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I’m a taxidermy artist and I “disrespect animals”

I’ve only ever killed one animal, about 2 years ago. A mercy killing. I came home from working one evening and my neighbors presented me with a baby rat that had been hit by a cyclist. He was about 3 inches tall, with a tail the same length, and paws he hadn’t yet grown into. He was suffering from brain swelling and his forehead was so huge he looked more like a chinchilla than a rat, and he couldn’t move except for his twitching whiskers. After long consideration, it seemed the right thing to do. In fact, there was little else I could do. I looked up humane ways of killing a rodent and with my flatmate looking on in despair, I did the deed whilst crying my eyes out. Minimise pain and suffering, despite the tears, sadness and reservations I had about it. I didn’t want to be a “killer”, but there I was with little choice.

I put that little rat in a bag and placed him in the bottom drawer of the freezer.  I didn’t know if I could ever face it again, but I also didn’t know what else to do at the time. I felt a loss like no other.  A loss within myself for having done what I did. Could I ever live it down?

Dafydd Owen Rat 1

Photo by Dafydd Owen

The answer is yes. A year later, I decided it was time to face that difficult evening and I made him into a piece of taxidermy art. He now stands upright on our mantel piece, holding a fragile and small glass pendant of a child’s doll head as a representation and reminder of my own feelings towards the fragility of life and how easy it is forget how brief and impermanent life is. My own personal memento mori, if you will.

I’m an animal lover. I have been a vet nurse, owned cats, dogs, rodents and various other small animals my whole life, saved several kittens on various holidays with nothing but water, heat, honey and care, and have studied the history of veterinary medicine. However, dealing with dead animals, taking their skin and using it for other purposes, turning them into something different to express my own creativity is sometimes called “disrespectful”, especially when I tell people I anthropomorphise these animals (give them human characteristics).

I find it interesting that it is acceptable to raise millions of animals for food (one of the most harmful industries to nature), dress up our dogs and cats in outfits, and take endless pleasure in watching animals act like humans while they are alive – yet making them into pieces of art, set in human poses and activities after they are dead makes many people squirm. In fact, I don’t only find it interesting, I like that my art challenges boundaries and the conceptions of what should and shouldn’t be done. Isn’t that one of the points of art? I think the fact that so many people are interested in trying anthropomorphic taxidermy, and that I have the ability to make it accessible to those people creates a need for these conversations.

I would like to make it very clear that I am neither cruel nor hateful to animals, despite what animal-rights activists and their supporters may say on their websites or on Twitter. I understand that people will have this opinion and I am okay with having a conversation about it (as long as I am not threatened, attacked or childishly called names).

I realise that some people have different values, and view life and death through a different lens, believing their physical body should be valued  as who they were when they were alive, even after they have long left it. My view, however, is quite different. I see death as biological matter. I see it as a resource to be used as needed for learning, not to be wasted. I provide learning experiences about death, science, anatomy, craft, preservation and nature through my teaching, and the pure enjoyment and value in this is obvious by the current demand for this art. I have no qualms using animals in this way.

And to that end, aligning with my personal beliefs, I have donated my body to science in an effort to give something irreplaceable back to society.

Attacking me and accusing me of hating and killing animals is utterly ridiculous. I absolutely adore animals, but at the end of the day, a dead mouse is unused biological matter, molecules in a pile, and I have no problems breathing new life into it creating something that gets people conversing about life, death and art.

In this blog series “I’m a taxidermy artist” I aim to address some of the common questions, criticisms and misconceptions about working with dead animals. To find out more about my taxidermy workshops in London, click here.

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Is taxidermy a “girl thing”?

The shocking truth about being a “woman” taxidermist is that it’s not shocking at all. 

I get called a lot of things by taxidermy enthusiasts, animal-rights activists, and the media. I’m apparently an instructor, an expert, a hipster, an animal hater, a sicko, a stuffer…but one of the most puzzling things I have been called recently is a “woman taxidermist” and I get asked the same question time and time again “Why are so many women taking up the taxidermy classes?”.

Well why are we so shocked by this? Is it *really* that weird that I’m a woman AND a taxidermist, and more women than men tend to take my course? It’s really not!

Popular culture and social conditioning would train us to think so, and that it somehow matters, but in all honesty, I don’t think it’s as much of a shocker as other people want to believe, and probably not for the reasons you think.

