Clifton D Bryant & Donald J Shoemaker. Handbook of Death and Dying. Editor: Clifton D Bryant. Volume 2. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Reference, 2003.
Through their painstaking craft, they [taxidermists] give creatures an idealized existence after death; capture images that just happen to have all the dimensions of life. They persuade an observer that an animal’s energy has been only temporarily contained. In another instant, life will resume: the giraffe will promenade; the zebra will paw the earth, the wildcat will spring, and those tiny bats will scatter to the sky.
— Lawrence M. Small, Smithsonian Institute (2002:18)
Taxidermy is, arguably, a thanatological art form. It is a variation of sculpture, but utilizes bodies of dead animals as its medium, rather than clay or wood, or stone. It is, in effect, “organic sculpture.” Aside from its manifest functions of entertainment, education, interest, impression management, or utility, it also serves two latent functions. On the one hand, it serves to acquaint the viewer with the reality of death. The mounted animal exhibits the deanimation of death, and the onlooker confronts the demise of the creature in a very personal and compelling fashion. On the other hand, there is a significant death denial quality to taxidermy. The animal is dead (perhaps killed for the purpose), but the taxidermist restores symbolic life to the creature by giving it the impression of both viability and the potentiality of reanimation. The skillfully mounted animal symbolically “comes alive,” albeit in frozen rigidity in perpetuity. Taxidermy “transcends” death by projecting the image of life. This article was published 15 years ago, but taxidermy has changed little, if any, in the meantime. The techniques are the same, but some newer materials are in widespread use, such as Styrofoam forms in the shape of animals, even up to elephant size, around which the animal skin can be draped and sewed. Taxidermists are still largely self-taught through the venue of mail-order correspondence courses and are still encountered in most small communities where they can serve a constituency of hunters. The uses of taxidermy remain essentially the same—scientific display, novelty items, hunting trophies, and haute décor. Freeze-drying may become the technique of the future, but for now, traditional taxidermy methods remain the preferred mode of converting dead animals into art. The article is still very much relevant!
Few art forms in America are more singular than that of taxidermy. In the art of taxidermy the goal is to make dead animals look alive. It is unique in that it is a creative attempt to make nature, in the form of dead animals, imitate art, in the shape of organic statuary, rather than art imitating nature. Culturally speaking, taxidermy is a complex artistic configuration, and it possesses several identities within the context of social life. As a technical process, taxidermy involves elements of both science and art. As a social identity, it may be either an occupation or a vocation, or in some instances, both. It ranges considerably in its following from the upper to the middle and lower classes, and in sophistication of style, from a relatively ubiquitous folk art to that of an elaborate set of artistic and technical procedures practiced largely by a relatively modest number of museum technicians. Taxidermy could best be labeled as one of the plastic arts similar to sculpting. Yet it also includes painting, tanning, leather working, wood carving, and on some occasions, even glass blowing, not to mention numerous other ancillary activities and procedures.
Taxidermy is, indeed, also a craft in that it involves many technical procedures. Craft and art, however, are not synonymous, as writers like Becker (1978) have pointed out, but taxidermy seems to have elements of both. Taxidermy has always had a strong element of craft utility, but also from its earliest origins, taxidermy specimens have served as objects of aesthetic contemplation. Given the fact that, particularly in recent years, aesthetics may have assumed a primacy over utility, it may be possible to speak of art invading craft in the case of taxidermy, as Becker (1978:867-76) has suggested with other crafts. In this regard, it may be more appropriate to speak of taxidermy as having begun as a “folk art” in much the same way as Christopherson (1974) labeled photography. Taxidermy emphasized technique and procedure and was very commercial in its orientation. Taxidermy, like photography, tends to be a “socially marginal art” (Christopherson 1974:152), but in view of the contemporary emphasis on aesthetics, even in artistic competitions and contests, and its use as haute décor in the finest of homes, like photography, it may be in the process of making the transition to fine art. Taxidermy produces specimens that may be considered educational display, amusing statuary, or even objets d’art, depending on the social context. The successful taxidermist, however, must be more than a technician, and even more than a skilled artisan, for there is an aesthetic dimension to taxidermy as with other crafts. Taxidermists must concern themselves with aesthetics, for the onlooker will view the product as art and therefore will come to appreciate it in terms of the aesthetic dimension.
