My life as an amateur taxidermist, Or, How I ended up in my pyjamas at 3pm awaiting the delivery of two frozen squirrels
Don't try this at home kids. Seriously.
“I don’t want to cause a weird fight or anything,” I said, “But someone’s shoved a frozen pizza on top of my rook. Obviously I can’t bring this up without alerting the house to the presence of dead rook in the freezer.”
“Sweetums. Treacle,” came the reply. “You cannot put a dead rook in the freezer and then not tell people it’s there.”
Prior to this conversation, I had rearranged the frozen pizzas, the ancient half-price steaks and the ice cubes with the breadcrumb dusting, and I had placed in the freezer the following items: two pigeons and one rook (dead). They nestled there wrapped in foil and orange Sainsbury’s bags next to the peas, and would stay there until the day when I would have time to stuff them with woodwool and cotton balls and replace their dead eyes with beads, because shitty amateur taxidermists like me do not actually purchase proper glass eyes. We cut corners. We get tired and rush the bit at the end. We make tiny monsters that we keep in our bedrooms that ensure we will never get laid again.
You will be forgiven for asking me a question I have been asked many times over my life: how did you get this way? What went wrong? I was a kid obsessed with skeletons. The progression to taxidermy was natural. I’ve liked it ever since I veered off the dinosaur path at the museum into the wing of glass-cased birds. All I wanted to know what what was inside them and where did the guts go. And who did this stuff? Or, more crucially: could I do this stuff too?
I grew up and I took a course in bird taxidermy. I stuffed a duck: a proper handsome dude with a green head and white eyeliner and a long elegant neck that I accidentally tore in half at some point in the class. It currently hangs from a bent coat-hanger protruding from a high cupboard, forever about to land but unsure what to do with its wings. It looks like it’s screaming. Technically it turned out okay, in that I mean yes, okay, the wings wrenched high above his head don’t actually mirror the way duck wings move in real life, but despite it being my first go, it looked exactly like a duck. It was identifiable as a thing that used to say “quack”. Like an animal whose unfeasibly long penis you have Google image-searched long after your bedtime. You could tell this just by looking at him. You didn’t even have to get very close (which you wouldn’t want to do anyway on account of him smelling funky) (initially) (this goes away). There was no need to ask what it was, or what it used to be, or what happened to its face. My second attempt was different.
Carl Akeley, a taxidermist who was better than me, once wrestled a leopard to death
Buoyed by the success of my very first venture I went – in hindsight prematurely – solo. With a box full of stuff I bought off eBay (dental implements, tanning liquid, woodwool etc), I laid out a former pigeon on the table in my houseshare’s front room, having patiently waited for everyone to go out. In order to fully explain what went wrong, in stages, would take too long. Let’s just say: I did some crimes. Big, inexpert, terrible things happened to that bird while the taxidermy L-plates hung askew on my buttocks. Before I had even started I did a crime. Instead of persevering with the scalpel blade I was unable to slide onto a freshly purchased Swann-Morton handle, I panicked. I left the house and returned with a fantastically blunt “craft knife” which was just looking out from that plastic window waiting to ruin my day.
Armed thus defectively, I made the first incision (frantic tear with an inappropriate non-medical tool) down the bird’s ribcage. I separated the skin from the meat as taught, and stubbornly carried on with the useless metal thing (I’m pretty sure I saw Neil Buchanan with one on Art Attack at some point) until a moment of wild frustration/stabbing resulted in the contents of the bird’s stomach showering all over me/my housemate’s DVDs. I won’t go into any specific dietary details, but I will say that I have not eaten sweetcorn since that day. I will say that.
(A digressional note on the subject of giblets: A friend of mine once worked in a chicken factory in Wales where they produced the kind of clingfilmed chickens you find heaped in a chest freezer in Sainsbury’s. His job on the factory line was to take a bag of giblets — the heart and other viscera, separated from the animal during butchering — and insert it into the headless, plucked bird, before it went off along the conveyor belt to be wrapped. New chicken, new bag, repeat. Once the chicken has been bought at the shop and brought home you can do what you like with the bag of edibile offal, but did you ever stop and consider that statistically and practically, no store-bought chicken will house its own giblets? I think about this at least three times a week. Probably more.)
A brief explanation of how it’s all done (and considering there are whole books written on the subject, only an idiot would attempt it in two paragraphs) (hi). With the body and meat removed, what you’re left with is the skin, some leg bones picked clean and a skull. You force the surprisingly yoghurty brain out of its cavity by tweezing cotton wool into the base of the skull so that the pressure becomes too great and the brain has nowhere to go except to out through the eye sockets. This step is by far the goriest and stomach-testing of the whole operation on account of brains smell terrible (who knew?) — it’s also the most satisfying and perhaps my favourite of all, matched only by the bit where you pry the whole tongue out of the mouth backwards and lay it out on the newspaper beside you, strategically placed on the face of Alan Davies.
After hours of picking and cleaning and regretting you end up with what is essentially a cardigan, and you have to make a body out of woodwool and twine with which to fill it. You model it on the body you’ve not yet thrown out or fed to your culinarily adventurous housemate from Devon, and theoretically the whole thing should fit together properly and look vaguely like what it was before it died on that farm up in Dronfield. And then you wire the limbs, prop the thing up to set, and spend the next two days fretting about the positioning. You have roughly two days to make changes. After that, things start to crack.
