PREVENTION OF COMMODIFYING PROTECTED ANIMALS

When people meet me and find out what I do for a living, they very quickly try to find a relatable anecdote or tell me about their collections of taxidermy. I think that's how everyone is, but rather than connecting based on music or art or television, the easiest thing for new acquaintances to grasp onto is my taxidermy work and knowledge. Sometimes I hear about an uncle who hunts, or an interior designer looking for a European mount on velvet, but occasionally I hear about someone’s own taxidermy collection. Today in particular, I got to see photos of a man’s collection of owl, eagle, and hawk wings, feathers, skulls, and skeletons that he found. I’m disgusted.

I’m all for certain things that are illegal. Going ten miles over the speed limit, smoking a joint at a party, poking around in a long-abandoned building where no homeless people have taken shelter - all pretty much fine in my book. Collecting migratory bird parts, especially raptors, is not only illegal but it’s morally unsound. Legally speaking, collection and possession of those parts is poaching and amounts to years or decades in federal prison along with big fines. I uphold all wildlife laws because they’re in place for a reason, and also encourage others to do so. Morally speaking, though, there’s another layer here.

The collecting, display, coveting, etc. of illegal animal parts commodifies them. If you don’t know what that means, essentially once a handful of people start to think something has value, others hop on the bandwagon. It’s like shark fin soup (which is bland and renders the shark dead for a small part) or rhinoceros horn (not an actual aphrodisiac) - commodifying animal parts means people begin to seek out that species and kill it for vanity purposes. While you may think it’s fine to keep a bird skull you found, it becomes coveted and when that “cool” factor affects the wrong person, they begin to hunt and kill protected animals.

After pointing out not only the legal but also the moral implications of the issues at hand (which he was already aware of) and why this man should cease to collect illegal parts of animals, it was like a switch had flipped. I was no longer “adorable” or “amazing” - I was just a bitch with an opinion that didn’t coincide with his fantasy world where it was fine to traipse around and pick up dead and dying birds to display them in his home. I don’t accept that. My education in the natural world has been influenced by work with many museums, zoos, universities, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service as well as friends who do wildlife rehabilitation. I’m not out to get anyone - I stand to educate and if me being “bossy” prevents even one protected raptor from becoming a commodity and a hipster decoration, I’m fine with being a “bitch.”

There are probably a few readers wondering what the difference between what I do and what this man is doing actually IS. I work with specimens that are 100% legal - this means that if they were hunted or trapped, they were harvested in season. Feeder animals are raised in abundance by small-time breeders here in Illinois, or Indiana, and are given quality living conditions for the duration of their lives. Domesticated animals like cats and dogs are euthanized after illnesses or accidents, or die of natural causes on their own. When working on birds, it is done so with the blessing of the USFWS and all specimens further scientific research and exploration on everything from evolution to the effects of pesticides on species. I do not work on mounts of protected (illegal) specimens for personal or client use because I respect wildlife laws and I do not believe in commodifying anything that’s protected. Furthermore, even when things are legalized (like the wolf hunts that have been happening the past few years) I still look at population numbers and if presented with work on a specimen with detrimental population statistics, I’d probably turn away the work unless it was a natural death for an educational institution.

To break it down even further and put it into terms that are easier to understand, I’ll talk about human specimens. We tend to understand comparisons to humans better than animals because let’s face it, most people don’t care that much about wildlife. In terms of human beings, I’ll use an example of my friend who works in a mortuary. There are often unclaimed bodies which, after being held for a certain amount of time and then used for scientific research, get cremated and then discarded. Just because these people are being essentially thrown away does not give me a license (figuratively or literally) to harvest bits and pieces of them to decorate my home. Commodifying illegally harvested human body parts is a terrible idea - both legally and morally, it’s not a good choice. Taking parts of protected birds and other animals, even if found dead of natural causes, is no different. The only difference is the type of organism in question.