Taxidermy and American Social Life
Taxidermy is a prominent art form in the core of American culture and is especially seminal in traditional and popular culture. American culture reflects its preoccupation with taxidermy in a variety of ways. Various words and phrases used in everyday life are derived from the vocabulary of taxidermy—the threat to “beat the ‘stuffing’ out of someone” or derogatorily referring to someone as a “stuffed shirt,” meaning that he is fake or artificially pompous. Taxidermy is frequently employed as an element of humor, especially in cartoons and drama—plays, movies, and television series such as The Addams Family. It has been institutionalized as an American folk craft. At one time, taxidermy was listed in the Boy Scouts of America Handbook as one of the skills which, when mastered, could earn a merit badge. The Merit Badge of Taxidermy was first introduced in 1911 and included in the Handbook through 1954. Over the years, 10,344 such badges were earned by scouts. The requirements were unchanged during the 43-year history of the badge. In 1954, the taxidermy badge was dropped from the merit badge series because of the “lack of interest” (J. D. Owen, Associate Director, Editorial Service, National Office of Boy Scouts of America, personal communication, March 14, 1986).
Many Americans acquired their expertise in taxidermy via mail order correspondence courses and commenced their artistic career with the carcass of a sparrow or squirrel. A number of prominent Americans, such as the noted painter Charles Wilson Peale and the famous military leader George Armstrong Custer, were enthusiastic taxidermists. Several early naturalists/taxidermists, such as William T. Hornaday and Carl E. Akeley, achieved some modicum of national fame more because of their artistic skills in this field than from their contributions to zoology.
Taxidermy has enjoyed a pervasive integration into the fabric of American social life. Practitioners of the craft, either occupational or avocational, are found in practically every small town and hamlet in America. For many decades, Americans have enthusiastically embraced both the product and the practice of taxidermy. Taxidermy specimens are widely employed in home and store decorations, for business advertising, and for both utilitarian and novel items as well as for sporting trophies and as haute décor.
Taxidermy and Cultural Utility
Taxidermy has developed in many purposive directions and has come to fulfill many social and personal needs. The general activity of preserving and mounting animals, birds, fishes, and other zoological specimens in lifelike postures for scrutiny, if not exhibit, may be included under the general classification of taxidermy; however, there is actually considerable diversity in the various forms that taxidermy may assume, and equal variation in the social functions that taxidermy may fulfill. A proper understanding of the role of taxidermy in American culture and an appropriate insight into its socio-psychological goals requires detailed examination of the several forms and functions that taxidermy manifests. Taxidermy may be divided into several purposeful categories, as shown in Figure 1. This paradigm posits modes of cultural goals (ends) at two functional levels: instrumental and expressive or affective. At the instrumental level, taxidermy is viewed as an activity that seeks to accomplish a relatively specific and objective goal or end such as acquainting the viewer with the appearance of particular zoological species. In the case of the latter, taxidermy is conceptualized as an activity that aims at bringing about a more diffuse and subjective effect or goal, usually of an emotional or cognitive variety—creating a particular ambience, for example. The paradigm also postulates four categories of social purpose that involve the management of variant types of perceptual elements and that also operate on the basis of different kinds of intentional efforts. The paradigmatic typology results in eight cells, each accommodating a separate variety of taxiderminological enterprise with widely varying motivations and products. Each of these varieties of taxidermy will be described and discussed. In some instances, a similar type of taxidermy specimen may be encountered in more than one purposive context. In this case, the specimen will likely have a different social meaning, may be employed in a dissimilar fashion, and may well seek a disparate cultural result.
