, did a wonderful job on this project, and with help from writer and editor George Langworthy, composer Brad Cox, and producer Jon Niccum, he turns Ken Walker’s life and quest into a compelling narrative that is, by turns, funny, sad, and inspirational.
When we meet Ken, he’s in his early fifties and has a lot going on. He’s an award-winning taxidermist—with Best of Shows from four major competitions—who works out of a pair of clean, bright studios about an hour west of Edmonton, Alberta. He’s a solid Roy Orbison impersonator who still takes the stage at taxidermy convention after-parties. He’s a first-rate craftsman who was hired in 2003 to help renovate the Hall of Mammals at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. He’s married to a woman who, alas, seems irritated by him. He’s in contact with a cheerful former student from North Carolina named Amy Carter, who does not seem irritated by him. And, most important, he has a grand obsession. Using the techniques of what he calls “re-creation” taxidermy—which means making taxidermy-like mounts of animals that are either extinct, unobtainable, or nonexistent—he hopes to sculpt an accurate model, complete with fur, glass eyes, and huge hands and feet, of what a Sasquatch would look like if you found and mounted one.
As I started watching Big Fur, I worried again. Ken is a nice man with a kind face. He mentors a lot of young taxidermists, and he seemed genuine and fun and philosophical. Was he being set up for ridicule?
Nope. It’s obvious that Wayne and his colleagues like Ken. If he’s “funny” to us, it’s either because he says something genuinely amusing or does something that makes him seem odd in a way that’s endearing, not humiliating. A typical example comes when he talks about his firm belief in Bigfoot, which is based on years of research and a sighting, by Ken himself, that happened roughly 30 years ago in western Alberta.
“I’ve moved beyond the controversy,” he says. “I am convinced, and I’m gonna go one step further and build a model.” Ken is sculpting a small clay Bigfoot while saying this. Nice touch.
Another fun moment to witness is Ken working as a judge at a taxidermy competition in Indiana. During an after-party, a guy regales him about the glories of taxidermy as a creative pursuit.
“Taxidermy is the most difficult art form that man has ever devised,” the man says. “You have to be a sculptor, painter, an impressionist, all wrapped in one, and it’s the only art form that has the perfect thing to compare it to.”
“That’s right, but you know what the funniest part is?” Ken says. “This is where everybody’s thrown for a loop, OK? It’s all done by right-wingers, who don’t even believe in art and don’t even know they’re artists.”
We don’t hear much about Ken’s training as a taxidermist, but his origin story—the moment when he caught the bug—is delivered with real bounce. Ken was 12 and into making Claymation movies, which for some reason led him to check out a taxidermy instruction book from the library. On the way to a friend’s house, he saw a sparrow get hit by a car, picked it up, went home, and, using the instructions in the book, successfully mounted it.
“I was terribly pleased with the result, which was really in hindsight quite hideous,” he says, chuckling. “But there it was, it was standing on its own two feet again.
“Yeah,” Ken adds, “I guess I was a weird kid in a lot of ways, but … you know.”
Weird kid. This phrase tends to come up when the subject is taxidermy, and sometimes it’s deserved. Ken probably was a little different from the other boys and girls, and in Stuffed, one of the characters seemed unusual enough that I sat up in my chair when he first hit the screen.
His name is Daniel Meng. He’s a young Ohio-based pro with a lot of museum experience, and he started doing taxidermy when he was eight and a half, which is very early. “My parents put up with a lot,” he says, good-naturedly. “They threatened to make me quit taxidermy several times, because it was just … overwhelming.”
Oh, really. How? Well, Meng says that when he was six or seven, he would ride his bike around town searching for roadkill, bagging it and burying it in the woods. Then he would come back a couple of months later to retrieve the remains for his bone collection. When he transitioned to taxidermy, he started hauling the roadkill straight into his parents’ basement, which was, um, a concern for them. Meng remembers “some of my mom’s friends pulling her aside and whispering in her ear: ‘This kid needs, like, professional help.’”
Later in the film, during a competition held by the California Association of Taxidermists, a presentable young man named Jordan Hackle puts it all on the table by discussing the dangerous combination of being into taxidermy and having any interest in ever enjoying a romantic relationship.
“Uh, yeah, go into a bar, and try and pick up a girl, and then you tell them you’re a taxidermist,” he says. “You get anything from ‘You do taxes?’ to ‘That’s really creepy.’ Or you get the ones that lie, and they’re like, ‘No, it’s not creepy at all.’ And then, in the back of their mind they’re like, This guy could be Ted Bundy.”