The TL;DR version: illegal collection of parts of protected organisms is bad, contributes to commodification and poaching, and should be prevented. Also, don't call women "bitches" just because they know more about the law than you, and/or have different morals. I'm quite sure I'm not a bitch for wanting to prevent low-population birds from getting shot to become decorations.

Bone up (heh!) on your wildlife parts laws here or here or here or here. There's no excuse to not follow the law, protect animals, and not be a complete tool - no matter what country you live in.

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TURNING A HOBBY INTO A CAREER

Unless you work in a museum, chances are that it’s a rare occasion when you meet a taxidermist. The first thing out of most people’s mouths when I tell them what I do is “How did you get started in taxidermy?” and when I explain to them that it started out as a hobby, they always want to know how I went from dabbling in the craft to working in universities and museums.

I know I’ve told this story a million times before, but it’s never really been in the context of how a person can turn something they're passionate about into a career. What I do is unconventional in the eyes of people with “normal” careers but I’m unconventional as a taxidermist as well. When someone asks me that question - about how I got started - I always begin my story the same way. “It all started with a dead squirrel and a bottle of wine…”

My career really did begin with a dead squirrel and a bottle of wine. A friend and coworker (at H&M, of all places) of mine knew I had a strong stomach for “gross” things - mostly because I was the only one who could handle disgusting things in the fitting room when our janitor was off-duty. One evening she invited me over to help her with a project for a mammalogy class, which turned out to be an assignment to create a study skin utilizing the skin of a roadkill squirrel collected by her professor. (A study skin is the preserved skin of an animal, usually filled with cotton, which is pinned and dried flat as part of museum or other archival collections for future generations of scientists to learn from.) When I got to her house, we split a bottle of red wine and literally dug in. I found the process to be absolutely fascinating. Haley… well, not so much. She has always been supportive of my pursuing of taxidermy, though.

It was one of those things I just couldn’t stop thinking about. If you’ve never tried your hand at taxidermy I know this is going to sound very strange, but it’s just a satisfying process. I liken it to peeling a sunburn or peeling a tattoo (which are huge no-nos), except that you’re actually supposed to peel everything off the skin of a squirrel before you sew it up. If you’re one of those people who really enjoys that sort of tactile sensation, taxidermy may be the hobby for you! For all of those readers who are grossed out, well… you’re reading the blog of a taxidermist so I don’t know what you expected. Aside from the process of cleaning skins, I started thinking a lot about how I could turn a skin into something other than a study skin - by adding an armature, higher quality filling, and glass eyes to make the animal look alive again. One squirrel and I was hooked.

For my birthday I went to a reptile expo and quickly tracked down someone who sold frozen feeders, and purchased the largest rat that they had available. When I tell the story of the beginnings of my career, I often say that I started everything with a $5 investment. That gigantic rat was the $5 investment - everything else I had on hand at home… except the glass eyes, which I forgot I needed, due to the fact that the initial study skin didn’t have or need glass eyes. I made do with what I had and posed the eyeless rat with his lids closed, curled in a ball and sleeping. He has certainly held up over the years, smells faintly of cornmeal, and is on display in my living room at this exact moment.

My first rat, which strangely, still has no name

My first rat, which strangely, still has no name

I documented the process and shared it on my Instagram - that’s where my career shortly started to take off. With a combination of taxidermy as well as jewelry that I had made using animal bones, I vended my wares at a few street fairs with friends. People took interest both in person and via social media, and after a few months a young girl approached me to ask if I would teach her how to do taxidermy. I said yes, and she became my first student. Around Christmas, I had a pop-up shop at a friend’s print shop and a woman showed up from the Detroit News looking for me, citing that she had seen some of my taxidermy work on Instagram and was interested in doing a profile on me. I ended up on the front page of the Life & Style section - and from there, things just snowballed in the best way possible.

