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.
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
Rodents 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.