PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS BLOG POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC PHOTOGRAPHS OF TAXIDERMY (THE PROCESS OF PREPARING AND STUFFING AN ANIMAL FOR PRESERVATION). IF YOU DO NOT WISH TO VIEW THE PHOTOGRAPHS THEN YOU SHOULD NAVIGATE AWAY FROM THIS PAGE IMMEDIATELY.
The Other Art Fair is on again this weekend, and as something a bit different they’ve been offering some classes in taxidermy, run by The London Taxidermy Academy. I’ve fancied trying my hand at taxidermy for a while, so this was the perfect opportunity to have a go.
The class was for 15 people, but only half a dozen turned up (who on earth pays £70 for a course and then doesn’t show up?!) – which was no bad thing, as it meant we got a bit more individual attention from the teacher. Bonus! This was still quite a large class though, at the London Taxidermy Academy (LTA) each class consists of no more than five students.
The first thing we learned is that the LTA don’t kill animals for the purpose of taxidermy. Animals are obtained from ethical sources (such as gamekeepers who are carrying out a necessary cull, or rodents which are bred and killed for food), and they do not use exotic animals (only native species including, but not limited to, rodents, foxes, deer, and pigeons). Our teacher also believes that animals should be preserved in as close to their natural state as possible (rather than dressed up, as with anthropomorphic taxidermy), so no costumes or props were provided for this class.
Our specimens for the day were white mice (bred and sold as snake fodder). They were frozen for two months (which is the minimum recommended time to ensure that all bacteria are killed), and then taken out of the freezer just a couple of hours before the class began. We learned that this helps to make things easier: you have a firmer base to work with, and it’s just a bit less messy!
I won’t go into great detail for every stage of the process (if you’re really keen to learn then you should go on a course!), but I’ll give a brief outline. First I made an incision from between the arms to just above the genital area, taking care to only cut through the skin whilst leaving the flesh underneath intact. This is the key to keeping your specimen as clean as possible, because if you puncture the main body of the mouse you risk piercing the internal organs, or allowing them to slip out of the body cavity.
I had a bit of difficulty prising the front legs apart, so had to wait until he’d thawed a bit more before I could extend the incision upwards a little.
Now, here’s where it all starts to look a bit gruesome! Removing the skin is quite a slow process, and we started from the middle of the mouse and then worked our way back. The photo above shows me at the stage where I’ve almost got the hind legs cleared (look, you can even see the scrotum and penis – how amazing is that?!), at which point the tail has to be severed, and the leg bones too (although you leave the feet and part of the ankle intact).
You then work your way up the mouse towards the head, taking due care around the ears and eyelids, and the photo above shows the skin almost fully removed bar the nose.
Ta da! One fully flayed mouse. It’s quite amazing to see the carcass close up, because even the eyeballs are still intact, and you can see the organs and spine very clearly.
We then turned the skin back the correct way and washed it, rinsed it then blow dried it. It was a bit like having a particularly grim finger puppet…
Look, lovely and fluffy after being blow dried! We then flipped the skin inside out again so that we could apply a preservative to the inside of it. Then we were ready to start the stuffing process. Firstly we made a body out of wire, wood wool, and wool twine. This was inserted into the mouse (adding a bit of cotton wool as fine padding around the face), then the leg wires were inserted. Oh, yes, and of course the mouth was sewn up before the face was padded!
I had a quick look to check the general shape before I started sewing him up. Behold Gerald, the amazing flying mouse.
Gerald was sewn up a bit at a time, adding additional cotton wool as needed.
Then pins were inserted to prop the ears up while they dry (it’ll take a couple of weeks for the specimen to dry out completely, although it’ll be fairly rigid after just a few days). The leg wires stay as they are until the mouse is posed and has dried, after which point they can be cut.
Since getting Gerald home, I have adjusted his pose a bit and pinned his tail into position. I decided on an upright pose so that I could show him off to best advantage as I’m really proud of my first attempt at taxidermy!
He’ll stay like that until he’s dried out completely and then I’ll trim the foreleg wires completely, and trim the hind leg wires by about two thirds (I’ve decided to leave a little bit to help with balance, and also to tuck underneath the item he’ll eventually be posed against). The pins that are positioning his ears and tail will also be removed at that time (about two weeks from now I think). I’ll take another photo once that’s been done.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first foray into taxidermy, and definitely want to do some more! I found the whole process oddly soothing, and although nervous about making mistakes I did like the challenge of learning something new. I intend to get some supplies (mainly the preservative, as I seem to have everything else already) and then practice on more mice to help build up my confidence and improve my technique a bit before I try my hand at a bird. The classes at The LTA assume no prior knowledge, but given how expensive they are I would prefer not to make a hash of it! For further information please visit The LTA website.
I hope you’ve found this post interesting, and would love to hear your comments.