Inside the Eccentric World of Ethical Taxidermy Art

Oriana Leckert
Dec 27, 2018 1:00PM

When looking at something like a taxidermied Janus kitten—that is, a tiny feline with two faces—one might assume that its maker had a rather dark view of animal life. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Being able to give something another life, elevating it into something beyond death—that gives me chills,” said Divya Anantharaman, one of New York’s best-known practitioners in the modern taxidermy movement and the maker of the taxidermied Janus kitten, which was a special commission for the person who cared for the animal during its short life. “[Taxidermy] is very emotional and humbling,” Anantharaman added. “The thing I think the most often is: Don’t mess it up.”

Courtesy of Divya Anantharaman.

Courtesy of Divya Anantharaman.


This reverence for the deceased is common among a contemporary breed of taxidermists. Far from the traditional profile of gruff men in rural areas mounting animals they hunted to display as trophies, today’s innovative taxidermists are younger and more diverse, and they tend to live in urban environments and skew heavily female. They often work with small creatures like birds and rodents rather than hulking deer or bears, and they’re pursuing their craft ethically—acquiring animals that have died naturally, and thus distancing the art of taxidermy from the pursuit of hunting. And while they’re often trained in traditional practices, many favor turning out artistic creations that depart from the way the animals looked while alive. They’re breathing new life into a centuries-old discipline, pursuing it with joy, respect, humor, and heart.

Taxidermy’s weird and wild Victorian roots

Victorian stuffed animals created by taxidermist Walter Potter at Potter’s Museum of Curiosity in Bolventor, Cornwall. Photo by Graham French/BIPs/Getty Images.

The word “taxidermy” comes from the Greek taxis, meaning “arrangement,” and derma, “skin.” The art form as we know it today—animal skins stretched over wooden or foam forms, either in imitation of or deviation from the way the animals looked when alive—dates back to the Victorian era. At that time, scientists and explorers began preserving unusual creatures found far afield for education and research, and aristocrats started to display stuffed exotic animals in their homes to flaunt their wealth.

Through early museums and international fairs, taxidermied creatures began to gain popular favor. In London in 1851, the Great Exhibition (the precursor to the World’s Fair) boasted extensive taxidermy installations. Many of them were inaccurate pastiches cobbled together from a motley assortment of faraway beasts and birds. Stateside, naturalist and explorer Henry Augustus Ward achieved renown for preserving buffalo heads for Buffalo Bill and elephants for P.T. Barnum. He founded Ward’s Natural Science, which is still open today, to showcase taxidermy collections made by himself and others; it was there that the Society of American Taxidermists was founded in 1880.

Hermann Ploucquet, The Kittens at Tea — Miss Paulina Singing, 1851. Via Wikimedia Commons.


The seeds for today’s alternative taxidermists were laid in the Victorian era, as well. One of the most popular attractions at the Great Exhibition was Hermann Ploucquet’s anthropomorphic tableaux—in which the animals were posed in human-like attitudes and situations—featuring fanciful scenes like hedgehogs ice-skating and a weasel teaching a classroom full of rabbits. Walter Potter, the Victorian age’s best-known anthropomorphic taxidermist, opened a private museum in 1861 to showcase his creations; he’d taxidermied 10,000 animal specimens by the end of his life. His elaborate displays included scenarios like kittens drinking tea and playing croquet at a garden party, squirrels smoking cigars and playing poker, and rabbits studying in a classroom.

Traditional taxidermy goes rogue

Courtesy of Amber Maykut.

Courtesy of Amber Maykut.

By the end of 20th century, taxidermy had become a fairly rural folk art that enabled (mostly) men to show off the animals they had hunted. New practitioners learned techniques through books and apprenticeships, and state organizations occasionally offered classes to the public. “It was something of a guarded mystery,” said Anantharaman. Taxidermy instruction was found in books, she explained, and if you didn’t have them, you were hard-pressed to gain the necessary knowledge.