Specific Cultural Goals/Ends
Taxidermy is often utilized with very definite and specific goals in mind. In this context, the taxidermy specimen or item is essentially a tool or device whose functional parameters are predictable and whose utility limits are known and employed as such.
Scientific or Display Taxidermy
Just as taxidermy in Europe was originally introduced as a scientific enterprise, taxidermy was also first practiced in the United States as a scientific or “naturalist” craft. The earliest taxidermists were associated with museums, admittedly some of which were privately owned and profit making, and the craft flourished in such an environment. It was in the later decades of the nineteenth century that museums enjoyed a period of unusual growth that, in turn, promoted taxidermy. Possibly because of the scientific zeal of some of the early taxidermists, a high-quality product was soon produced. In fact, some of the specimens mounted early in the twentieth century are still considered to be exemplary in quality. Taxidermy in the larger museums encouraged taxidermy in the smaller museums around the country, resulting in many small communities placing a few mounted zoological specimens in a glass case in the lobbies of the courthouse or the local community center.
Scientific or display taxidermy is rationalized and justified as altruistic inasmuch as it seeks to educate. It is used as a mechanism or device to manage or manipulate interest or attention in zoological topics. It was through educational interest that taxidermy first entered the American home. A few more affluent families bought mounted specimens or had animals or birds mounted and displayed in their homes for the edification of family members and guests. The possession of such taxidermy specimens suggested sophistication and intellectual enlightenment and, thus, became a status symbol. In time, such specimens became accepted as part of the décor. This practice diffused down the social class ladder.
Perhaps the most popular and widespread form of taxidermy in the United States is trophy taxidermy. The earliest examples of trophy taxidermy were mounted deer, elk, and moose heads and bearskin rugs. Such specimens first appeared in gun and sporting goods stores and in saloon and hotel lobbies as attractions to customers. They also offered a “woodsy,” rugged, outdoor and frontier American atmosphere to the décor, which was considered desirable. Such mounts were expensive; nevertheless, individuals bought them for their homes and had their own hunting trophies mounted. Within a few decades, many American homes, including the middle-class ones, had a mounted moose or elk head, perhaps inherited from an adventurous uncle or grandfather who may have acquired the trophy on a hunting expedition to Maine or Canada.
The rich and the super adventurous who safaried in Africa or India brought back their trophies for mounting to demonstrate their hunting prowess and affluence at being financially able to make such a trip. Some homes possessed a veritable zoo, albeit a dead zoo, of heads, horns, and hides derived from their hunting trips. This was more frequently the case with well-to-do individuals who took up big-game hunting as a hobby and maintained a “game” room or “trophy” room. For the genuine big-game trophy hunter, the mounted head was a means of keeping score. Such hunters acquired “points” in the Boone and Crockett Trophy Book for killing outstanding specimens of game, and the heads on the wall are testimony to such an accomplishment. Sometimes “game” or “trophy” rooms housed prodigious numbers of dead animals, in whole or part, including “heads and antlers, hooves and hides, bears stuffed and frozen at the moment of assault, giraffes which seem to step out of walls” (Atyeo 1979:59). One trophy room in the house of a wealthy big-game hunter was described in Sports Illustrated a decade ago:
The room is overpowering. Tier upon tier of heads go up the dark, shadow-lighted walls; full body mounts make the room an obstacle course of teeth, claws, snouts and legs. Trying to get a better look at a rampant polar bear guarding a freshly killed young seal, I get poked in the chest by a leopard tail. And many trophies haven’t even been put up. They lie face down on the leather couches, tilted into corners, and wooden crates marked NAIROBI promise further overcrowding. There are more than three hundred animals in the room [italics added]. (Quoted in Atyeo 1979:59)
As mentioned earlier, many museums inherited their mounted animal collections from hunters who got tired of having their trophies around the house or felt a distorted sense of altruism or perhaps wanted to avail themselves of tax deductions. Ultimately, even the working class sought to emulate the middle and upper classes by having trophies of their hunt on display. Other types of animals came to be mounted as trophies, such as ducks, geese, rabbits, squirrels, and foxes, as well as fish.
