I don’t specifically remember what sparked my interest in taxidermy. A long fascination with ghouls, ghosts, skeletons and ET perhaps; or maybe it was my abject failure at triple science GCSE at school, where I convinced Miss Celentano for an entire year that I was a mastermind of physics by copying Lucy’s work on solenoids. All I achieved was long-sightedness and a deep appreciation of multiple-choice exam questions. More likely, I think it was all those trips to the London museums my parents took me on.
The animals in those museums looked so good to touch. The Horniman, in particular, houses a gigantic walrus brought back from the arctic in the Victoria era. Taxidermists at the time had no clue what a walrus was meant to look like and so, presumably confused by the sheer amount of stretchy, wrinkly skin, stuffed the walrus to bursting. The walrus looked ten years younger. I didn’t particularly care about the lifespan of the animal, or the eating habits, or any of the facts printed next to the glass cases. I just used to want to pick up the snarling, stuffed foxes just to see what the fur felt like; push my fingers against the teeth to see how sharp they were. I wanted to hold a bear’s paw, stroke a lion’s mane, and balance a squirrel on my shoulder and wander around Tesco attracting impressed glances. “There she goes”, they’d exclaim in aisle three, “the squirrel whisperer.” If I got through the aisles fast enough, they wouldn’t notice the glassy-eyed stare of the thoroughly immobile animal stapled to my jumper. I still have these fantasies sometimes.
The appeal of taxidermy is how tactile it is. You’re not generally allowed to touch wild animals and yet, when they’re dead, it’s somehow ok. With this unsavoury reassurance in mind – I can’t write anything more on it without beginning to sound like Ed Gein – I booked myself my first ever taxidermy lesson.
The mice were on special offer. They were all lined up, white and furry and frozen, on a glass table. Our tutor was an upsettingly handsome man with an intense gaze and an even more intense beard, and he explained to us in a low Yorkshire accent, as we made the first incision from breastbone to tail, that he was a men’s fashion designer. He was most proud of a jacket he’d made with two foxes leaping over the shoulders, and he showed us a photo of the jacket on his iPad. It was very impressive, like a kind of vermin lumbar support.
Skinning a mouse is very much like skinning a chipolata with smaller chipolatas attached to it. Manoeuvring a thin, stretchy membrane up and over tiny arms and legs is no mean feat, and god forbid you get overenthusiastic and pierce its little bag of guts. Often our tutor would tell us to just pick up some scissors and snip away the base of the tail, the ankles and the wrists – all of which feels like a cop-out, like John Singer Sargent changing the brightness and contrast of Whistler’s Mother on Photoshop. Once the body is free you dunk the skin into cold soapy water, wring it out like a flannel, and pin it to a board for drying.
At this point, the cute bit of taxidermy finally comes in. Loathe to share the snapshots of entrails falling onto the lino cutting board like spilled soup, most trendy young taxidermists like to portray the process as being like a book club or a knitting circle. Using wood wool, wire and thread, we made little mannequins of the bodies of our freshly skinned mice and set the hairdryer on the skins, the tail whipping and flailing, the legs furiously windmilling – I’m always reminded of the Wuthering Heights dance on fast forward. Then you shovel Borax into the skin, position your mannequin inside of it, pad it out a bit and sew it up.
Inevitably, with its rigidly outstretched legs, the little mouse looks only slightly less dead than it was when you started. That’s when hours and hours of positioning come into play – do you want it to look realistic, holding a piece of cheese or standing up on its hind legs? Or do you, as many seem to, prefer a mouse in a cardboard top hat and ill-fitting doll clothes?
Personally, I don’t like the anthropomorphised taxidermy that was all the rage in the Victoria era. A guinea pig squashed into Barbie’s wedding dress seems somehow undignified, its tiny eyes imploring you to leave it a shred of rodent masculinity. One taxidermy enthusiast sells a whole range of rats dressed up as Walter White, Mr Spock, and Beyonce amongst others. I figure if you’re going to do that, you might as well make it really niche: have rabbits dressed as Mary Wollstonecraft and Germaine Greer, a mole as Van Gogh. You could even have a squirrel dressed as Ed Gein.
I continue to practice taxidermy in the relative comfort of my flat, to the complete disgust and abject horror of Ed. Some days are better than others, and I have learned that, even if you accidentally decapitate a blackbird, you can still keep its feet and turn it into ghoulish jewellery that absolutely nobody wants to buy. Next on the project list is Pierre the Gerbil, the beloved pet of a friend; a chicken killed by my aunt’s dog (she wants to give the mounted chicken back by way of apology); and a squirrel I bought on Ebay for a fiver. Dreams do come true.