January brought invitations to Cleveland and Chicago. February took me to Cleveland again, and then in March I returned to Ohio as well as flying to Atlanta for private lessons with a shop owner. In April I finished my last semester of college and moved to Cleveland, and in May I took my gigs west to Minneapolis and then Seattle, where I had a write-up in the Stranger.

During all of this I took in so much information from other taxidermists - written works as well as videos. I hadn’t found anything that was very worthwhile, at least not as worthwhile as continual practice and eventual evolution towards refining my techniques - but no guide I found was as helpful as finding a mentor (or three) to take me under their wings.

In some senses the taxidermy industry is much like the tattoo industry. There are some self-taught tattooers who end up being alright and producing quality work, but the majority of top-notch workers are the ones who spent years refining their techniques and seeking out critiques from their peers and superiors in order to become the best they can be. The rest of the self-taught tattooers work out of their basements and are complete hack jobs. On the opposite side of the coin, it’s entirely possible that someone can spend a year or two as a tattoo apprentice and still produce bad quality work because their heart just isn’t in it, or they simply don’t have the right touch. The fact remains that someone is more likely to end up being successful if they seek out help and mentorship rather than trying to work on their own, because getting feedback is crucial to continual positive growth.

With the practice I’ve had and the guidance I’ve gotten from all three of the men I work closely with, I feel confident to continue experimenting and I feel that I’ve really found my groove. I’ve since taught at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland, Portland State University, and the University of Washington. I have a (sold out!) lecture coming up at Harvard, which I’m very excited about - I am absolutely achieving my dreams and I can’t wait to see what happens next. Aside from traveling to teach, I also run a shop in Chicago called The Niche Lab where I teach classes and sell my work - at twenty-five, I think this is a huge accomplishment. I’m not writing all of this to toot my own horn - I’m listing these things as examples of where hard work and dedication can take you if you play your cards right and the stars align and all that jazz. It IS possible.

Getting here wasn’t easy, and I definitely made a lot of mistakes along the way, both career-wise and in the way I related to other people, but I am proud of what the last four years have done for me. Turning a hobby into a career takes a lot of hard work, sleepless nights, and dedication. You learn a lot about yourself. Whether you’re looking to be a taxidermist or a goldsmith, if you think you’re passionate about, here are some pieces of advice that I think will work for everyone.

Teaching in Somerville, Massachusetts // taken by Madeline Barr Photo

Teaching in Somerville, Massachusetts // taken by Madeline Barr Photo

Have some social media presence. Instagram has been monumental for me, and consistency is key for building a brand. If you want to have a social media account for just your new hobby-turned-business, start early. My personal Instagram has a lot of followers so I use it to promote my business Instagram page every few weeks. Eventually I would like to separate the two completely, so I suggest having separate accounts from the beginning if possible. Try using a “real” camera rather than your phone camera and/or use an image editor like VSCO before you post - properly exposed and focused images will help you the most. Even though it’s called Instagram doesn’t mean you have to post everything in the exact moment that it happens.

Stay humble. Man - I wish I had done this for the duration of everything. Because my Instagram account was popular I treated my followers like fans and on occasion I was extremely rude. For lack of a better term, I was quite honestly a total see-you-next-Tuesday at times. I can’t say how much I wish I could change this. I also had friends I spent time with who behaved in a similar manner towards their followers and I think we rubbed off on each other - and not in a good way. After taking some time to myself and really analyzing not only how I could improve my business but also the way I was perceived by my followers (who are all potential customers) I totally took a step back and am making an active effort to always respond to people who ask questions, and try to be kind when possible even if people are being offensive. ALL of your followers are potential customers (and human beings deserving of kindness) - treat them as such.