The mounted zoological trophy became a symbol of hunting or fishing prowess and was tangible evidence of ability and accomplishment—man triumphing over nature and the beasts, as it were! The trophy was also a souvenir, a residual evidence of a memorable experience, and a way of refreshing memories about the trip or hunt, as well as a means of simulating conversation among guests, thus providing an opportunity for the retelling of exploits and adventure. It also served as an indicator of affluence and conspicuous consumption, a desirable possession in a status-conscious society.
Craft or “Utility” Taxidermy
Early in its development, taxidermy acquired a utilitarian orientation. Early practitioners quickly learned that many “useful articles” could be fabricated from the remains of dead beasts. These “useful” or “practical” articles assumed myriad shapes and forms and fulfilled a variety of household purposes. Some examples include gun and hat racks made of deer feet, elephant foot umbrella stands, lampshades made of hides and feathers, inkwells made of hooves, animal carcass candle stands, thermometers mounted on deer feet, chairs and tables made of the entire body of large animals such as bears, knife handles made of deer feet, and of course, lamp bases made of animal and bird parts. Here, taxidermy is conceptualized as “craft work” inasmuch as the products have utility, even if bizarre, and serve as “conversation pieces” as well.
Surpassing even the ingenuity of the author of 101 Uses for a Dead Cat (Bond 1981), taxidermists demonstrated inspired innovativeness in finding new utilitarian forms for parts of animal anatomy and creativity in fashioning the attendant artifacts. Such articles and artifacts have been frequently used as gifts. As one taxidermy school brochure phrases it, “Few gifts have greater appeal for the young or old than taxidermy creations” and there is “nothing quite as unique and fascinating as a product of the taxidermists’ art!” (Northwestern School of Taxidermy n.d.:10).
The American national character has a penchant for the useful and unusual, even if convoluted, and if dead animals can be converted into utilitarian artifacts, the architects of such conversion are predictably applauded.
If taxidermists can “re-create nature,” they sometimes are inspired to improve on it from their perspective, and such is the motivation for novelty taxidermy. This form of craft may include the creating of chimeras. By reassembling mismatched portions of dead animals, “new” and bizarre species are created with a fish upper body and a small animal lower body, a kind of animal “mermaid,” as it were, or two-headed beasts. The fanciful imaginations of taxidermists have spawned some remarkable zoological composites but few have been more enduring than the “jack-a-lope,” a mounted rabbit head with small antelope horns. These are extremely popular with the jokester set and currently retail for about $45.00.2 When hung on the walls of business establishments such as restaurants, they seldom fail to elicit comments or questions from the unknowledgeable tourists, who are then informed that they are fauna common to the region. Other forms of novelty taxidermy might include a mounted standing animal holding a tray, or supporting a lamp, or even containing a clock in its navel.
Finally, novelty taxidermy also appears occasionally in the form of tableaux-morts. This is the practice of mounting common zoological specimens in “amusing” human poses. Dead animals, often kittens, puppies, or rabbits, are mounted in group situations, usually macabre re-creations of human events, such as weddings or meetings. A group of dead rabbits might be mounted and clothed in band uniforms, appearing to be marching down the street. Miniature doll furniture and children’s toys may be used as props. The National Archives in Washington, D.C., has a large collection of photographs of such novelty taxidermy, but the largest collection of tableaux-morts in the world is in a museum in England. As one author describes some of the holdings,
The richest replica-work of taxidermy is found at Bramber in Sussex, a long untidy village on a minor main road behind Shoreham. At the back of a graveled courtyard lies Potter’s Museum, open daily, built of flint and brick with cast iron frills. Inside is stored the loving work of a lifetime; case after careful case of animals not merely stuffed but stuffed to tell a story. The most important exhibits are the Babes in the Wood, The Kittens’ Teas and Croquet Party, Sporting Party, Lower Five or The Rat’s Den, A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed, Rabbits’ Village School, The House that Jack Built, The Death and Burial of Cock Robin, Upper Ten or Squirrels’ Club, Guinea-pigs’ Cricket Match, and Kittens’ Wedding. The last one is best. Seventeen kitten attendants dressed in velvet and silk and pearls, all standing on their hind legs, and gathered round the kitten bride, groom and priest. They are neither human nor feline, but a new creation.