Ken Walker shows up in Stuffed soon after this, noting that, in social situations, “People love to talk about Psycho.” Meng tells us that when a date asks him what he does for a living, he says, “I’m a 3D wildlife artist.”
Way to stick up for the #brand, guys!
By now you may be wondering if I was a weird kid, too. I think you’ve already guessed the answer to that, but here’s the backstory. I started thinking about trying to learn taxidermy in 1969, when I was a seventh-grader in Jackson, Mississippi. Back then I was fairly normal by most standards: I dressed nicely (mom saw to that with a forced march to a local department store full of spiffy back-to-school ensembles), sported a wicked Beatle haircut, played sports (baseball and tennis, mainly), and was invited to dance parties, where I specialized in staring at the floor and shuffling so imperceptibly that I looked like a weary zombie.
Unfortunately, that year I also took a turn toward juvenile delinquency, which was not unusual in the suburbs of Jackson in the late 1960s. My finest hour as an imitation Ponyboy happened one summer night when I was still in junior high. I was staggering around drunk at a convenience store when a police cruiser pulled up. Bonus: when the cops nabbed me, I was trying to shimmy up either a telephone pole or a tree—accounts vary. Double bonus: I barfed on the lobby floor at the jail. My parents came and took me home, and they had quite a few things to say about my achievements the next day.
So am I going to sit here and say taxidermy saved me from a life of crime? No, but it was part of a conscious (and bumpy) long-term effort to be a less awful person, which started when I learned to recognize that some things I did weren’t merely self-destructive but hurtful to others. As it happened, the changes I went through coincided with and were jump-started by a historic development. In 1970, after 15 years of massive resistance to U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the white-controlled Jackson Public Schools were finally and fully forced to desegregate, almost overnight, and my daily life changed dramatically.
What happened was complicated, but here’s the short version: In the sixties, Mississippi schools were still predominantly segregated by race, a practice that was supposed to end following the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education. After years of what desegregation historian Charles C. Bolton has called “delays and token desegregation” by Mississippi officials, the Supreme Court ruled in an important 1969 case—Alexander v. Holmes, which originated with a suit filed by Black families in Mississippi—that feet-dragging school districts had to commit to full desegregation immediately.
In late ’69, in an informal poll done by the A.P., Mississippi journalists said school desegregation was the state’s second-biggest story that year—just after Hurricane Camille, which had destroyed much of the Mississippi Gulf Coast. The state’s governor, a segregationist named John Bell Williams, gave a speech in January 1970 in which he said, oddly, that a great way to strengthen public schools during this time of crisis was to create a “strong private school system.” That was another way of saying: hey, white people, it’s cool if you want to abandon public schools entirely.
And that’s what happened. Not all white parents yanked their children, but the majority did. After an extended Christmas break in 1969–70, the big change was put in place in January, and by the following fall, most of my friends had transferred to private schools that either already existed or were rapidly built.
Full confession: I was a typical self-centered kid whose main interest was my skeezy social life, so I wanted to go where my friends went. But my parents kept me and one of my brothers, a high school student, in public school. (He went here.) Why? I’m not sure. It seems astounding now, but I never asked.
I didn’t know what to expect during this transition, but the experience was less dramatic than I’d feared, and it was good for me. By the start of eighth grade, I was one of roughly 25 white kids at Bailey Junior High, a massive concrete pile with hundreds of students. I got bullied sometimes—there was a huge guy named A.C. who often made me pay him ten cents for a pack of wintergreen Certs he’d shoplifted—but that was no big deal. Most of the people I shared classes with were friendly, and teachers of both races worked hard to make this challenging situation go as smoothly as it could.
Among other benefits, the desegregation experience gave me new perspective and put me back on the academic path. I’d brought home a dismal report card in the first semester of seventh grade, but now, since there was nothing else to do, I started studying harder, and as I got into that, I came to admire a diligent Black student named Jonathan, who was a solid role model. In eighth grade, our school awarded a history prize based on a comprehensive exam we took in the spring. I crammed for it, but Jonathan, a soft-spoken and modest person, crushed me and everybody else.
In addition to hitting the books, my reform effort featured other conventional moves, like playing for the tennis team, becoming a Boy Scout (a slight hitch there: my troop contained several beer-drinking delinquents), and getting more involved in the outdoors, which in Mississippi meant hunting and fishing.