Even a decade ago, when Anantharaman was finding her way into the pursuit, it wasn’t easy to get a lot of practical advice. She sought out instructional manuals and videos, but her early attempts weren’t very successful, so she began to attend state shows and events hosted by professional organizations. Through those experiences and the people she met, Anantharaman’s confidence and ability grew.

Amber Maykut, who runs the Greenpoint-based Brooklyn Taxidermy and teaches classes in both anthropomorphic and traditional taxidermy, had similar difficulties when she was starting out. “Years ago, I had to drive to Rochester to learn how to mount a deer head, or fly to California to learn how to mount a bird,” she said. Eventually, she found a mentor, Mark Van Leuven, owner of Buckshot Taxidermy in New Jersey.

“They don’t teach how to make a mouse look like a ballerina; they teach how to mount a deer.”

“On paper, you’d think we’d never get along,” Maykut said. “He’s an older, rural, traditional taxidermist and hunter. He loves Trump, God, [and] guns, and he hates New York City and anthropomorphic taxidermy. But he’s a fantastic teacher; he treats me like one of his daughters, and we have a mutual respect for our different clientele. I think he’s happy to [pass] on taxidermy to someone who cares.”

Maykut is now well-known for her alternative taxidermy: Her Etsy shop has featured a chipmunk paddling in a canoe, frogs playing with a Ouija board, and a punk-rock mouse sporting a mohawk and standing atop a pile of tiny records. But at first, this kind of experimental work was driven by mistakes. “I’d often be ‘inspired’ to dress up [the animals] due to covering up damage or slippage (like hair falling out), letting the clothes or props serve as Band-Aids for ‘happy accidents,’” Maykut explained. She’s come a long way since those early days, having had her work featured everywhere from the New York Times and National Geographic to shows on Oxygen and Discovery. She’s also made custom pieces for the likes of John Waters and Neil Patrick Harris.

Anantharaman, who now works mostly with birds and small animals (like mice and squirrels) at her studio in Ditmas Park, Brooklyn, also benefited from traditional training. “State associations don’t teach how to make a mouse look like a ballerina; they teach how to mount a deer,” she explained. “But the techniques are similar—once you learn how to do it with a deer, you can figure out how to do it with a chipmunk.” Today, her clients include the Audubon Society, the Walters Art Museum, and a number of galleries. She’s written a how-to guide to modern taxidermy, and has won national awards in both traditional and alternative taxidermy.

Around the time Anantharaman and Maykut were honing their skills, another woman’s passion project arrived to help spread interest in and attention to the taxidermy movement in New York City. Joanna Ebenstein started a small research library in an arts incubator in Gowanus, Brooklyn, in 2008; it was filled with her personal collection of books and esoterica concerning things like death rituals and medical oddities. She began curating an event series across Brooklyn with esoteric lectures and classes, including anthropomorphic taxidermy workshops.

Courtesy of Divya Anantharaman.

Courtesy of Divya Anantharaman.

The workshops—where both Maykut and Anantharaman were teachers—were a huge hit among curious hipsters and crafters, often with as many as 600 people on the waiting list. In 2014, Ebenstein brought her library and events together under one roof when she opened the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus. That same year, she co-authored Walter Potter’s Curious World of Taxidermy, which helped to disseminate whimsical Victorian taxidermy to a young, modern audience. In 2016, she was able to mount the exhibition “Taxidermy: Art, Science & Immortality Featuring Walter Potter’s Kittens’ Wedding” at the Morbid Anatomy Museum—yet, sadly, it was the museum’s final show before it closed.

The loss of Morbid Anatomy didn’t slow the demand for alternative taxidermy classes in Brooklyn. Anantharaman still teaches them regularly at spots like the quirky House of Wax museum and cocktail bar in downtown Brooklyn, and she has become something of a figurehead for New York City’s alternative taxidermy movement. Her whimsical creations include a pigeon adorned with a plethora of pearls, a deer head encrusted with multicolored flowers, and a fawn being overtaken by vines and butterflies. She also curates events to bring alternative taxidermists together, like the recent Wunderkammer showcase and competition held at the Bell House in Gowanus.