Taxidermy classOver 70% of my classes are made up of women. Personally I think that’s an interesting tidbit of information and fuels an enthralling conversation about gender, culture, history, and presumed roles. It is important not to gloss over the actual historical facts about women’s roles, but given the short amount of time I’m usually given to respond to such questions in interviews, any generic answer gives people the wrong impression about taxidermy being a crafty woman’s art.

Has the face of taxidermy itself changed over time? Yes. It caters to more people now. More availability and exposure has changed the old perspectives about taxidermy being for trophy hunters or as examples of wealth. We don’t collect it in the same ways we used to, and the idea that it is something anyone can try and practice is brand new.

With these recent changes in the practice and distribution of the availability of taxidermy and classes, and the fact that a lot of classes handle smaller animals, has taxidermy become a female-oriented art and craft? I think this is too easily presumed and is way too-short-of-an-answer. People seem to like to think that women are better at handling small, fragile, and detailed things and are of the general disposition to love arts, crafts, and fashion, while the sweeping generalisation is that men like technical applications and might join the course for the anatomy lesson or because of their curiosity about natural history or because there are lots of good looking ladies who attend (and yes, this is also offensive to men in my opinion…).

Well, let me tell you that neither men or women seem better in my classes, they are both equally as heavy handed, often tearing limbs off or rubbing skin until it is absent of fur. Most of the pieces have that same first-timer’s raggedy look about them despite the gender of the student (or the mouse for that matter!). In my experience men and women are both equally rubbish or good at

taxidermy. And it takes bloody practise (no pun intended)! Neither gender weighs heavier with success. Creativity, using props, and originality in positioning the anthropomorphic animals seems to flourish with both genders. They both get really into it.

Every once in a while a true talent comes along, but this perfection is rare and is neither female nor male dominant. It’s very person-specific.

Historically, the hunting, collecting, and stuffing of animals was a particularly male dominant role, but we can’t forget that females who may have been involved in these practises may well have been written out of this history or were seen as unimportant. Who knows if this was an important trade for women (if you do know, get in touch!), parts of it may have well been. (Sounds like a good PhD proposal to me!). It would be of no surprise really if women were involved in skinning and preserving animals.

mouse plays violin

In fact, women have historically had the role of attending to the dead. I asked Dr Lindsey Fitzharris, the Chirurgeon’s Apprentice, about the significance of this and she said that “until recently, women were the caretakers of the dead, and often dealt with death on a regular basis. Today we are suddenly surprised by the fact that women might be interested in subjects or activities relating to the dead – that somehow we are breaking a gender stereotype.”  When actually, we are not at all.

Lindsey illustrates one of women’s roles in caretaking for the dead in her blog post about elderly women as searchers, or those who would examine dead bodies for the cause of death and record their findings in the Bills of Mortality (1592). A pretty horrendous job in plague-stricken England, if you ask me.

Whatever you want to think women are today, i.e. women have a predisposition for liking crafts and arts, or they are more sensitive to issues around death, or are more creative, or can handle delicate objects better due to their gentle nature, or have a predisposition to liking animals, or are into the latest fashion, or that women are more likely to take classes…..these are all vast generalisations given to us by societal constructs- and not one of these alone defines neither being a woman, nor being into something like taxidermy.

I don’t particularly identify myself as being a “woman taxidermist”. And I hate that so many people flock to the fact that the taxidermy courses are predominantly women. There is not a quick and easy answer and I think giving one defeats the whole purpose of asking the question. It perpetuates this idea that some things, and especially things as simple as a class, are specifically for women and other things are for men. It in the worst case makes taxidermy a “girl thing” *shudders*, excluding men from it, and it creates a disparity between genders.

_DAF2256I’m not saying we need to completely discount the fact that more women than men take the classes. Like I said. It’s interesting and starts an important conversation about the constructs of gender. But we need to look further than the basics if we are going to analyse trends like this.

Interested in learning taxidermy? Get the Mouse Taxidermy Manual here, or sign up for a course in London or Manchester!

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How to stuff a mouse…Now Available!

Cat drag in the unspeakable? Have a pet mouse pass away recently? Don’t quite know what to do with all that extra snake food in your freezer?