Among the big groups are cases of freaks, six-legged puppies and two-headed chickens, drawing the miserable eye away from the Upper Ten and Lower Five. The ten are comfortable squirrels sitting at ease in their club, the five are burglar-rats in a cellar, being raided by rat-police. (Jones 1951:20)
Presumably, animals mounted in tableaux-morts exhibits are not without appeal. One writer has observed that “kittens, always appealing in life, are irresistible [italics added] in death to tableaux-makers” (Jones 1967:268). Such taxidermy exhibits, at one time, were frequently used as store displays or as bizarre objets d’art in some homes (thanatological conversation pieces, as it were).
Diffused Cultural Goals/Ends
Taxidermy is also employed to bring about more generalized or diffused aims. It may attempt to create a mood or state of mind or to influence the perception and judgment of the onlooker. The intent is to augment or enrich the visual inventory of a given image or situation and thus to influence or manipulate the viewer’s perception and interpretation.
Because mounted zoological specimens are eye-catching, they are often used as displays and for advertising purposes. They are used, in effect, as devices or mechanisms to manage or control attention. They help focus or direct the viewer’s attention to the product. In some instances, the taxidermy specimen may be a type of animal, bird, fish, or reptile that the spectator has never seen before, or at least not at close at hand. Snakes, unusual birds and fish, large wild animals, nocturnal creatures, and rare variations of animals (albino creatures, for example) attract the attention of customers and readers. Dead things of any kind also have a certain morbid appeal, and the onlooker can scrutinize the creature closely, leisurely, and safely. In some ways, viewing the taxidermy specimen affords a vantage point not available even in zoos or in the wilderness. Some mounted specimens are used in advertisements because they are trademarks. The mounted white horse in White Horse Scotch ads is an example. They may be used to provide an ambience, such as the mounted parrot in ads featuring “tropical” clothing, or because they attract the reader’s or viewer’s eye, as in the instance of a mounted tiger or crocodile. As an illustration, the New York Times for Sunday, June 13, 1976, carried an ad for Macys Department Store featuring Izod shirts. Izod shirts have an alligator emblem embroidered on them, and to make the point, the ad also showed a four-foot long mounted alligator. Leather shops frequently have mounted reptile specimens in their show windows displayed among leather products such as shoes, belts, or wallets. Traditionally, many fur shops have had mounted fur-bearing animals in their display windows. Indeed, the “medium is the message,” and if dead animals help communicate, it is not surprising that they are often used as the media and the message.
Taxidermy products as garments and accessories are really a type of costume. By wearing the appropriate costume, one can project the desired image and create a particular persona, at least in terms of the perception of others. Americans and members of many other societies like to wear animal products. They wear reptile skin (not to mention pigskin and cowskin) on their feet as shoes and boots. They use sheepskin linings on their coats and ponyskin vests if they wish to look Western. They don leather chaps when riding the range and have rabbit skin linings in their gloves. And, of course, the women and some men like to wear the furs of many different kinds of animals as coats.3 The preparation of all of these animal parts as clothing requires tanning and other preservation procedures, all of which are component to the repertoire of taxidermy skills. In some instances, the clothing may involve more of the animals’ anatomy than simply the skin (hide or fur). The fox fur stole, fashionable for many years, often had the shriveled head of the animal (with skull removed) still attached. Some fur stoles and muffs retained the animal feet.
