In Queens, New York, there is a room you can visit where dead animals stare plaintively at you. Two bears, black and brown, stand on their hind legs, claws outstretched. Caught in a moment of searching, they guard the glass front door. Encircling the space is a menagerie of creatures. Ducks are mounted to the walls, mid-flight. A kudu’s dark and curling horns rise above its graceful head, now severed from a body which perhaps was kept in Africa. Sharks swim, a hog stands, a golden lion tamarin monkey glares eerily from his perch, and a row of exotic birds peer through the window display toward a cemetery, where human bodies are memorialized with rock and marble, hidden from view.
Standing on the edge of this crowded room is John Youngaitis, the second-generation taxidermist of Cypress Hills Taxidermy Studio. “Everybody who comes in is like, wow, wow, wow,” Youngaitis says when I ask how most people react on walking into his studio. “I charge a dollar a wow.”
Taxidermy is a strange art, the stretching and stitching of animal hides over sculpted bodies. But to call these creatures dead is to misrepresent what they are–or what they have become. The craft emulates life and necessitates death. It is in this peculiar balance and through the allure of organic materials—animals who never move—that the awe, wonder, and unease surrounding taxidermy is born.
My attention is caught by a fox with waves of soft red fur. She is frozen in the action of bounding up a dead branch. Three paws rest on different knots, and one is lifted lightly in the air. Her head is alert, and her ears are back, as though she just heard the crunch of pine needles under a boot. I’m entranced by the liveliness captured in her body but unnerved by the still, hyper-realistic face, which would always hold a twitching movement in life. Why taxidermy this animal? Was there a shared moment in the woods between hunter and prey? Did they meet each other’s eyes? Can this taxidermy hold that connection?
I ask Youngaitis what the purpose of hunting and taxidermying a fox might be, and he tells me I’d be surprised by the types of meat people like to eat.
Throughout our conversation, an incessant and charming line of whistles and dialogue rings from a back room. The voice belongs to Sparky, an African grey parrot. When Youngaitis introduces me to the bird, she’s perched atop her cage overlooking the workspace where Youngaitis skins and stitches animals back together again. When she walks into the showroom with her almost-reptilian feet, I wonder what she sees in the animals surrounding her.
“I live to serve her,” Youngaitis tells me, reaching his hand out to let Sparky step onto his skin.
“Far more than just death and destruction, taxidermy always exposes the desires and daydreams surrounding human relationships with and within the natural world,” writes Rachel Poliquin in The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing. Performed by artists, hunters, naturalists, and those who embody all of the above, taxidermy serves many purposes. The art may capture an encounter, display beauty or science, educate, and imbue wonder, but despite the many forms it takes, every reconstruction is infused with human longing, human meaning, and human stories.
For some, taxidermy is about the story of a day, a moment with a living animal, and a triumph over its life.
Troy Hornbeck, from Louisiana, has been a hunter for most of his life. For him, like with many hunters, allure and practicality coincide. The sport is a means of game management, food, and time in nature, but the practice can also be an exploration of virility or triumph, the adrenaline rush of a kill, and for the truly exciting kills, the documentation of that success—the trophy.
One of these beloved trophies was created from an elephant killed during a safari hunt in Africa.
“They’re big and dangerous,” Hornbeck says, regarding elephants. “They don’t stop even though they’re hit. You have to break them down by shooting them in the shoulder and then the other shoulder. In the hip. You got to break them down. And in the heart, of course.”
But, hunting alongside his father and brother, this particular elephant was killed by a single bullet. In a rare and accidental occurrence, the elephant was shot in the perfect location above the heart, causing the creature to bleed out internally in the process of running away.
Now the head hangs in a lodge separate from Hornbeck’s main home. The grand and gray ears are splayed out. The dark wrinkles in the leathered skin are visible, bringing the mount closer to life. The trunk is caught in a swooping motion, sloping down and up again, as though paused in the movement of plucking a leaf from a tree, or perhaps mid-trumpet in a plea for help.
In life, the elephant, whose eyesight would only have allowed him to see about ten meters ahead, likely never saw the hunters. In death, the animal stares with glass eyes about an inch and a half in diameter at the human scene below. When Hornbeck looks back, he sees a souvenir of a day, like a shell from a beach, a totem to tell his story.
Taxidermy tells a different human story with every mount and sculpture, but sometimes those stories are ones of reverence, education, and beauty.
For Divya Anantharaman, the taxidermist of Gotham Taxidermy in Brooklyn, New York, the desire to learn from and share animal beauty drives her art, and she discovered this desire in a natural history museum.
The taxidermy diorama is an invention of the 19th century. Depicting vast scenes from nature and animals crafted to appear as though they’ve just stumbled upon a savannah or swamp, the human hand behind the sculptures is hidden, and an intimacy that could never exist for most people is fostered. In this, Anantharaman experienced what she described as ‘moments of stillness’ with the animal kingdom.
Anantharaman believes the stillness, the encounter, is unique to taxidermy. She asks me to consider the starling, a common black bird with small cream spots—overlooked on an everyday basis and difficult to spend more than a moment of time within nature. In a photograph, Anantharaman says, you can have a moment of stillness, but the moment is two-dimensional. Through taxidermy, this small black bird can stand upright or with the wings splayed, and though the glass eyes don’t blink and its wings cannot flutter, the iridescence of the black feathers, shining like oil on pavement, can catch the light. “You can see more of the spirit of the animal,” she says.