Photo of Chuck Testa filming for Ojai Valley Taxidermy, taken by Stefanie Jorge Bockenstette

Photo of Chuck Testa filming for Ojai Valley Taxidermy, taken by Stefanie Jorge Bockenstette

Find people whose work you admire and ask them for advice, or simply befriend them. I’m friends with my favorite photographer, my favorite painter, my favorite taxidermist, and members of all three of my favorite bands. How? Because people who are passionate about their craft feed off other people who are passionate about their craft, even if their passions are not in the same field. All I did was approach them and basically say “Hey, I dig what you’re doing!” in a non fan-girl way. If you want to start doing metalsmithing, find the best mom-and-pop jeweler in your city and ask if you can apprentice with them. If you’re really into screenprinting, hit a craft show and befriend the people there selling their work. Eventually you’ll make a connection worth keeping, and these people will be both inspiring and uplifting during the time it takes you to grow from a hobbyist into a professional in your field.

Practice, practice, practice. No matter what your hobby, do it a lot and do it often. Watch and learn how other people do the same things as you, and decide whether you should borrow their techniques or if you already do it better. You’ll get tons of hours honing your skill set and you’ll be producing product that you can sell in order to buy more supplies so you can practice even more.

Believe in yourself. You’re doing something that you’re passionate about and that will shine through. Not everyone is going to be on your side, but as hard as that is you will eventually learn to ignore them and only pay attention to those who champion you and support you.

Take deep breaths. The road to turning your hobby into a career is a long one and there are going to be a lot of bumps. Entrepreneurship is difficult but it’s worthwhile - as long as you make sure you are properly caring for yourself. Being at the end of your rope on a constant basis is something people will notice, and it won’t affect your business in a good way. Your attitude and your work ethic will reflect how much sleep you’re getting and how much time you take for yourself. At the same time, though, don’t get lazy!

This isn’t the end-all, be-all of turning a passion into a career. Of course there is way more to it than I could ever fit in a single blog post, and I hope that this can turn into somewhat of a series. If you have more questions, feel free to send them my way. In the meantime, if you’ve been reading this and you don’t have a hobby you feel passionate enough about to turn into a career - well, maybe it’s time you start dabbling in something new. Either way - good luck!

Photo by Lenny Gilmore for RedEye

Photo by Lenny Gilmore for RedEye

WET SPECIMENS - A GENERAL GUIDE

A follow-up to this post has been published here. It includes a history of fluid preservation and the exact methods I use for my own specimens, which I recommend if you are able to buy the materials in your location. Please read through this post and that one for best results.


Just like cleaning bones and collecting taxidermy, collecting weird dead things in jars is a new favorite hobby of many people. The oddities business is booming, and the going rate for a thing in a jar is on the rise. There are lots of people selling jarred specimens as well as many others who want to collect things for themselves without trying to make a business out of it. Regardless of why you’re interested in learning to make a decent wet specimen, unless you follow instructions and properly preserve the specimen, it’ll end up rotting, floating, stinky, and ruined. Let’s learn about some museum-quality techniques, shall we? 

Disclosure: This post contains Amazon affiliate links, which means I may make a very very very small commission if you click on the links and purchase the items. I only link to items I actually use, and the commission allows me to keep writing informative posts like this one.

This guide may include some graphic descriptions that are not for everyone - if you are easily grossed out, preserving dead animals is likely not a great hobby for you to partake in. This guide is intended for people who already have a basic understanding of wet specimen practices. I will not be including step-by-step photos for this post but rather, general guidelines and photos of a few finished products so that every reader can take the basic guidelines and develop their own technique.

I published a guide to taxidermy with step-by-step photos and a materials list at this link for $20, or follow my Instagram page here. I also offer classes on specimen preservation around the United States, if you have a larger budget of $150-200.

Please make sure to read this entire guide thoroughly before embarking on any type of embalming project.

A geriatric hedgehog preserved in a very tight jar.

A geriatric hedgehog preserved in a very tight jar.

It’s difficult to find a concise guide to making a wet specimen because there are so many ways to do it. Read through this entire guide before you try the process so you can decide whether this is the guide you want to use. I will be providing links to others as well, which are great supplementary reading.