From that it the process spiraled into further depths of horrendous stench and despair. The end result was a clump of damp feathers, split skin, and a face not even a truly demented mother would grow accustomed to. I even accidentally cooked him with a hairdryer. Had I persevered enough to put some eyes in I wouldn’t know where they were supposed to go. I busted both my thumbs doing it and bled all over the carpet.
Here is a picture of the monster I made that day:
“Strive to put your mounted animals in easy natural poses
unless you are making a grotesque,
in which case go the length.”
- Albert B. Farnham, Home Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit (1916).
Anyone who has not made these clumsy forays into DIY taxidermy has probably never wondered where the dead things come from. As self-appointed (in)expert, I will lift the veil. You’re welcome.
This is how a person who lives in the city and has no plans to kill any one-legged manky London pigeons end up with a more or less permanent avian coffin and a set of perturbed housemates who probably won't use those ice cubes after all:
The Internet. You discover that can buy a mole for a tenner on eBay. Three crows might cost you twenty. A badly photographed job lot of grim spoils from a game hunt spilled out onto a wet bathroom floor go for thirty. Merely searching for these things changes eBay’s profile on you and they start suggesting sheep thigh bones, dental picks and disembodied hawk feet. You stare at birds in the park like an unknown bearded man watches children through a primary school fence. You watch how their legs fit together, how their wings don’t go like how you made them go like when you got all excited while stuffing that duck. One day you might notice one of them dead on the grass. In real life. And the fact that you don’t have to put a bid on this thing or pay for postage makes your brain start thinking strange new thoughts. These are some of them that you have while standing completely still on Clapham High Street next to a dead crow while everybody else is not standing next to dead crows:
(We could pretend this is hypothetical but obviously that would be lying.)
I could go to Iceland over the road and buy some stuff and they would give me some plastic bags! I could take him home in said bags! All I’d have to do is ditch the choc ices! But what if somebody steals him...
And then your old sane self will pipe up on the other shoulder:
What about those people at the bus stop watching me interfering with a dead bird in the dark? What if it’s crowded on the Tube and what if the bus is crowded too, with me standing there with what was clearly a dead crow encased in one single sheath of low-grade plastic bag? And then what if I get home and my housemates are in the kitchen, and they ask me as I open the freezer drawer and shift their bags of bread and peas out of the way: “What’s in the bag?”
I left it in the park. Which is good, because I had just had some major dental work and my slackened face was drooling out one side and I was on the verge becoming some Val Lewton horror sidekick even without the dead crow under my arm.
I took another taxidermy course: a rabbit. Over the course of the next three months as that rabbit sat atop my bookshelf it rotted away to nothing (I live in a mothy house and those moths are seemingly immune to the preservatives with which we drenched this thing plus also and obviously my skills are totally lacking). I didn’t notice it happening and looked up one day to find that its little furry face had disappeared, its ears had shrunk and puckered, and all that remained above the threadbare torso was a dusty skull with some beads shoved in it, a jaw full of cotton balls and a bleak aura of (what would prove to be largely permanent) hairy death shadow creeping outwards from the rabbit and up my walls (hi, My Estate Agent, keeper of the deposit). It ended up in the bin. Here is where it once stood:
But in those initial heady days of rabbit success, before I undoubtedly inhaled unthinkable microscopic rabbit things, I was, again, pretty confident of my own genius. I thought that I would like to try a squirrel next. Another small furry mammal. “I can do small furry mammals,” I said to myself, similarly chuffed as I was, post-duck. I ordered some off an old man in the North who I also found on the Internet. Pete Staines. P Staines, he writes on the back of the parcel. A pest control man with a big freezer whose wife has just left him after 38 years. He had, at the time I phoned him, 300 crows, 50 rooks, a dozen jackdaws, three squirrels in his neighbour’s freezer and one big broken heart. He asked me if I wanted any of the above.
And this is why I found myself locked in a house, in parcel purgatory. I was unable to shower, to go out and buy food, unable to do any of the things I planned to do until a man in a uniform rang my doorbell and handed me two frozen squirrels. I sat in my candy-striped pajamas (size XXL and a gift from my mum, the size alone caused all manner of trauma and self-doubt) staring at a door that was never knocked, losing tiny pieces of my mind the longer he remained AWOL.
Walter Potter, another taxidermist who was better than me whilst simultaneously not being all that great either. Disappointingly, his biography is not subtitled A Life Spent Waiting For The UPS Truck
The Royal Mail tracking system said WE HAVE YOUR ITEM and nothing more. I phoned them. The robot lady was no help. “If your item is listed as PROGRESSING THROUGH OUR NETWORK FOR DELIVERY we do not know exactly where it is,” she said, the pre-programmed polite version of ‘FUCK KNOWS.’ A non-robot lady said that if my question that I was about to ask was about STAMPS then she would not be able to answer, plus also not to bother her until my parcel had been missing for a full 15 days.
I wanted to explain but I was too embarrassed. I used words like “time sensitive delivery” and “awkward” and “no really”. I envisioned a pair of mouldering squirrels in a bloated parcel in the Post Office depot with my name on them. Literally with my name on them. I further envisioned myself marching back to the Post Office with the unopened package and returning to sender. “DEAR P STAINES,” began the letter in my head. “UMM.”
They turned up the next day and they were still chilly and I put them in the freezer and everything was totally fine and thus concludes this anti-climactic story. But taxidermy is anti-climactic, because all you get – even if you’re very good – is a slightly worse version of the thing that existed before you fucked with it.