I don’t hunt anymore, but I support people who do, and for a while there I was obsessed with it. By the time I reached ninth grade, my oldest brother had taken me on two trips to a deer camp in the Mississippi Delta, where our most colorful uncle, Jeff, was one of the men in charge. My dad came along on the first of these adventures, which was rare and significant, because when he wasn’t working, he would rather have been taking a nap.
The deer-camp scene was like nothing I’d experienced, and it was fun being around the hunters and the wildlife and the massive trees and the dogs. I liked to sit on the margins inside the camp’s big, rustic dining room and listen to the men booze it up and tell stories. In his famous novella The Bear, William Faulkner referred to this sort of chatter as “the best of all talking,” and I know exactly what he meant.
I decided to give taxidermy a serious try in the fall semester of ninth grade, because it fit a ridiculous self-image I’d dreamed up. Like young Teddy Roosevelt, I would be a boy naturalist, marching through the woods with a 12-gauge shotgun, collecting wildlife specimens that I’d preserve using my unique skills. I might even make some money on the side.
To get going, I searched the school library for an instruction manual. There wasn’t one. All I found were encyclopedia entries that discussed the history of the craft and spotlighted famous figures like Carl Akeley, an American museum taxidermist who, starting in the late 1800s, revolutionized how it was done, emphasizing that bird, fish, and mammal skins should be mounted on precise replica bodies rather than being crudely stuffed. Akeley used his methods to create classic dioramas displayed in institutions like New York’s American Museum of Natural History and Chicago’s Field Museum. (Stuffed is very informative about Akeley, with help from biographer Jay Kirk.)
I eventually found what I needed in the back of a hunting magazine: an advertisement for the Northwestern School of Taxidermy, a mail-order business based in Omaha, Nebraska. “LEARN TO MOUNT BIRDS and ANIMALS,” the ad screamed. It showed a lad not unlike myself putting the finishing touches on a duck, near all-caps sales-pitch words that seized me by the brain. “SPORTSMEN • MEN, BOYS. MOUNT YOUR GAME. EASY LESSONS. PROFITS!”
I sent my money, but when the lesson pamphlets started arriving, I was bewildered. The text and illustrations looked old-timey, and so they were: the Northwestern School opened in 1903, and I think my lessons may have been printed in the 1930s. The more serious problem was that, while I basically understood the words, I couldn’t perform the actions. Skinning a bird in one piece without ruining the feathers? It seemed impossible. Unlike Ken Walker, I got nowhere at first.
Stuffed, which is beautifully scored and shot, doesn’t have a plotline: over the course of the film, you meet a bunch of interesting taxidermists while getting an elegiac sense of the art form’s hopeful-but-uncertain future. There’s no talk of a “taxidermy craze,” but there is a lot of energy among devotees, especially when they meet each other at competitions and conventions. Wendy Christensen, who at the time was a staff taxidermist with the Milwaukee Public Museum, embodies this spirit, commenting on how much taxidermy has benefited from practitioners socializing together and sharing their skills. In the film, she unveils a re-creation gorilla that swept the field at the 2015 World Taxidermy Championship.
The artsiest artistes are a pair from the Netherlands named Ferry van Tongeren and Jaap Sinke, and I heartily recommend that you visit their website after watching them in Stuffed. There you’ll see bizarre creations like a mandrill “sitting on a marble plinth with different natural accesoires [sic] like a goose wing, a Pelican beak and Tinder Fungus. On its back the skin of a fox.” Another power player from Holland is a frizzy-haired woman named Mandy den Elzen. While working on a fish, she tells us that she used to pee in a container to collect urine, because urine is an ingredient in a traditional leather-tanning formula she heard about.
“Why are you drinking so much?” her mom asked at one point.
“I have to fill the whole barrel,” she said.
As for Ken and Big Fur, the story shifts into high gear when he starts creating his Bigfoot, an intentional homage to the famous Patterson-Gimlin film of 1967, which supposedly shows a female Bigfoot striding along near a woodsy creek in Northern California. A billion words have been spilled over whether the creature seen in this film is real or a hoax, but we’re not going down that road. Ken is certain it’s real, and it’s his job to make it come to “life.”
There’s no doubt Ken is equipped for the task: he once made an award-winning re-creation giant panda, using fur from two black bears. For this project, the hide comes from those adorable Scottish moptops, Highland cattle. But before any pelts can be stitched on, Ken has to sculpt the Bigfoot’s body, limbs, and head, which he does using power tools and hand tools on large blocks of styrofoam.