There are many different things that can be made into wet specimens. The most popular are fetal animals, organs, prosections and dissections (specimens that have been cut open or prepared to allow the viewer to see internal structures), and juvenile or adult animals that are fully formed. Regardless of what type of specimen you’re using, it needs to be injected or embalmed with fluid, fixed in a preservative, and transferred to new preservative before being sealed in a jar and stored or displayed safely.

One thing I can tell you is that every single tutorial on YouTube I have seen is incorrect. You CANNOT just dump rubbing alcohol onto a specimen and call it good. If you want high-quality specimens that last a long time, you have to follow a series of steps to ensure your specimens are preserved correctly.

First things first - where do you get an animal to work on? This is a tricky thing. Lots of people have varying opinions on what is or is not “kosher” in these situations. You can read this post I wrote about “ethically sourced” taxidermy and specimens. Spoiler alert: stop using the term "ethically sourced" to describe anything. It's ambiguous and annoying. Sustainability is what matters, and I wrote about it in the post I just linked.

The majority of specimens I work on for one-offs like individual taxidermy or specimen preservation projects come from two places, a wildlife rehabber and a reptile breeder. I appreciate both of these sources because I know those two people personally and they care deeply for their animals. I am 100% sure that the animals have not suffered any type of abuse. Where you get your animals is up to you, but the most important thing when it comes to a high-quality specimen is to make sure the animal was frozen as soon as possible after death to avoid any type of decay or contamination.

Sheep eyeballs, a byproduct of the meat industry.

Sheep eyeballs, a byproduct of the meat industry.

Got your frozen dead thing? Cool. Thaw it out for several hours - the amount of time depends on the size of the specimen. Ideally you want the specimen to be pliable and thawed, but not room-temperature (still cold is better and inhibits bacterial activity).

Find a well-ventilated area (outdoors is easiest) and ALWAYS wear a respirator. Using nonporous, hypoallergenic powder-free nitrile gloves and a puppy pee pad with a plastic backing, which absorbs extra fluid and doesn’t allow it to leak through, prepare your work station. You’ll need a hypodermic needle, a syringe, and a fixative, typically formalin but I’ll discuss other options further down the page. Inject the fixative into the entire specimen - the mouth, through the ears, if the eyes are going to be closed inject the eyeballs, the body cavity, through the anus, into all the large muscles including the ones in limbs. You want the entire specimen to be filled and bloated-looking with fixative. For larger specimens with hair, you can make tiny incisions in the skin to allow the fixative to soak in (explained in the next paragraph). The goal is to get the whole specimen, including under the skin, as filled with fixative as possible. Do not use isopropyl alcohol for this step, as it is not a strong enough chemical.

Next, place the specimen in a large jar in the position you want it to stay in for display - it will stay in that position once you are done. Fill the container with the same fixative you used to inject the specimen and seal it. Most fixatives like humectant fluid and formalin cause all of the tissues to start to harden, so remember that however you preserve it at this stage will be how the specimen is positioned forever. Leave the specimen for several days, weeks, or months depending on the size. Shake the jar (with the lid on) every few days in order to agitate the fixative and encourage fluid exchange.

NOTES HERE:

  • Specimen containers MUST be made of glass or if you absolutely have your heart set on using plastic jars, you have to make sure it won't chemically react with your preserving fluid or your final chemical bath - otherwise it could melt and leak!

  • If your specimen floats, it's possible that it's rotten or that you injected air bubbles. Make small incisions to allow gases to escape. Shaking helps with floating as well - birds are more likely to float early on because of their bones.

A mouse tail, which was eventually made into a pendant.

A mouse tail, which was eventually made into a pendant.

When that time period is over, transfer the specimen into a secondary solution of diluted isopropyl or ethanol alcohol for storage in the container of your choice for display. My preferred percentage is 70%, especially for animals with no hair or for organ specimens as stronger alcohol (90% or more) can cause the tissue to wrinkle and shrivel. I also prefer glass jars with lids that seal completely. Leave the specimen in the secondary solution for about a week, shaking the jar gently each day. It is typical that the liquid will change color due to blood and other liquid leaking out of the body - don’t be alarmed by this. After a week or two, drain all the liquid, rinse the specimen and put it back in the jar, and replace the secondary solution with fresh new liquid. After this liquid replacement, the jar can be sealed indefinitely.