Anantharaman has also designed and built several taxidermy pipes for the Bronx Pipe Smoking Society’s annual Small Game Dinner. The pipes are inspired by founder Justin Fornal’s studies of animal totems around the world—particularly those from the Tremper Mound in Ohio, which were carved in the shapes of animal heads, “so that when you’re smoking, you’re seeing through that animal’s eyes, harnessing that animal’s spirit,” Fornal has explained. One of Anantharaman’s favorites was a bobcat pipe. “The cat is in an exaggerated roar with gilded teeth and eyes, framed by antique metalwork, looking partly like taxidermy and partly like a temple sculpture,” she described.

Courtesy of Divya Anantharaman.

These sorts of assemblages put her in line with the outer fringes of “rogue taxidermy,” the movement begun by Sarina Brewer, Scott Bibus, and Robert Marbury, who founded the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists in 2004. The artists classify their work not as a subcategory of traditional taxidermy, but something else altogether: “A genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed-media sculptures containing conventional taxidermy-related materials that are used in an unconventional manner.”

Artists around the world are pursuing this eclectic art form, like Ave Rose, who devises sculptural automata incorporating intricate metalwork and taxidermied elements, and Brooke Weston, who creates tiny dioramas inside the throats or bellies of taxidermied deer, cows, rams, and other animals.

Navigating taxidermy’s technical and legal shifts

In the very early days of taxidermy, it was a crude affair. Animals were sliced open, gutted, stuffed with straw or cotton, and sewn up. Decay and infestation were widespread problems until bird skin collector Jean-Baptist Bécœur developed an arsenic-based soap that worked as an insecticide. This was used throughout the Victorian era, despite knowledge of arsenic’s toxicity.

Stuffing went out of favor in the 1970s, and these days, animal skins are removed before being tanned or treated with safe chemicals or salt, then mounted on forms made of foam or very light wood. The forms can be shaped into different positions and cut down to just the right size. A similar process is used for birds, though the skins are only cleaned, not tanned. “A bird’s skin is just like leather,” Anantharaman explained. “You groom it with tweezers, feather by feather.”

Artist Kate Clark, whose sculptural work involves a great deal of taxidermy, has mastered the process of working with large animals. “You put the hide on [the form] and it’s like this huge wet carpet—it’s so heavy,” she explained. “You stretch it, you take it off, you gently carve the form down, then you do it again and again until it fits.”

Kate Clark, Licking the Plate, 2013. Photo by Nicole Cordier. Courtesy of Kate Clark.

Kate Clark, She Gets What She Wants, 2013. Photo by Nicole Cordier. Courtesy of Kate Clark.

Clark does this in her studio in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Her main body of work consists of huge taxidermied animals, from antelope to zebras to coyotes, with human faces sculpted onto the bodies. She sources the animals’ skin from hide dealers, often looking specifically for those that have been damaged or “shelved,” meaning they can’t be used for traditional taxidermy. Clark’s work, which has been shown locally and internationally since 2008, has broad cultural reach: Photos of her pieces appear in MacArthur Fellowship–winning essayist Claudia Rankine’s book Citizen, and Kanye West’s production team commissioned her to make a mask for Desiigner to wear in his music video for “Panda” a few years ago. “Of course, it’s not really panda hide, which would be illegal,” Clark said. “It’s black bear and white antelope.”

Clark has to be very careful about paperwork and licenses, because state and federal organizations track the sale of animal hides. Many years ago, she made a piece from two wolves, but now, the sale of wolf hides has become illegal. “Animals come in and out of being allowed for sale, so I may own this piece forever,” she explained.

Taxidermy’s evolving ethics

Ethical issues are at the forefront of most modern taxidermists’ minds. “There’s certainly a new perspective on taxidermy that stems from urban demographics and sensibilities,” Maykut noted. Practitioners want to show “that the taxidermy is ethical, that the animals’ deaths are not related to the art.” There are many ways to ethically source animals, primarily from zoos, aviaries, and wildlife refuges, where animals die naturally. Anantharaman noted that many urban taxidermists collect roadkill where it’s legal to do so, or acquire smaller critters from pet shops where they are sold, already deceased, as food for larger animals.

