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The Real Poop

Your kid sister is wailing her eyes out. For the past week she has been begging for a unicorn for her 16th birthday. Sissy always gets what she wants. She got a real Barbie Corvette one year. Before that, it was a day at Disney World all to herself. She was making you and your parents crazy, but you just had a brainstorm. You gaze out the back window at the little neglected pony Sissy grew bored with after only a day or two. Old Forelock dimly grazes on your mother's prize Chrysanthemums.

You pick up the phone and dial. "Hello, 1-800-TAXIDERMIST? Can you do pickups?"

Don't you worry, Sissy. You'll be getting a unicorn after all.

Taxidermy is the practice of preserving dead animals. The result is sort of like a mummified sculpture in a fur coat. It isn't a popular career choice. And ew? More like taxisquirmist.

But stuffing animals has become big business. Actually, "stuffing" is the term for preserving Beanie Babies. People have always kept the earthly remains of beloved and feared animals in one form or another. As a taxidermist, you give critters eternal life. Some people like to keep things way beyond their expiration date.

Most taxidermists work with hunters who want to keep the animals they've killed as trophies. The service is not cheap, but people sometimes capture their first fish and want to keep it for sentimental value. It doesn't have to be a prize winner. Most animals that hunters kill are valued for their beauty, but a photograph isn't enough. It's also a way, they say, to use the whole animals and not just toss out the pretty parts.

Some hunters need to keep their chickens or crops safe. Feral pigs or boar are extremely destructive and are being hunted more and more. In some northern states like Minnesota, the wolf has been taken off the endangered species list and the Department of Natural Resources has issued a small number of permits to hunters. This kind of opportunity is a good one for the trendy taxidermist.

A few people can afford to pursue large game in other countries. These are the exotics. Most go to Africa on an organized hunt. The goal isn't to merely kill the animal, but to bring it home, which can't easily be done in reverse order. The importance of habit and body movement is key when working on a Gemsbock, Kudu, or Aoudad.

There are a few other traditional purposes for taxidermy. Natural history museums serve a noble purpose. Placed into realistic backgrounds as part of dioramas, animals are shown in habitats we might never see and, in some cases, will never see again. Preserving extinct animals is not only a great way to keep a specimen, but some believe that DNA technology may one day be able to revive species like the passenger pigeon or the dodo.

Some dioramas exist for historical and anecdotal value.

  • In the Field Museum in Chicago, you can see the man eating lions featured in the 1995 movie, The Ghost and the Darkness.
  • Ball State University Biology Department has a stuffed specimen of a Passenger Pigeon. The Passenger Pigeon used to flock over the country in the tens of thousands. "George" is one of the very few in existence.
  • Harvard University has the largest collection of the extinct Ivory Billed Woodpecker.
  • Balto, the famous sled dog.

As gruesome and gory as a taxidermist job may be, school children everywhere gain valuable lessons from animals in faraway lands. This kind of taxidermy serves a scientific purpose and, if you are interested in saving species from extinction or climate change, your work might bring a lot of meaning to your life.

How do you think Audubon got all those birds to sit still? Not with the power of persuasion. He hunted thousands and thousands of birds and turned them into… dead ones.

Pets were mummified or buried with Egyptians thousands of years ago, but people meant to take their animals with them into the next life. Today many pet owners find comfort in having more than just a likeness of Socks or Pepper. For these people, the ability to create a version of the pet that looks alive and not mounted is crucial. Learning how to pose an animal is the most difficult and delicate of taxidermy arts, and making sure that Mrs. Fuzzy Nubbins looks just right on her pillow makes all the difference.

A new breed of taxidermist has appeared in the urban environment. These artists create fantasy animals like unicorns and beasties with novel, shock, or schlock value.

If you want to become a taxidermist, you have thousands of comrades and peers who will be happy to include you. There are classes and conventions, competitions and exhibitions. A taxidermist may not make much money or may only be a big fish in a small pond, but you will be working in a vocation that can keep you occupied for the rest of your life.

As Groucho Marx said, "Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog it's too dark to read."

So keep reading before you dive into gutting, skinning, tanning, fleshing, caping, altering, posing, sculpting, and yes, possibly selling that dead animal.

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