THE 2011 CONTEST IS NOW CLOSED.  READ ALL ENTRIES BELOW. 

First annual writing contest!  My Adventures with Taxidermy asks you, dear readers, to submit a short essay about your personal experience with a particular piece of taxidermy.  Perhaps your granny had a stuffed jackrabbit that gave you nightmares as a child.  Perhaps you tried your hand at taxidermy, and failed. Perhaps you have a favourite squirrel or moose head that you love more than your cat, your mother, or your husband.  Perhaps you still regret not buying that stuffed stoat in a kilt. Tell us about it! 

Entries will be posted online and open for comments. Two winners will receive a copy of Melisa Milgrom's Still Life: Adventures with TaxidermyIf you haven't read it yet, you should.  As A. J. Jacobs (author of The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World) writes, "Who knew a book about dead animals could be so lively? This is a wonderful look at a quirky, passionate, sometimes fanatical subculture." You know you want to read it. So enter the contest!

Send your essay (no more than 500 words) to ravishingbeasts@gmail.com with "my adventures with taxidermy" in the subject line.  Who knows, you might win yourself a book.  At the very least, you'll see your adventures with taxidermy posted right here on ravishingbeasts. 

Friday
Jun242011

Adventures with Taxidermy Contest Winners! 

I am very pleased to announce the winners of Ravishing Beasts' first ever writing contest.  A huge thank you to all writers.  From maggoty squirrels to jellied pig eyeballs to a fox mask LED mount - entries covered just about every aspect of the lurid world of taxidermy.  It was a close race.  But after much deliberation, here are the winners. 

First place: Andy Tompkins

Second place:  Marisa Rand

Third place: Merle Patchett

 

Congratulations to all!  Read all the entries here +  Winning entries will receive a copy of Melissa Milgrom's Still Life: Adventure in Taxidermy.  

If you are kicking yourself for not entering, not to worry!  Save up your story for next year's contest, when the prizes will include a copy of my own cultural history of taxidermy -- The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing.  

Friday
Jun242011

FIRST PLACE: Andy Tompkins

I've no idea how long I was stuck in the roof of that cottage. The only evidence of time was the slow desiccation of my body, maggots finally dying out as my flesh dried to a crisp.  After such a long time so static, suddenly everything seemed to change so quickly.

Deafening noise all around. Pulled from the roof by a human hand. A man's face, covered in dirt. Shocked, but elated to find me. 'Bex will love this' was all I heard before being placed  in a plastic bag. I began to imagine who this Bex was, why it was my destiny to be with her.

Then the day came, she took me to her home and I felt such relief when she so carefully pulled the remaining mummified maggots from my body.

Her room was full of wonders, I learnt that she was an artist, with a fascination with the macabre. Skulls and taxidermy adorned her room and in the chaos I found my place upon a golden platter. Before long, I too had been spray painted gold. At first I wasn't sure, but I soon came to enjoy the reactions to my new 'bling' appearance, more joy than revulsion.

She took me to many art shows and I enjoyed being on display. It was after a larger exhibition that I started to understand that Bex had greater plans for me. Apparently my final resting position, trapped in that roof, splayed out on my back, maggot holes over my body, I looked like a great hero from the wild-west, gunned down in his prime at some high-noon showdown.

Then everything began to change with talk of a road trip out to Spain, to the Sierra Nevada, where they'd shot many of the great Western movies. She began to sell her collection and the room slowly emptied around me. I realised I was destined for Spain, that she planned to find my final place of rest somewhere in the mountains. At first I wasn't sure, a mummified squirrel pretending to be a cowboy in a strange land? But Bex's elation was contagious and I promised myself not to let her down.

After three months on the road, I had no reason to worry. Her love for me was so strong that no place was 'perfect' for my final rest and our travels into the sunset continue to this day.

By Andy Tompkins

Thursday
Jun232011

SECOND PLACE: Marisa Rand

I made the hour and a half long trip from my mother’s house in southern Maryland to my apartment in Baltimore quite often. One day, about 20 minutes out, I passed a dead fox on the side of the road. Usually I did not stop for things on busy roads… not because I was afraid of what people might think, but the logistics of stopping and picking up road kill made me nervous. I reminded myself of that, plus the fact that my freezer was full, and that I had lots of work to do when I got back to the apartment. I kept on driving feeling sorry for the fox, but knowing logically I could not stop.

But the image of the fox stayed burned in my mind, pulling at me to turn around. I thought it would go away the further I got, but it turned out to do the opposite. At the half way mark I gave up fighting it, turned around, and drove all the way home. I nervously asked my mom to drive me back to that spot, since I still felt uncomfortable about stopping on the busy bend of highway myself. The need to collect the fox outweighed the awkwardness of asking her to do this. She said yes, and we drove off armed with trash bags and rubber gloves.