As with most other modern practitioners, both Anantharaman and Maykut have sections on their websites explaining their sustainable sourcing. These considerations become so prevalent that vegans and vegetarians are becoming involved in this work, like Julia DeVille, a vegan who makes taxidermy jewelry and states clearly that she will not work with any parts or bones of an animal that she cannot personally verify died of natural causes. “As long as it matches their ethics, they’re okay with it,” Maykut said. This is a testament to the new understanding of taxidermy art as a pursuit that’s separate from hunting.

Practitioners want to show “that the taxidermy is ethical, that the animals’ deaths are not related to the art.”

Anantharaman regularly meets vegans and vegetarians in the classes she teaches. “They understand that this is a death that was part of the natural lifecycle,” she said. “It’s not something that has been tortured or cruelly attained.”

But there are ethics and then there are emotions. Having a rational understanding of the circumstances of an animal’s death is not necessarily enough to get someone ready to make art out of its remains. In her classes, Anantharaman is very sensitive to people’s reactions to what is typically their first attempt at this kind of craft. “People definitely get emotional about it,” she said. “I say, ‘Go nice and slow. Take a break. Sit with that emotion for a bit.’”

The emotional power of taxidermy close to home

Portrait of Kate Clark with Behaving, 2016. Photo by Frank Marshal. Courtesy of Kate Clark.

For Clark, the emotional resonance is part of the power of her work. “If I could use something other than hide, I would,” she explained, “but there is nothing else that has this kind of energy.” She uses human models for her sculptures’ faces and has made pieces modelled after both of her young daughters: a zebra called She Gets What She Wants (2013) and a bear cub called Behaving (2016). “The younger animals are just so lovely, with these huge paws and gentle faces,” she reflected, noting that she cherishes the memories of her daughters sitting for the works. She Gets What She Wants is now in a museum in Miami, and Clark recently sold Behaving to a collector in New Jersey. “As we put it in my car, my whole family was like, ‘Oh no, goodbye sweet piece!’ They were really attached to it,” she recalled.

Although taxidermy is something she does all day long, Anantharaman says she would not be comfortable using taxidermy to preserve one of her own pets. An animal lover who volunteers with conservancy groups, she cares for her own (living) menagerie: three cats, two birds, a snake, and a colony of dermestid beetles. “I know myself and my own way of processing things, and it’s not for me,” she said. “But it’s so personal. Lots of people want a grieving tool, like a clean skull or a preserved paw.” Pet taxidermy is not something she advertises, but she has done it on occasion. “I’ll do it for people sometimes, after talking to them for a long time about death and animals and how they impact us,” she explained.

“Lots of people want a grieving tool, like a clean skull or a preserved paw.”

All of this gets at the uneasy relationship we as humans have with death, and where we draw the (often arbitrary) line between what is and isn’t an acceptable use of something that was once alive. “Some people think it’s messed up to use animals as decoration, and I’m like, ‘Okay, I hope you get rid of all your leather purses,’” said Anantharaman. “Christian Louboutin uses tons of dead animals in his work—they’re leather shoes! But no one cares about that. People are just uncomfortable with dead [animals] if they have a face, because that reminds you of what it once was. To me, that reminder is much more respectful, as opposed to getting [so far] away from its natural form.”

Clark has had similar frustrations. “I think it’s a lot like what we do with eating meat,” she said. “You get your chicken breast wrapped in plastic, but then if you buy one and it has a feather, there’s this jarring moment. The world of taxidermy is just a stepping stone in a much bigger conversation about our relationship with animals.”

The future (of taxidermy) is female

Interview view of the Evolution Store. Courtesy of the Evolution Store.