Well. It’s finally here!  And you can even purchase it with a taxidermy starter kit…all the supplies you’ll need for practising at home.

IMG_20131217_214857After months of hard work, I am proud to present you with the beautiful Mouse Taxidermy Manual which is selling like hot cakes! Who knew so many people would be inspired to make little memento mori art pieces with dead rodents!? I thought I was the only one, but this journey has proven that I’m one of thousands who want to have a go at making something dead into something beautiful.

We have launched a whole new range of classes around London in Soho, Shoreditch (Boxpark), and City, which are all up for sale here.

The launch held at The Last Tuesday Society in Hackney was brilliant with guests from all over the UK and Ireland. Images of the night, and of guests acting as their favourite animals, have BboI_WBIYAAAHmTbeen included in a gallery below.

Not quite near enough to London? What about Manchester? MadLab up in Manchester is now offering several taxidermy courses, including a bunny course for Easter! Check them out!

Sexy bunny created by Meesh Bryant

Thanks to Gavin Mecaniques for the photos of the launch below.

More taxidermy goodness in blogpost form to come very very soon!

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Mouse Taxidermy Manual Book Launch

mouse cover
Apologies for the radio silence these past few months, but I have been working on some amazing projects, and getting ready for the launch of my new step-by-step mouse taxidermy book published by Suzette Field, author of A Curious Invitation, and Masterly Publishing. The book is a 70-step photo tutorial in mouse taxidermy based on my contiuously sold out classes at The Last Tuesday Society.

Pop by as I will be answering questions about taxidermy over a glass of wine at the event.

Margot

We will be selling copies of the new book with a DIY taxidermy kit, releasing more class dates at various very cool secret locations around London, and unveiling our new website (which will be posted here shortly as well).

I have several blogs lines up for the new year, including one about a trip to Germany to meet a large animal taxidermist and a taxidermist who aspires to stuff pets, as well as a blog on whether stuffing humans is possible or not (a question I get ALL THE TIME).

So stay tuned. This is turning into an incredible journey.

In the meantime, check out a recent photoshoot Daf Owen did of my taxidermy adventures.

 

Book a class here

x Margot

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Vegetarian taxidermists: How does that work?

A whole lot of vegetarians have been signing up for taxidermy courses. But how does that work? Being vegetarian and doing taxidermy do not seem like compatible lifestyle choices. Or are they?

I’ll be blatantly honest. I love eating meat. But for 13 years and until last September, I was a very strict vegetarian. If meat had so much as come within a few inches of my food, there was no way I would touch it.

SHannon Harmon RatStarting taxidermy well before I started eating meat again, however, didn’t really bother me. It seemed like an obvious lifestyle choice. Having been a vet nurse in the past and seeing the insides (albeit of alive) animals, I was used to the ‘ick factor’. The vegetarianism came from a love of animals and a hatred for the way the meat industry works (both of which I still have). Taxidermy came from a similar place which I think is very true to why so many vegetarians take these courses.

First of all, cutting up a dead animal does NOT mean you have to eat the insides.

Many vegetarians learning taxidermy will make it very clear that the animals they work on must not be killed for the purpose of taxidermy (as I do).  Many see it as an opportunity, however, to preserve nature or make something creative out of what is normally wasted.

Angela Wooi, an artist and vegetarian I recently taught, told me, ”If I taxidermy, say a pheasant, rabbit, or squirrel, and someone wanted to eat it, I wouldn’t have a problem with that. In fact, I would find that respectful of the animal. I can’t abide by the ill treatment of animals that are bred just for food. I think the ‘surprise ‘ is that people presume vegetarians would be squeamish around flesh/meat, however I find it easy to separate the two activities. I know that if you handed some of my meat-eating friends a fresh feathered chicken to cook – they’d have more issues than I would over the ‘blood and guts’!”.

Not all vegetarians who try the craft are this liberal in their thinking, but in my opinion if parts of an animal are there, in good shape and just going to waste, then why not use then?

Loving, respecting and an interest in preserving nature is common. Louis Neely commented that “taxidermy to me is being amazed by the anatomy and biology of creatures, and helping them live on after death so we can see and appreciate them”.

Like me, a lot of the people I spoke to had grown up interested in natural history. Visiting museums and seeing how beautiful many animals are that you wouldn’t normally be able to see sparked an appreciation for their beauty, but also an interest and curiosity about how they had been preserved.