The draw of animal beauty is a familiar one. Taxidermy was born in the post-Columbus era, when European explorers, sailing to the far reaches of the known world, were enchanted by unimaginable animal life with their odd shapes and colors and ways of being. Through this exploration, and the modes of imperialism it entailed, cabinets of curiosities, rooms filled with notable objects and the relics of animal life, were born. But in this birth, and the reverence and desire for wildlife and beauty, came the death of countless animals for the sake of their bodies.
Anantharaman’s animals are ethically sourced. Most have died a natural death, procured from farms, zoos, aviaries, and more. In her studio, she takes these bodies apart and sets to work on reigniting their beauty, on creating a second life—an afterlife—to inspire renewed hope and mindful conservation in the living. But taxidermy has a past, and, like many histories, it is an uneasy one, a ghost alongside the dead animal in the room.
In the past few decades, another form of taxidermy has emerged, one that’s less beholden to reconstruction and more conscious of imaginative potential. This is the use of animal bodies in contemporary art.
Rogue, speculative, and hybrid taxidermy are all names for a form of the art that alters, manipulates, or places animals which have had taxidermy performed on them into unrealistic or impossible states of being: a goat with the wings of an eagle, or Damien Hirst’s famous tiger shark, suspended in formaldehyde, mouth open for the killing, or, in the case of the Brooklyn-based artist, Kate Clark, the sculpting of human faces onto animal bodies.
These bodies are taxidermy. The faces themselves are sculpted from clay and overlaid by the animals’ hide, only this portion of the skin has been shaved down to expose the pores and oils, the qualities that make a wild animal’s biology strangely familiar to our own. Clark, petite with calm and observant eyes, has worked with animal hides for most of her career. The sculptures, serene and otherworldly, pull the viewer’s eyes to attention, to either magnetic or disturbing effect.
“It’s about how incredibly complex our relationship can be with animals where we love and revere them and yet we dominate them and destroy their land,” Clark says, regarding her art. “We have very conflicting ways of dealing with the animal kingdom.”
Inside Clark’s studio, white-walled, airy and pristine, ethically sourced hides render the bodies of wolves and kudu, coyote, antelope, zebra, and more. The smallest piece in the studio is called “Relentless.” Made from bear hide, this sculpture differs from the others by only showing the head rather than the animal’s entire body. Hundreds of silver pins stitch the soft and porous face together in jagged asymmetrical lines that separate each facial feature from the next, as though a colony of ants was unsure which direction led home.
The face itself is beautiful with high cheekbones, a broad nose, and large amber eyes, but if traditional taxidermy is uncanny in its strange familiarity, Clark’s work only heightens this tension. But whether a viewer finds the work alluring or unnerving, by showing so clearly the human hand in altering this animal form, Clark can far more overtly ask people to consider the animal and to consider their own relationship to the animal kingdom.
Staring into these large amber eyes, I realize that I cannot make eye contact. No matter where I move, the gaze always seemed to look just beyond me and into his own world. I’m unsettled by this discovery, as though eye contact is something I’m entitled to. I step away and move from one sculpture to the next, and realize I cannot meet any of their eyes.
I ask Clark why this is the case, and she tells me their gaze is purposeful, that she sets their eyes to always look beyond the viewer. She wants to remove that particular possibility of confrontation, and the human dominion that comes along with it. Her work is a suggestion: she repeats this several times. The animals are gesturing toward a relationship, rather than capturing.
“When an animal looks at you, the connection is very moving and very emotional,” she says. “How often do you get to have a wild animal actually look at you? They don’t really want to connect with humans, but we desperately want to connect with them. That’s a gift.” By which she means, it’s a gift for the animals to give, not her.
A few weeks later, I’m reminded of these eyes and their lively-but-distant look while staring into the dried-up eyes of a recently dead bird. I’m sitting at a kitchen table of a small white-walled, low ceilinged, rickety apartment in Burlington, Vermont. Two magenta candles are burning low in their stands, and three friends sit at the table around me. Dinner has passed. The lull of a late weeknight is setting in. In my hands is the dead body of a Chestnut-sided Warbler.
I found the bird on the side of the road and placed her in the freezer. Roadkill is often a source of taxidermy, and I thought perhaps I’d learn something in bringing one home with me.
We pass the bird around the table, gently examining her chestnut feathers, the yellow crown at her head, and the size of her in the palm of our hands. I imagine her flitting through the open air and think about how her body might have begun to decompose by now, providing sustenance for the bugs beneath her or the animals around her, had I not taken her. I look into her eyes, which are dried over and encrusted in dirt, and try to imagine her with glass eyes.
There is another bird in my world, a mourning dove who visits my fire escape every morning. She flies to the same railing, at the same time, with the same inquisitive look and, with the eye on the side of her head, she makes eye contact with me through the window. Most days, I inch toward her and try to capture her in a photo, while she nervously toggles her head and takes a step back, but the image always comes out over exposed or blurry. And even if I were to capture her photo perfectly, it would never quite capture the moment between us. But I always try anyway.
We admire the Chestnut-sided Warbler for a few minutes longer, feeling the softness of her feathers, the hardness of her beak, her weight and size in our hands, astounded by the closeness of her beauty. A black cat named Vesuvius purrs by our feet. In the end, we bring the bird back outside, placing her body on the stump of a dead tree, which has been grown over by the green and yellow leaves of a bush. We return to the table, and I decide I’m done trying to capture the mourning dove.