ON DEALING WITH LIFE, DEATH, & DYING

So here you are, reading the blog of a taxidermist - but you're also reading the blog of someone who grew up on an urban farm, cared for animals as a child, and never had any less than three pets between her parents' houses. (Update: my parents collectively own seven dogs.) I'm a sensitive and compassionate person, especially when it comes to non-human life. When I was in second grade my girl scout troop was playing in the woods while our moms hung out on a picnic table on our school grounds. We found some flowers we thought were pretty and I picked one for my mom. Turns out, it was a protected species. I cried for literal HOURS that night because I thought I would solely be responsible for the eradication of those flowers from the planet. Almost twenty years later, and that flower species is doing just fine. I've checked, because it's been eighteen years and I'm still just a little concerned.

I've seen my fair share of death, both through the work that I do as a taxidermist as well as someone who cares for animals that are at high risk. Throughout my childhood, animals came and went due to accidental death (a cat that got run over by a tractor, for instance) as well as being sold at auction for food. I got used to seeing death happen, but it never started getting easier over time. I still get that pang in my heart, shortness of breath, and my eyes well up.

I believe that working as a taxidermist has given me an opportunity to honor lost lives and to give those animals a chance to shine. While working with already-deceased animals I have simultaneously become an ally to ones that are on the brink of passing on, but all of which I believe are still worth trying to save. While I lived in Ohio I was a sub-licensee to a licensed wildlife rehabber, which means that I was licensed to care for nursing babies in my apartment and then returned them to a fully-licensed wildlife rehabber with a backyard and release cages so she could finish the job. I received training on everything from field mice to groundhogs and learned how to administer medication, mix formula and nurse the tiniest of animals back to full health, and even make them go poop. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, some animals would just die without warning - even ones that were thriving just hours before. I am certain that anyone who works in foster care for wildlife, domesticated animals, and likely everyone in the veterinary industry can relate - things just happen and there's nothing you can do.

Now that I live in Chicago, there are new rules for me to learn and I am currently only fostering domesticated animals. If you've been following along on my Instagram over the last week, you're aware that last Sunday I received a temporary addition to my home. Someone had dropped a very pregnant cat off at a shelter and she was scheduled to be euthanized. If she had had her babies in the shelter, she wouldn't be put down but it would be likely that all of the kittens would get sick due to the germs in the kennels. I was asked to foster her and I said yes. On Monday we set up the spare bedroom for her and made her comfortable, went out to dinner, and came back to one tiny kitten. Three hours later, there were seven.

It was a bit rough at first, because some of the smaller kittens weren't nursing. Eventually they all caught on and we left them to do their thing. It has now been eight days since the kittens were born, and when I went to bed last night they were all thriving. When I got up this morning, the smallest of the bunch was cold and limp. I haven't lost a newborn in over a year, but that feeling is exactly the same as I remember it. Nobody did anything wrong, sometimes these things just happen without warning and without reason. The kitten that passed last night had a full tummy, so she wasn't being neglected. She been crawling around in my lap a mere eight hours before, but something happened and now she's gone. Veterinarians call this "failure to thrive" or Fading Kitten Syndrome. It's approximately the equivalent of SIDS in humans, both unexplainable and heartbreaking every single time.

I checked on the other kittens, and the second-smallest one was also fading fast. I removed him from the box of his five much larger, much stronger siblings and put him on a heating pad in lieu of his mother. He's being bottle-fed and broad-spectrum antibiotics are being administered. I'm hoping beyond hope that he makes it, but I accept that there's about a 95% chance that he won't. I know what's probably coming, but the knowing doesn't make it easier. I cancelled all of my appointments for today and I'm spending what I hope are not this kitten's final hours tending to him under the guidance of my veterinarian. He's still breathing, still meowing, and he still has a little bit of attitude so maybe he will pull through against all odds. Osiris is sitting on my other side, head resting on my lap. He's like a guardian angel.

I know that there are so many ways this can be interpreted, but read this with an open mind. People always ask me, usually joking, if I plan on having my pets mounted when they die. The answer is no. Similar questions always arise, usually in whispers elsewhere on the internet, when the newborn animals I foster fail to thrive. There are accusations that I kill the animals on purpose to make art out of them. Speculations like that are disgusting, and the idea that I would harm an animal just to make it into taxidermy absolutely appalls me. The truth is that I can't stomach the idea of eviscerating something I fought so hard to keep alive. I prefer burial because it just feels right to me, but there are tons of scavengers (raccoons, skunks, opossums, rats, and even other cats) in our new neighborhood so burying them isn't an option. Cremation doesn't do the animal any justice. When things die in my care, despite my veterinarian's (and my) best efforts, all I can think to do is put them in the freezer and come back to them at a later date when the shock has worn off and the pain has dulled, even if it is just to bury them at my mother's home among all of the pets we've lost over the years. I hope that, if I do ever choose to work with the kitten I lost this morning as a specimen, I can utilize whatever I create to help spread awareness about why spaying and neutering is a must and how it prevents tiny tragedies like this. As a taxidermist my goal is to replicate life, not glorify death, and I hope that shines through. I'd give anything to have all of the animals in my freezer spring back to life, Night at the Museum-style, but the next best thing I can do using the skills I've been taught is to give them a second, more still life.

It's taken me forever to write this today because I keep checking on the kitten still fighting for his life. He's been sitting next to me this whole time. He's doing okay, not great, but I've gotten him to eat and I've gotten him to urinate so maybe things will be alright. Wish us luck. 

Mickey Alice Kwapis is a Chicago-based taxidermist and craftswoman.
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