Once your specimen is transferred from your first solution (the initial type you also injected) into your second solution (alcohol) you can filter your initial solution through a coffee filter and funnel and re-use it.

Once the jar is sealed, your work is not completed. Properly caring for your collection of jarred specimens is important, not just so they stay in good condition but also so that you don’t burn your house down. NEVER store a wet specimen somewhere that is overly warm (a house in the summer with no air conditioning) and always keep them away from direct sunlight. Never ever ever smoke or burn candles nearby  and never store your specimens near a heater or fireplace - they are extremely flammable! 

The first wet specimen I ever made - a young ball python. This piece has held up very well over the years and is still part of my collection.

The first wet specimen I ever made - a young ball python. This piece has held up very well over the years and is still part of my collection.

The chemicals used in preservation processes are harsh and some are known carcinogens. It is your responsibility to read the MSDS information on these chemicals and store them in a safe way. It is also your responsibility to make sure the specimens you are processing are legal to possess in your city, state, or region. Some things are federally protected. Use your brain and don’t end up in prison. Charlie Kelly's references to "bird law" are rooted in fact, y’all.

If you are using a whole animal specimen that is on the larger size, consider removing its intestines prior to storage. This can be accomplished by pulling them out through the anus using forceps and then disposing of them. A strong stomach (yours, not the animal’s stomach!) is a must - this is not for the faint of heart. (Oh, come on, I can’t resist dumb anatomy puns!)

Here is the same snake after more than three years. I never changed the liquid, but it still looks alright!

Here is the same snake after more than three years. I never changed the liquid, but it still looks alright!

Here is a list of preserving chemicals and their uses. Access to a chemistry lab is likely best for those attempting to mix their own solutions. If you are diluting anything, always use distilled water as it does not have mineral impurities like spring water or tap water. If you’re not a Walter White, there are still plenty of options for obtaining chemicals legally and safely.

  • Formalin is available on Amazon. You may also be able to acquire it from a chemical supply warehouse but typically those institutions require you to obtain licensing as either a medical facility or an educator/school in order for you to make a purchase. As stated above, do not leave your specimen in formalin forever - it is acidic and will eventually destroy the specimen if left forever. Use it to fix the specimen and then transfer it to a less harsh solution. Make sure you use buffered 10% formalin.

  • Ethanol is available at any hardware store or online. If you can’t find it, ask - it’s used as fuel and usually sold in metal containers. When using ethanol, dilute it to 70% if it does not come already diluted. Remember - dilute with distilled water only - no other water.

  • Denatured alcohol and isopropyl alcohol are also available online or at at hardware stores or pharmacies, respectively.

This is a partially dissected frog. He could probably stand to be in a larger jar, but is otherwise in great shape.

This is a partially dissected frog. He could probably stand to be in a larger jar, but is otherwise in great shape.

Additional reading:

Want to try something different? Preserve plant life in the same way! I’m sure it’ll add a nice flair to your collection. I've actually preserved a pineapple for a client. Update: I also preserved another pineapple and an apple for other clients.

This is a baby chipmunk that needs its liquid changed. You can see in the background that over time, the liquid starts to darken no matter what. Fun fact: in museum archives, the liquid is considered to be "part of" the specimen. The liquid can be topped off, but never replaced - so there are jars in the Field Museum that are over 100 years old that are pitch black. We only know what's in them because of the labels!

This is a baby chipmunk that needs its liquid changed. You can see in the background that over time, the liquid starts to darken no matter what. Fun fact: in museum archives, the liquid is considered to be "part of" the specimen. The liquid can be topped off, but never replaced - so there are jars in the Field Museum that are over 100 years old that are pitch black. We only know what's in them because of the labels!