Julianna Stevens, the president of the Evolution Store in SoHo, has witnessed the changing demographics of the taxidermy community. The shop has sold collectibles and artifacts like skeletons, mounted specimens, and preserved fossils since Stevens’s father, William, opened it in 1993. “My dad always had a really dedicated following,” she said. “Mostly older white men: collectors, people really interested in this esoteric natural-history world. And then it changed. Instead of the stuffy professor we’d always seen, nowadays, our demographic is much younger, more diverse, and much more female.”

It may seem surprising that women are charting the future of taxidermy, but there’s historical precedent for it. At the turn of the 19th century, both fashion and leisure led many women to craft with animal parts. Victorian housewives and aristocratic ladies spent much of their downtime on “fancywork,” which is commonly understood to mean needlepoint or ornamental crocheting, but it often included using materials that allowed urban women to engage with nature, such as shells, mosses, feathers, and insects. Magazines and books from the late 1800s encouraged women to try their hands at bird and bug taxidermy in order create decorations for their homes, bonnets, and frocks. It was not uncommon to see stuffed hummingbird earrings, gowns embroidered with fish scales, and hats adorned with shiny, multicolored beetles.

There were famous professional female taxidermists of the era, as well. “It’s like every other part of history,” said Anantharaman. “Women have been there. You just don’t hear a lot of their stories.”

Australians Jane Catharine Tost and her daughter Ada Jane Rohu were pioneers in both taxidermy and female entrepreneurship. Together, they exhibited their award-winning work internationally, and in 1872, they opened their own establishment, later named Tost & Rohu, which was called “the queerest shop in Australia.” There, they sold their pieces along with historical artifacts and curiosities.

Images of Martha Maxwell in 1876. Via Wikimedia Commons.

In America in the 1860s, Martha Maxwell was a trailblazing field naturalist: the first woman in the profession to collect her own animal specimens. Over two decades, she developed new techniques in taxidermy and created hundreds of pieces—including an unprecedented habitat of live and taxidermied animals at the World’s Fair in Pennsylvania in 1876. She was met with such incredulity and hostility from visitors, who couldn’t believe these creations hadn’t been made by a man, that she added a sign to the exhibit, calling it “Women’s Work.”

“The questions she got asked are the same questions people troll me with,” Anantharaman remarked—questions like “‘How can a woman do this?’ ‘What kind of woman does this?’ ‘How could you kill that animal?’” she continued. “People say the exact same things to me, except they type them on the internet.”

“Some people might think it’s morbid, but it’s about coming to terms with death.”

There are women everywhere at the Oddities Flea Market in Brooklyn—an eclectic pop-up marketplace featuring medical history ephemera, anatomical curiosities, osteological specimens, and plenty of taxidermy art and accessories. “We have a huge female demographic,” said Ryan Matthew Cohn, the market’s curator. “I’d say it’s close to 80 percent—both customers and vendors.” His wife and business partner, Regina, added that it isn’t just the people who physically attend the markets. “Last I checked, 79 percent of our Instagram followers are women, too,” she said.

The internet and social media have also made these kinds of pursuits much more accessible to a broader audience. These days, “taxidermy isn’t something you have to go to school for or encounter for the first time in a library or lecture hall,” Stevens explained. “It’s something you can see on Instagram or at the flea market.” And it’s not only in the alternative taxidermy world that women are ascendant: “At the New England Association of Taxidermists, our president is a woman,” said Anantharaman, referring to Cathy Gearwar. “She’s a badass, incredibly talented, and she does really cool work. And you see more young women coming to the association all the time.”

Courtesy of Amber Maykut.

Amber Maykut. Photo by Sheila Barabad. Courtesy of Amber Maykut.

Ultimately, each person’s understanding of and ability to appreciate taxidermy will be deeply personal. “Some people might think it’s morbid, but it’s about coming to terms with death,” Anantharaman said. What seems to link all the modern practitioners of this art together is an abiding respect for the cycle of life, a reverence for their craft, and a deep desire to honor animals.

“The thing about my work is taking something that’s dead and bringing it back to life,” said Clark. “I’m done with the piece when it has magically transformed, when it actually has the life I want it to have.”

Oriana Leckert

Header image courtesy of Amber Maykut.