She stopped the car on the side of the road about 10 feet in front of the fox. He was a handsome gray fox, with a full fluffy coat of fur, lying on his side halfway in a puddle of muddy water. My heart sank when I noticed his innards were outside of his battered body. I could not salvage his whole pelt as I had intended. I half thought of leaving without him, but his perfect face called to me and we managed to get him into a large black trash bag and placed it in the trunk.

When we got back to her house, I skinned his face and neck and put it into a tanning solution so I could mount it later. I buried his body in the small animal graveyard I had in the back woods. The idea of what to do with the fox cape came easily and intuitively. I mounted him on a very regal looking shoulder manikin, and even took him with me on a trip to Virginia a few days later so I could babysit him as he dried and preen his whiskers.

I had a plaque laser cut out of clear plexiglass to mount him on, and installed LEDs inside the back of the manikin so they would radiate light into and out of plaque, and rays of light shone outward surrounding him on the wall. He was the star piece of my college thesis show. When I sold him a year later, I cried.  He had gone from the broken body in the mud puddle to be a gorgeous regal creature to be admired.

By Marisa Rand

Wednesday
Jun222011

THIRD PLACE: Merle Patchett

I woke with hesitancy, momentarily unsure of my surroundings. The curtains were drawn but I could still make out the shadowy presence of several avian figures perched along the length of the bay-windowsill to the right of my bed. Although encased in glass, their petrified silhouettes were a disturbing sight to comprehend whilst waking up in a darkened room. Registering that I was not on the set of a Hitchcock thriller but at the home of one of the world’s foremost taxidermy collectors, I hurriedly got out of bed and set about getting dressed remembering that I was expected at breakfast. …

I was told I could take as long as I liked to work through the collectors A-Z archive of 19th and 20th century taxidermists housed in his study. Yet it was the study itself that stole my attention. It was akin to a 17th century cabinet of curiosity, as almost all available wall and shelf space was given over to the display of taxidermy mounts, zoological specimens and related miscellaneous artefacts. On one wall a huge case containing a riotous display of iridescent Humming birds fought for attention with a gigantic mantled moose-head complete with hat and tobacco-pipe. Below them, salvaged period museum display cases housed various bird specimens including, according to its label, an extinct “Great Auk’’. On top of the cases a lamp with an elephant-foot base sat amongst several ornamental taxidermy glass-domes, the choice of fashionable Victorian ladies. A tiger head mount took centre-stage on the opposite wall amongst several wall-mounted cases of birds of prey. Most bizarrely of all an example of a kitten born with two heads was encased in a glass-shade on the collector’s desk and next to the desk an arm-chair, covered in a leopard-skin rug, cushioned a plaster-cast bust of Darwin’s head. While I could have spent all day inspecting the weird and wonderful sights on offer, I reluctantly turned my attention to the forty box files I needed to read through. …

That night the collector introduced me to the most prized piece of taxidermy in his possession. Taking me back into the guest room where I was staying, he indicated to a large cabinet that was covered by a sheet. Although it was positioned facing the guest bed, I had not paid it much attention the previous night. Like a magician he removed the sheet with a flourish to reveal a scene depicting a funeral taking place. This was a particularly odd funeral as the coffin bearers and those making up the rest of funeral cortege were all small birds. The collector told me it was the much coveted “Who killed cock-robin” exhibit from the now extant Walter Potter’s museum of anthropomorphic taxidermy. Excitedly he went on to show me that at a press of a button the whole scene could be lit up by a series of fairy lights. A flickering light which lit up the grave where the coffin was about to be lowered added the finishing touch to the macabre scene.

Later when I was alone in bed, I had the horrible thought that the exhibit, which had been left uncovered, might suddenly illuminate of its own accord and the wizened birds might flutter into life and attempt to escape their unnatural setting, only to hit vainly and repeatedly against the glass… it was to be another wakeful night.

Merle Patchett

Wednesday
Jun152011

ENTRY: Lisa Pawley

“Eww!” This is the typical reaction I get from my fourteen year old daughter and her friends when they pass by my curio cabinet or happen to accidentally view my latest project.

For as long as I can remember I've been collecting skulls and animal parts. Some pieces are on display in my own collection and others are used in my artistic endeavours. It's not uncommon to find dried bird feet lined up on my desk alongside beetle wings, various teeth, claws and bits of bone. My adventures with taxidermy have been a lifelong journey, but my greatest undertaking happened two years ago when I received an unexpected text message from my daughter who was walking to the bus stop after school.

“Found a dead squirrel 4 u,” the message read and there was a file attached. When I opened it, I saw a blurry photograph of what appeared to be a clump of black fur with some white bone protruding from it. Upon her arrival home, the whole family got into the car and went on a squirrel collecting road trip. Up until that point, most of the bones in my collection had been bought rather than found, so this would be a new experience for me as well.

We located the partially mummified body a few blocks from the school. The fact that it was on private property next to a very busy city street made me hesitate for a moment, concerned about what people might think of the crazy woman picking up dead things, but I soon cast my worries aside and dashed in to claim my prize. I ran back to the car with the bag in my hand in my children in tow – all of us giggling madly as if we'd just managed to get away with the perfect crime.