The short version: use gloves and a puppy pee pad for handling your specimen. Use a hypodermic needle and luer-lock syringe to inject your specimen with an initial solution (either humectant fluid, which you can make from ethyl or isopropyl alcohol or ethanol and propylene glycol, or formalin) and allow it to soak in a jar full of the initial solution for several weeks. Shake the jar gently every few days and then transfer the specimen to a jar of secondary solution (either isopropyl alcohol, ethyl alcohol, or denatured alcohol) and repeat the process for two to three weeks. It does not matter which initial and secondary solutions you choose - but once you use one type of initial solution, do not cross-contaminate by switching to a different initial solution in the same specimen. Similarly, stick to only one secondary solution and do not mix different types of alcohol. After three weeks of soaking in the initial solution and three weeks in your secondary solution, replace your secondary solution with the same type of alcohol and seal your jar for permanent storage. Make a note of what you did and when you did it, in pencil on an acid-free piece of paper and use archival tape to tape it to the bottom. That way, you or anyone else who handles the specimen in the future will know what's in there.


Restoring old specimens

If you are trying to restore an old specimen that is not part of a scientific collection, please use gloves and a puppy pad in a well-ventilated area. Gently rinse your specimen with distilled water, using a squeeze bottle if necessary to remove any debris. Make sure your jar has been washed with soap and rinsed with distilled water and fully dried before replacing your specimen in the jar. Replace the liquid with 70% isopropyl alcohol (this is the most neutral of the secondary solutions I have listed) and ensure that the jar is sealed. Make a note of what you did and when you did it, in pencil, on an acid-free piece of paper and use archival tape to tape it to the bottom. That way, you or anyone else who handles the specimen in the future will know what's in there.

If you are trying to restore an old specimen that is part of a scientific collection at any type of school or museum, please make a small donation to me using the link below (literally $5 lets me know you respect my time and expertise) and I will help troubleshoot via email, not comments left on this page.


Thanks for stopping by! I hope you found this post interesting and helpful. Due to overwhelming response, I am unable to troubleshoot what you may be doing wrong or offer further advice on making wet specimens if you have not paid me for my services. I will be approving comments but not responding to questions. This is not an all-inclusive guide but meant to be a starting point. Preserving animals is how I make my living - if you would like to gain some hands-on experience as well as support my small business, please consider:

I appreciate your support!

-Mickey

"ETHICAL" TAXIDERMY - A (REALLY LONG) DISCUSSION

“Ethical taxidermy”
“Ethically sourced”
“All work is ethical”

I see these types of labels in the captions of photos, in the website biographies of taxidermists, and stamped across the tops of the Instagram profiles of people who deal with dead animals in many senses. Taxidermy, bones, wet specimens, and other animal products are becoming increasingly trendy. Everywhere you look, from your favorite bar to popular blogs to Pinterest boards, there are dead animal products. Taxidermy is also a somewhat sensitive topic due to the fact that taxidermists obviously deal with dead animals, so labels have been invented to describe the acquisition of specimens in order to make buyers feel better about their purchases. When I was first starting out I used this label myself, until I realized that its implications didn't quite make sense.

The problem with labels like “ethical” is that there is no authority in place to hold taxidermists accountable for moral conduct. There is a broad range of opinions on what constitutes “ethical taxidermy” and what doesn’t. I have my own opinions, as someone who has been a part of this industry for a handful of years, and I will share it further down the line - but I wanted to see what other people thought. I put an open call for opinions on my Instagram account and on my Facebook page. The people who responded were from all kinds of backgrounds, taxidermists and not, from a broad spectrum of cultures, male and female, of all ages. The common factor is that they all have an interest in taxidermy, which means that they all had an interpretation of what “ethical” taxidermy means to them.