It’s amazing to watch him work. Ken draws a few curves on the block with a black marking pen, but mainly he just goes for it, and before long he’s carved a pair of perfect-looking Sasquatch legs. The same mastery happens when he does the torso, arms, and head. When I did taxidermy, you made bird and small mammal bodies by wrapping string around a shaped mass of wood excelsior. People like Ken, Allis, and Daniel have serious sculpting and molding talents that I lack.
The film bumps along amiably after that—with Ken showing us his frozen collection of “actual, real Sasquatch poop” and purchasing glass eyes for the replica. Before long there’s a dramatic development. Ken is working in the studio with his wife, Colette, who’s hosing down the fur-covered Bigfoot while looking morose, and he shares this sad detail: “The fact has to be addressed that we ended up living separate lives in the same house.” He says he’s been unable to make her happy and feels rotten about it. “It’s a very difficult thing to be lonely in your own home,” he says. Colette says nothing; we see a long shot of sudsy water going down a drain.
Cut to two months later, and there’s more news. Amy Carter, the protégé from North Carolina, has come to Alberta for a visit and to reveal that she’s in love with Ken. This is both joyous and fraught, since she’s still married and hasn’t told her husband yet that she plans to leave him.
This sets the table for Big Fur’s dramatic conclusion. Ken and Amy head to Springfield, Missouri, for the 2015 worlds, where Ken will compete in the re-creation category. But he hits a bump when the contest organizers rule that—
Oops, now I’m getting into spoiler territory, so I won’t say more. I’ll only add this: when watching Big Fur, bring a handkerchief.
For my part, I finally got the hang of taxidermy through trial and error. After my first semester in ninth grade, my dad moved us to Garden City, Kansas, where he became the pathologist at a Catholic hospital. I didn’t like Kansas for the first couple of years, resenting (among other things) that I was being robbed of Mississippi outdoor opportunities. I also had trouble making friends—I was a skinny oddball with a southern accent, and nobody cared about my street cred as a teenage drunk.
But that changed: in Garden City, I eventually made some of the best friends I’ve ever had, buried the worst parts of Mississippi me, and discovered that western Kansas—which is usually dismissed as flat, empty, and boring—had a lot to see if you bothered to go out and explore. My dad and I went hunting a few times with the personnel guy who helped bring him to Kansas. I usually missed everything (I was never a good shot), but it was fun anyway. Back then, about a half-hour west of town, there was a big, man-made lake that no longer exists, and it had a few duck blinds, where we would sit watching mallards fly by at a wind-aided 800 miles per hour. One time, in a weedy field not far from the lake, we thrashed about hoping to scare up pheasants. Dozens of them exploded out of the brush, cackling into the sky. It was such an amazing sight that I’m not sure I even got a shot off. If I did, I missed.
Much of the time I spent “hunting,” I was really just bird-watching, but I did connect with a pheasant or duck now and then. I tried again with the Northwestern School materials, because it bugged me that I’d failed. Eventually, I learned to slow down, concentrate, and really trust that if I followed the instructions carefully, they would work. I pulled off a few decent mounts in high school and laughed to myself if I heard a fellow student whining about, say, the difficulty of dissecting a frog in biology class. (Whoa. Sounds tough.) If a documentary film crew had visited me at the time, I would have been proud to show off mid-1970s creations like “Crafty Wood Duck Lurking in Weeds” and “Flying Pheasant Wall Mount.”
Unfortunately, none of my creations have survived: my mom pitched them as soon as I left home, perhaps still traumatized by the time a woman we knew, who had a serious bird phobia, wandered into the wrong room and started screaming. The piece that lasted longest was the flying pheasant, which I gave to my oldest brother one year as a Christmas present. He hung it inside his home near Jackson for a long time, but eventually evicted it.
I learned about this the hard way. During a road trip to Jackson when I was in college, I went to a locally famous dive called the Dutch Bar. I was playing eight ball when I noticed a bedraggled flying pheasant on the wall, which had been relieved of all its tail feathers by grabby drunks. I approached it for a closer look and realized: Hey! This is my pheasant. (How could I be so sure? Believe me: a parent knows.) The Dutch Bar closed in 2002, so I assume this traumatized bird ended up as landfill.
Too bad, but you know what they say: Ars longa, taxidermy brevis.