This love of animals showed over and over again during my enquiries.

Anna Bob Lawley, another artist and vegetarian said, “I’ve struggled with this dilemma for a while now. People tell me ‘I shouldn’t like it,’ but we can’t help what little things in life bring us joy. I feel that it’s giving the animal a whole new life, to live on forever, a whole new world of love, to be carefully restored, positioned,  and decorated, and is a caring and thoughtful venture.”

Taxidermy is also a very personal work of art to most. And while sometimes it causes a dilemma because it can be more of a reflection on a person’s creativity than actual nature itself (such as in anthropomorphic taxidermy), I dont think that makes it something vegetarians should have to steer clear of. The fact that most taxidermists source animals ethically helps this dilemma.

Jessica Lay commented, “I feel that ethically sourced animals being used for taxidermy is positive, and as such, I can happily continue both my vegetarianism and my long-term interest in taxidermy. I hear that a lot of modern taxidermists only use animals that have died through natural causes or mishaps, so I think we are in new age of ‘ethical’ taxidermy. I am happy to be a part of it!”

I think about this very often, and whether being a vegetarian taxidermist is a cliche. I don’t think it has to be. It makes sense. Each individual chooses their own level of comfort within it.

I can’t say that my switch from vegetarian to meat-eater had nothing to do with my ventures in taxidermy. Although it is slightly more complicated than just that.

Once I started handling meat myself, I became much more comfortable with the idea of it and decided I wanted to try it again and started eating it myself.

I’m now working on a project about buying animals that were killed for the purpose of meat eating, but taxidermying them as well as having a feast. The vegetarians will not be forgotten on this though, and there will be an option for those who want to learn taxidermy, but not waste the whole animal.

What are your thoughts?

 

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When the going gets stuffed…Edinburgh press

I was featured on Page 3 of the Edinburgh Evening News today. Check it out and book now for your workshops! I can also offer private courses. -Margot

Edinburgh Evening News

EDINBURGH offers it residents a host of options when choosing a new hobby – but one new city workshop is sure to knock the stuffing out of pottery classes, French lessons and learning the piano. Mouse Taxidermy offers the unique and slightly odd opportunity to stuff dead mice and pose them up as humans – all for the price of £65.

Instead of leaving with a new fruit bowl or the ability to order dinner in Paris, students head home with their own stuffed and embalmed rodent, all ready to be dressed in a range of outfits and styles, polka dot dresses, Victorian garb, punk or even suited and booted.

The four-hour class is run by trained taxidermist Margot Magpie, whose own works can sell for £100 upwards.

Only frozen feeder mice bought from pet shops are used for the arts and crafts session, with each left to thaw beforehand. Margot then instructs her students in making the first incision near the sternum before cutting down to the groin.

A preservative known as Borax is then applied before the mouse is sewn up, ready to be dressed.

Despite such “icky” details, a number of upcoming taxidermy workshops are already said to be generating quite a buzz from people keen to try their hand at something different.

Ms Magpie, 30, said: “I fully understand that there is a natural curiosity and a kind of morbid fascination with this, but interest is definitely growing. I currently run two 15-person classes a week in London.

“It’s a novel thing to do, you learn a skill whilst also leaving with a unique piece of art to display as you wish.”

Anthropomorphic taxidermy – the practice of mounting and displaying stuffed animals as if they were humans – was a popular art form during the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The best known practitioner was Walter Potter, whose famous
works included the Kitten Wedding and The Kitten Tea Party.

Ms Magpie regularly receives bizarre commissions from fans and collectors of the niche art form, as well as offers
of fresh roadkill. She said: “I’ve created headpieces and hair clips with tiny sleeping mice on top and have also been asked to stuff a rat and put him riding a mini tricycle.

“One of the weirdest was from a guy who asked for a mouse holding a cage with little humans inside. People also often offer me roadkill such as squirrels, birds or rabbits to stuff. I’ve become quite friendly with one or two vets.”

The workshops are being held at the White Rabbit boutique, Broughton Street.

Demand is already high with a number of briefs already snapped up.
david.oleary@edinburghnews.com

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The dichotomy of dead animals

The Science Museum has a recent, but ongoing exhibit called Who am I? and my rat’s display is on brain mapping. They wanted a real rat to exhibit with a real brain probe in his head. In a case nearby they have several taxidermy mice of different shapes and sizes, including an obese mouse, a polydactyl cat, and a white peacock.

