Stuff this

The taxidermist was having none of it. 

On assignment for a midsize city newspaper, I was interviewing the local taxidermist, a Mr. Martinez, stuffer of critters, asking him about his life’s calling: 

How did you arrive at upholstering bobcats and mounting them in hissing, menacing postures? 

What’s the taxidermy process? Do you only use the animal’s skin?

Is it bloody? Does it stink? 

That kind of crap.

Growing bored by Martinez’s predictable answers and feeling stifled in his stuffy workshop — a matchbox cluttered with mounts, models, skins and dead, static animals in dubious attitudes — my mind drifted.

Though I knew the answer, I asked Martinez if he could taxidermy my long-passed pet rat Phoebe. Sure, he said without a blink, though with a wink, as if a common eight-inch rodent would present any challenge.

Then, scanning the room’s carpentry, tanning and painting gear, I waxed inspired. Could you, I asked, stuff my best friend Ian and mount him in a fearsome pose, like an agitated grizzly? Martinez smirked, but he hadn’t heard my full pitch.

My friend is still alive, I told him. Is that a deal-breaker? Martinez snorted, shook his head and pondered how his lab’s chemical fumes had affected me. Surely he thought I was delirious. Or just dumb as a mounted wildebeest head.

But I really did wonder if he could taxidermy my dear pal Ian, a generous fellow with good skin and, hairy as a chimp, would look splendid posed in a loincloth, hunting a saber-toothed tiger in the Neolithic period. I picture this scene amid a Serengeti landscape in a diorama in a musty natural history museum. That, I think, is where Ian belongs. You’re welcome, bud. 

No and no, said Martinez, squashing the dreams of this faithful friend. Adds award-winning taxidermist Katie Innamorato: “It’s illegal to taxidermy or mount a human being in the U.S. While I’m sure it’s possible, the end result doesn’t seem worth the trouble. Human skin discolors greatly after the preservation process and stretches a lot more than animal skin.”

Gross.

You want gross? Ogle this:

That’s from the site Bad Taxidermy, a cheeky celebration of botched stuff-and-mount jobs, from the whimsically warped (a kitty fastened with giant angel wings, dangling from the ceiling, its face a mask of open-mouth terror) to the near-blasphemous (a quacking duck head popping out of the butt of a surprised baby lamb).

As Bad Taxidermy and its competing site Crappy Taxidermy illustrate, it’s simple. 

There’s good taxidermy:

And there’s grotty taxidermy:

From macho hunter displays to Victorian curiosity cabinets, taxidermy rarely goes out of fashion. Two books — “Crap Taxidermy” and “Taxidermy Gone Wrong: The Funniest, Freakiest (and Outright Creepiest) Beastly Vignettes” — are taxonomies of the mutilated and misbegotten, the bungles and blunders. Horrible hilarity ensues.

What is taxidermy, exactly? Real fur, jagged antlers, feral poses, glassy doll eyes and wholesale creepiness come to mind. (Also: reprehensible game hunters and their appetite for machismo-fueled slaughter.)

Essentially, says an expert, “taxidermy is a mix of many disciplines — sculpting, woodworking, sewing, painting, carpentry and tanning, to name a few.”

It’s a grisly craft. “The animal is first skinned in a process similar to removing the skin from a chicken prior to cooking. Depending on the type of skin, preserving chemicals are applied or the skin is tanned. It is then either mounted on a mannequin made from wood, wool and wire, or a polyurethane form.”

I’m of two minds: I absolutely hate the idea of killing creatures for egomaniacal trophies. The other part of my brain revels in the freakish Frankenstein concoctions sprung from twisted artistic souls, Gothy individualists in black, with scads of tats and a penchant for playing Bauhaus while making taxidermy scenes of iguana tea parties.

My pal Mr. Martinez is a more traditional practitioner of the taxidermy arts. As his workshop attests, he goes for big cats, woodland animals, spindly deer, exotic game and other heartbreaking visions. 

So he won’t stuff my friend, got it. Maybe if I modify my specifications so Ian could still be prepped and mounted without breaking any laws. Maybe if Martinez does something less human and more on the hybrid side — a hint of Dr. Moreau, say.

Maybe, just maybe, we can settle on this:

Skulls, scales, piranhas and penises

Once I was strolling down the sidewalk in a small leafy city when I almost stepped on a dead baby bird. Gruesome and heartbreaking, about the size of a toddler’s palm, the chick bore hues of hot pink and bruised blue. Its livid, bulging eyelids were sealed, its featherless body as smooth as a plum. It was impressively intact. 

After a flush of shock and pity, I did what any sane person would do. I wrapped the freshly hatched corpse in a handkerchief, stuck it in my pocket, and took it home. 

I knew exactly what to do with the sad songbird that would never sing. I took a small, squat jar and dropped the creature in. Then I filled the jar with rubbing alcohol as a cheap formaldehyde substitute to preserve the bird. It looked like the baby floating in space at the end of “2001.”

“You’re nuts,” a friend said, grimacing at my latest specimen.

“If by nuts you mean genius, then you are correct, amigo,” I replied. 

Those were the days when I maintained a kind of ghoulish cabinet of curiosities, an array of animal bits and pieces that you might see in a really good, icky museum, like the Mütter in Philadelphia or the Kunstkamera in St. Petersburg, Russia. 

Jarred birth defect, Kunstkamera Museum, 2017

A minor collector of the morbid and marvelous, I was proud of my little spread on the mantel. It featured a perfect gopher skull I found in a forest that I boiled to get it ivory white; a shark jaw bought in Tijuana; a desiccated sea horse; an artfully mounted dried piranha; a skinny, three-inch coyote penis bone picked up at the wondrous Evolution Store in Manhattan; and, of course, the pièce de résistance, the newly jarred baby bird. 

All I needed were the famous bones of the Elephant Man to make my mini-museum world-class. Instead I had a penis bone. Of a coyote.

Coyote penis bones

My interest in this kind of fleshly ephemera goes back to when as kids we hunted lizards and snakes, captured frogs, tadpoles and the occasional crawfish. At the beach, we collected sand crabs, starfish and washed-up egg sacks from sharks.

It wasn’t callow mischief guiding us, but a dogged fascination with the slimy, squirmy world, our first real engagement with the natural sciences and coexistent creatures. Back then our main educational outlet for these things was TV’s “Wild Kingdom,” a show that pales woefully next to today’s über-slick “Planet Earth.” Yet it was good, eye-opening.

Even now, none of this bores me. Though I’ve since discarded my assortment of animal oddities, I love roaming the aisles and perusing the glass cases at the Mütter and the Evolution Store, gaping at furry and scaly taxidermy, jarred sharks, pickled human organs, and skulls of all species.

I’m not alone. The Mütter and Evolution are bustling tourist magnets, irresistible emporiums of the morbid and mortal, stocked with shocking notions and terrible beauty. (I just recalled I own t-shirts from the Mütter and Evolution. How could I forget?)

Meanwhile, my birthday is coming up. Here’s what you can get me, from Evolution:

Jaws in a jar. Beat that.