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.