The use of taxidermy products as apparel was as popular in the past as it is today. Since Colonial times, American men have worn coonskin or fox skin hats replete with tail attached and, occasionally, with a preserved and shriveled head attached to the headdress. Feathers and plumes have long been popular as accessories to headdresses, and even many kinds of men’s hats traditionally had a small bird feather or plume mounted in the hatband. Confederate cavalrymen, and especially officers, sometimes wore ostrich plumes in their hat. (The same was true with members of Bersagliere, the Italian elite Alpine Corps). However, women customarily tended to have more and larger feathers on their headdresses, and in some instances, women’s hats contained birds’ heads or even consisted of the entire upper carcass of some type of bird such as a pheasant. Barbara Jones (1967) reported this ladies’ clothing fashion in England as early as 1860: “During the 1860s whole stuffed grouse and pheasants were worn as ladies’ hats, then tiger and bear claws were made into jewelry, then the hoofs of favorite horses were made into ink-stands” (p. 270).
More recently, the use of zoological creatures as apparel has taken even more innovative if not bizarre directions. Hatbands are often made of animal or reptile hide. The African big game hunter ensemble would hardly be complete without the customary leopard skin hatband. Western style hatbands are often fabricated from rattlesnake skins. In recent years, it has become fashionable for taxidermists to leave the rattlesnake head on the hatband along with the rattles on the tail, mouth agape and fangs bared as if prepared to strike! In The Shotgun News for December 1, 1986, a full-page ad on rattlesnake apparel items list rattlesnake head hatpins (with open or closed mouth) for $9.95, rattlesnake skin belts and belt buckle for $64.90, rattlesnake hatband complete with rattlesnake head (open) and rattle for $29.95, and rattlesnake rattle earrings (for pierced ears) for $9.95.
Animal skins and parts have always been used as status symbols to create a persona or convey a social message. Fur coats on women and a leather or suede sports jacket on men suggest affluence and an expensive lifestyle. They also carry other messages. In the 1920s, the young college man wearing a raccoon coat attempted to project the image of bon vivant. Females used leather or fur garments to project a desired image, perhaps exotic, erotic, fashionable, or sophisticated, or even the persona of a femme fatale. Similarly, men used animal parts such as western (cowboy) style boots made of exotic leathers, fur vests, or rattlesnake skin (with head) hatbands as means of appearing macho, “devil may care,” or even roguish. The human mind is ingenious in matters of fashion, and time will perhaps see even more verve and panache in the adaptation of dead animals to apparel.4
As noted earlier, taxidermy specimens first appeared in museums and business establishments. They quickly moved to the home, with the process of cultural diffusion, however, and their presence was initially rationalized as educational and scientific. The hunting trophy specimen followed the educational mount into the home; the utilitarian taxidermy specimen was not long in joining the other household taxidermy. The Victorian home in the United States and in England not infrequently possessed a congeries of taxidermy products—fish, fowl, beast, and reptile—that assumed all manner of utilitarian and “decorative” configurations. One author, describing the zoological furnishings of English homes in this era, relates that
by 1896 bears held card trays in the hall, and almost anything might be a chair or stool, an elephant sitting up like a cat made a horrid hall-porter’s chair, monkeys held up lamps, albatross beaks clipped letters, elephants’ feet holding whiskey bottles were commonplace enough to be a registered design, an ostrich leg made a door-stop, and Sir Edwin Landseer had designed an antler hat-stand and an otter chair. (Jones 1967:270)
Decorative taxidermy also found a place in the home and remained. A catalog from a leading mail-order gift company in the fall of 1985 pictured a preserved rattlesnake head, jaws opened and fangs bared, imbedded in a Lucite dome, which was described as, “The ultimate conversation piece as a paperweight or exotic décor and the answer to what to give that special ‘man who has everything’“ (Adam York 1985:11).