The purpose of these stuffed rarities: examples of different genetic pathways. The exhibit is not about the taxidermy as taxidermy and is not glorifying it in any way.

WAI_BAM_thor_rat3_IMG_7486

It’s about what makes humans the way humans are and taxidermy has generally always been about humans. Fortunately, at this point in time, when taxidermy is coming back into fashion it  gives us a rare opportunity to look at ourselves and decide on our own boundaries and values in a historical and contemporary perspective.

When you love something too much

Before cameras and video, people in the west were obsessed with bringing home the beautiful and the foreign. Especially in the Victorian era, the wealthy wanted to bring back and share the beautiful and picturesque things they saw in other lands, especially animals. They wanted them for themselves, for always. They loved them just too much.

So, they would kill whatever they found, or have someone else kill it, have it preserved and start impressive collections as mementos of what they had seen and done (see many large taxidermy collections in Britain such as the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent or the Horniman Museum in London) or as gifts to royalty (see the lion of Gripsholm Castle).

These objects now build a large part of museums today, to the detriment of the different species that were victims to those who wanted them in their collections. The saddest part is that a lot of species are on the decline or extinct, and killing them for the purpose of collecting didn’t help in the least, which is a very big reason why taxidermy fell out of taste and fashion.

Part of me is devastated that historically people had a different set of ethics for sourcing and collecting animals. That animals had to die for these collections. My inner child shrivels up in the corner at the thought. My past a veterinary nurse saving animals makes it no easier.

But, also, I struggle because part of me is so happy to be able to see these animals  and appreciate them. It’s the historic relevance of the pieces, the art of the taxidermists themselves, the different techniques and details that they choose to include, and the beauty that they managed to capture that astounds me.

But you know, I’m okay with this dichotomy.  My heart still races when I see something stuffed, no matter where it came from-and I can’t and don’t want to suppress that excitement. Some might think I’m a hypocrite. I just think I’m human.

Obtaining dead animals today

The general thought on how taxidermists obtain animals is still quite archaic.  It’s the most commonly asked question and the one that makes us the most uncomfortable.

How do you get the animals?

The answer might upset someone or they might not agree with it, but i think being up front about where animals are sourced is the way forward. The public likes honesty and if they don’t have an idea of what you do, how you obtain your materials and what you do with them it remains mysterious and potentially dodgy,  especially with hot-topics such as animal cruelty, testing and captivity.

Thankfully, most of us law-abiding taxidermists (I can’t speak for every taxidermist in the world) no longer travel to other parts of the world simply to kill creatures for the purpose of collecting them.

Who am i?

I am constantly questioned personally on the ethics of obtaining the animals I stuff and as uncomfortable as it is, I’m so glad people are concerned and ask.  It’s a big deal to people and is a big deal to me.

When I taxidermy animals besides rodents, they have all died as pests, of natural causes or as road kill. I always try to get the story. My fox, for example, was the male providing for a group of female foxes – he was hunting and killing a farmer’s chickens every night and as sad as it sounds the foxes were overpopulating the area and he and his fellow lady foxes had to be exterminated. I’ve also stuffed a few other animals whose insides someone else ate and I get a lot of emails from friends and friends of friends and vets and even people I don’t know saying ‘I found a dead  *insert animal here*, do you want it?’. (and of course I follow the process of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 if it is protected :)

IMG_20130518_140329Rodents are sourced a bit differently. These have usually been born, bred and killed in sterile conditions specifically to be fed to people’s personal pet snakes or to be used at universities as dissection specimens. I personally do not have issues using these for taxidermy purposes, but I can understand that some might. These animals may not be ‘natural’, or have a chance for their own survival, but they did have very healthy upbringings, and are killed humanely, without harsh chemicals. Some taxidermists prefer the mice that died at the paws of their neighbour’s house cats or in traps, and while I would use these as well, it’s just not practical for teaching those who want to learn about taxidermy in my courses. So it’s a bit of  a negotiation and almost hypocritical because I don’t feel 100% right in it, but knowing that and being able to admit it is what really and truly makes me feel okay about it.

 

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