Too impatient to macerate, I donned my latex gloves as soon as we were home and picked the squirrel bones free from the brittle flesh. These and the head went into an old pot and onto the kitchen stove to simmer. The smell of cooked squirrel is unforgettable, but in a few hours, I had a mostly clean skull, some vertebrae, hip bones, femurs and ribs. I left these out on my desk to dry.

Early the next morning as I was packing lunches for school, I found my daughter photographing the bones with her phone camera. When I asked why she was doing this, she told me that she wanted to show her friends what a squirrel looks like on the inside. Rather than the usual “eww” reaction, these young girls were fascinated by what had become of the squirrel corpse they passed every day on their way to school. They wanted to know where certain bones were found in the animal's body and they were interested in the cleaning process as well. Girls who were otherwise disgusted by my hobby were suddenly taking an interest in biology and anatomy!

Since then squirrel has become many things – hip bone earrings, vertebrae necklaces, ribs in a bottle and a skull in my curio cabinet, but the most valuable thing it became was an educational tool.

By Lisa Pawley

 

Wednesday
Jun152011

ENTRY: Rebecca Snotflower

 Why I stuffed my Pet

When Teddy, my eight month old dumbo rat, suddenly lost a lot of weight I assumed he was just under the weather. When the vet listened through his stethoscope he diagnosed more than bad weather for the little lad. Well, I say “little lad”, but Teddy was abnormally large for his breed and it seemed his heart was under a dangerous amount of pressure.

The vet assured me that the “humane” thing to do was to “put him down” and of course I agreed, wanting to end the suffering of the creature that had live in my coat pocket for eight months. I'd seen him through his transformation from a pink brussel sprout sized thing into a kind of mini-hound crossed hairy goblin.

The death was horrible. After a turn in a gas chamber and not one, two, but three poison injections, twenty minutes later he finally let go of life. Surely not the signs of a weak heart? And surely the “humane” thing to do would been to give him a swift, severe bash to the head, over in seconds.

I paid for each “treatment” and had no more money to pay for the cremation service offered by the vet and left with my dead rat.

I decided on that walk home to stuff Teddy and keep him with me, as a celebration of his life, as proof of his unique enormous-ness and in defiance (or maybe denial) of death. Not to mention a “fuck you” to the vets and their bills.

Besides, I had no garden I could bury him in and I have always insisted that whatever my own funeral arrangements, they do not include being being put in a box underground.

I made friends with a woman who worked in a zoo. As a novice taxidermist herself, she taught me how to remove skin, scrape the fat from it and dry it out and how to create the shape of an animal that the skin covers, creating the position of the taxidermy – forever.

Teddy, of course, still lives with me. Some visitors are less than happy with his presence, but that was the same when he was alive.

I still love having him near, and I always will.

By Rebecca Snotflower

 

Sunday
Apr172011

ENTRY: Tasha Marks

My adventure with taxidermy begun in a kitchen, which I realise, is a very odd place to find a budding taxidermist. Yet there I was, stainless steel surface, a pig’s head and a meat cleaver. My interest in food history and taxidermy had taken me straight to the offices of the infamous Bompas and Parr. These architectural jelly-mongers (for lack of better description) had set me to work on a commission for the YCN awards, which involved a banquet for 200 people and meat procession to top it all off.

I’d always had it in mind to try taxidermy for myself, but nothing makes me feel more uneasy than bad taxidermy, and here I don’t necessarily mean misshapen or funny looking, but badly done, it seems a waste, yet unavoidable for someone still practicing. Finally, I had the perfect opportunity, I’d been given a pig’s head with strict instructions to cut out the eyes, cook the head in the oven, replace the eyes with glass ones and to gold leaf the whole thing. Not taxidermy as such but an experience of editing a lifelike form all the same.

I’d searched all round the kitchen, normally suited to making jelly and dissolving things, and returned with the only vaguely suitable implements I could find, a meat cleaver and a teaspoon. I could see that this wasn't really going to work, the pig’s eyes were pretty sunken into its head and it has been left on its side for a while giving it the look of a child who presses their face against a pane of glass. Ah well, on with the plastic gloves and into the eye socket with the spoon... 

It didn't work. It probably would have been better with one of those melon baller spoons, the ones with the serrated edges, but either way, I wasn’t getting anywhere and I was mainly making a mess. I decided to try hold the eye open and maybe leaver the eye out with the tip of the meat cleaver, but it was at that moment I noticed the long ginger eyelashes. Who knew pigs had such beautiful eyes, long lashes and milky blue irises, the kind of eyes that Grandparents get as they get on a bit.

It was at that moment I realised I could never be a taxidermist, bad tools aside I just couldn’t do it, I’ll make my name as a famous jellymaker instead.

By Tasha Marks