In almost continuous fashion since they first appeared as home décor, taxidermy products have always been used as decorative furnishings. There have been periods, of course, when taxidermy was less popular as a mode of home decorating. In general, however, it has always been fashionable, at one socioeconomic level or another, to use zoological specimens (real or imitation) as items of decorative interest and appeal in the home. A cursory examination of back issues of House Beautiful at the turn of the century reveals the use of taxidermy specimens and products as home decors. The use of such items as decorative “accessories” has continued throughout the decades since then. Curiously, the 1970s and 1980s in the U.S. have been especially vintage years for the use of taxidermy products as home décor. The pages of House Beautiful, House and Garden, and Architectural Digest during these years contain many photo essay descriptions of homes which depict the use of zoological items, including furs, hides, horns, feathers, and shells both in the form of mounted creatures or potions of their anatomy. Because taxidermy products have been very expensive in many instances, and because some such items are from endangered species and sometimes, illegal, there has been a recent tendency, in some instances, to use artificial taxidermy products such as fake skins, skulls, horns, and tusks.
Various major mail-order sporting goods companies, in their recent catalogs, show different kinds of mounted bird specimens, such as groupings of quail in lifelike poses surrounded by vegetation and enclosed in a glass container to be placed on a shelf or even used as a coffee table. Even larger bird mounts of more heroic proportions have recently become very popular as elements of décor in high-fashion homes. One company carries an entire line of large mounted birds. Their catalog lists such varieties as pheasants, ducks, pigeons, chickens, and even peacocks, and asserts that “exotic birds make beautiful accessories in any décor.” This company even maintains a showroom at various furniture mart shows in order to display their wares to interior decorators. Their motto is “A Monument to Nature’s Beauty” (Mounted Game Birds 1985:10). The use of wildlife items of anatomy (real or fake) is sometimes termed the “organic look” and in theory, suggests that the owner has verve, imagination, and sophistication. Owning a home decorated in this style is a way of creating a desired atmosphere or ambience and thus, a way of managing the impressions of others. Commercial establishments such as restaurants and bars sometimes also seek to create an atmosphere with dead animals. The décor then becomes something of a trademark which makes the establishment easy to remember. A case in point is Ralph & Kacoo’s, the famous seafood restaurant on Toulouse Street in New Orleans. The walls of the restaurant are literally covered with mounted animals.
Given the present popularity of zoological products and taxidermy specimens for decorating, it is likely that the “organic look,” as it is sometimes labeled, will be prominent in fashionable homes and businesses for some time to come.
Some individuals cannot bear to part with a pet when it dies, and so they have it mounted by a taxidermist and keep it around the house as a keepsake or remembrance (“Look Alive” 1986:A2). Roy Rogers had his horse, Trigger, mounted when it died, and it is now prominently displayed in the Roy Rogers Museum. As one taxidermy school brochure advises would-be-practitioners, “By knowing taxidermy, and often from personal knowledge of the pet…you can preserve such specimens just as they were in life” (Northwestern School of Taxidermy n.d.:10). Technology also has added another taxidermy variation. It was recently reported that a taxidermist in Marcella, New Jersey, specializes in freeze-drying dead pets for owners who “hate to say goodbye” (“Taxidermist Andrew Dachisen” 1985:79). Other taxidermists are also beginning the practice of freeze-drying deceased pets for customers. The customer’s rationale is simple. As one taxidermists puts it, “Out of everything in their lives, …a pet may be the one thing that made them happy. Not everybody can walk away from something and say, ‘That’s it. It’s over.’“ (“Taxidermist Andrew Dachisen” 1985:79-80)
Nostalgia taxidermy, then, is a way of managing grief and dealing with emotional loss. Some taxidermists, however, admit that the practice is morbid. One individual said, “It’s like taking your father and mother and sitting them in a corner” (“Taxidermist Andrew Dachisen” 1985:79). From a rational perspective, however, it is said that freeze-drying is cheaper than conventional taxidermy techniques.
Few configurations of artistic behavior are more uncommon than making dead animals look alive and then wearing them, laughing at them, scrutinizing them in glass cases, converting them into utilitarian artifacts, or using them in decorating homes, offices, and business establishments. At one point in time, taxidermy and the preservation of hides and heads had a functional practicality. Then and now, some taxidermy was educational. Even the mounted specimen in the home somehow reeked of scientific curiosity. The mounted game head has traditionally had “macho” value and social status symbolism as a trophy of the hunt or memento of the journey. The den or game room might be just that—a gallery of dead beasts. With the advent of “novelty” taxidermy, craft and art took a turn toward the macabre with such whimsical results as leering frogs with a clock in their stomachs, marching platoons of dead rabbits, or newly created “mythical” composite and chimerical beasts such as “jackalopes.”
It is difficult to explain the seminality of taxidermy as an art form and craft in the fabric of American social life. Perhaps some early Americans needed to express themselves artistically and had to work with a medium that was readily available—the carcasses of dead animals. Perhaps taxidermy has enjoyed its inordinate popularity because animals of all kinds (even dead) are so imbedded in American culture. The need to fashion utilitarian objects and functional accessories out of deceased beasts may simply be a manifestation of the traditional Protestant Ethic-”waste not, want not,” as it were, even if it involves using a mounted animal or bird as a lamp base or candleholder. Such a practice also serves as something of an inherent justification for killing the animal. Americans have come to perceive a certain organic beauty in animals and birds, even if dead, and given the scarcity of some zoological specimens, and the difficulty and expense, not to mention the danger, attendant to “collecting” some varieties of fauna, it is not surprising that they have served yeoman duty as status symbols. Even in the social construction of humor and amusement surrounding dead animals, especially in some incongruent contexts, taxidermy may have served to help dilute our culturally endemic anxiety concerning death.
Taxidermy as an art form in the United States is almost as old as the Republic, but it is a relative latecomer in terms of being a widespread craft on the American scene. It rapidly caught the attention of the citizenry and was diffused socially and geographically throughout the population when its techniques and procedures were made available to the public via inexpensive mail-order instruction. Providing the basis for both avocation and vocation, taxidermy allowed many to achieve artistic and creative fulfillment, converting the corpses of deceased creatures into seemingly live (or organic) statuary, but frozen in time and place. For other, taxidermy afforded amusement, entertainment, enlightenment, fashion, and a sense of decorative completeness. For many, no clothing style is more appropriate than that which includes some remnants of zoological anatomy, or no home is complete without a few dead animals on the walls, and no décor more fashionable and avant-garde than “Dead Zoo Chic.”
Taxidermy is very much alive and well and thriving in heartland America. There is a practicing taxidermist within a short driving distance of practically every small town in America (and also in the larger communities and big cities as well). The mounted deer head is a near ubiquitous decorative artifact in a significant number of rural homes (and urban homes as well). In certain areas of the U.S., the deer head may be replaced by an elk head or a moose head. Because of relatively inexpensive airfare to Africa and other exotic hunting locations, plus the modestly priced short safaris available today, a great many more people are going big game hunting and their homes may be decorated with kudu, gemsbuck, lion, leopard, or cape buffalo heads! Disbelievers should note that more than 15,000 members of the Safari Club International attend its annual convention each year. At the convention, 1,500 professional hunters and outfitters from all over the world offer safari packages to serious big game hunters. Significant numbers of taxidermists also exhibit at the convention and advertise their services. Beyond mounted hunting trophies, taxidermy specimens are today viewed as haute décor in many upper-middle, and upperclass, homes. Horns, hides, skulls, and fully mounted fowl of all varieties are prominently displayed as an “organic” decorative touch in many upscale homes. Again, disbelievers should peruse Architectural Digest. Taxidermy as organic sculpture will likely be with us well into the 21st century, not only giving us glimpses of petrified nature but also reifying the notion that we can restore symbolic life to dead animals, thereby demonstrating our perceived human power over death.