So - what does the phrase “ethical taxidermy” imply, exactly? There are a lot of ideas. The most common notion, shared by fourteen of my commenters, is that the animal was not killed for the purpose of taxidermy or to become a trophy. Let’s explore some of the common ways that the clients of mainstream taxidermists acquire their specimens - hunting, trapping, and farming.

Hunting and trapping are activities that have been around since the beginning of mankind, much longer than the craft of taxidermy has existed. These activities served one of two purposes: to acquire food to eat, or to kill pests that are destroying homes or farm land. Typically indigenous people tend to kill animals more so for food than for pest control and use all the parts, while western civilizations have a much higher rate of killing animals for "pest control" and even have entire industries (hello, exterminators!) dedicated to eradicating species that once coexisted peacefully with humans.

Do you know why pests need to be controlled? This breaks down even further into an additional two categories: either humans took over the land where the animals previously lived, or humans introduced non-native species to a new area or region which resulted in said species taking over the ecosystem due to lack of predators. A few good examples include the coyotes who roam the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles - they’re seen as a nuisance, when the only reason they’re there in the first place is that architectural development has taken over their original homes. What about nutria? Nutria (or “river rats”) are native to South America, but were brought into regions of North America, Asia, Africa, and Europe due to their value in the fur trade. These animals have burrowing tendencies and a few got loose here and there, which resulted in them mating, creating a “nuisance” population, and now it’s everyone’s mission in the deep South as well as Oregon to kill as many as possible. Is that really “ethical” when humans are the ones who caused the problem in the first place? Is it “ethical” to profit from animals killed as pests? These are a few of many questions that go unanswered in the grand scheme of “ethical” taxidermy.

The next notion of “ethical” taxidermy, brought up by nine of the people I talked to, is that it’s expected that the animal being used died of natural causes. In the wild, natural causes would include any of the following:

a) being killed by a predator and then abandoned for some reason, leaving the specimen free to be used for taxidermy
b) illness
c) old age
d) injury caused by the environment, like a tree falling and hitting the animal
e) starvation due to failure to migrate or hibernate in the winter
f) stillborn animals or mothers dying from birth complications

In the case that a pet or captive animal dies of natural causes, it would be due to illness or old age, or complications during birth. If an animal gets an injury that causes it to die, it would likely be either accidental (but something that wouldn’t have happened if that animal hadn’t been a pet in the first place) or due to negligence, if it was an injury that got infected and caused the animal to suffer and die. An animal that gets sick and requires euthanasia technically doesn’t die from natural causes, so if you’re someone who argues ONLY for natural death specimens for taxidermy purposes, technically you are advocating for an animal to suffer until it dies rather than die at the hand of a human - even if that human is a veterinarian. There is a code of ethics for veterinarians, but there is no code of ethics for taxidermists - so where do we draw the line? Only one person that I asked had a response that included animals that were euthanized due to illness or injury being included under the “ethical” umbrella.

Animals in North America that are hunted under regulation and made into taxidermy mounts most commonly include deer, elk, moose, squirrel, and even bear. Part of the regulation includes that these animals are field dressed and eaten whenever possible. In some communities, there are even organizations of hunters who donate all of the meat they get to local shelters in order to feed the homeless. Certain hunting licenses require that you use the meat or you could get a fine. These animals hunted for food are also the ones you see most commonly mounted - not just hanging over your uncle’s fireplace, but in local boutiques and bars from Brooklyn to Los Angeles. These animals are the kind that keep the taxidermy industry going - on average you’ll see 8-10 whitetail or blacktail deer (depending on the region) being worked on at the same time in any commercial taxidermist’s studio. Going by the first (and mostly widely shared) notion of what “ethical” taxidermy is, the requirement is that the animal wasn’t killed for taxidermy purposes. None of the people hunting any of the aforementioned animals for food will throw the meat away and just make a trophy - so why, when hearing the phrase “ethical taxidermy” do people immediately think of the cutesy mice dressed in outfits or bunnies wearing bow ties that are becoming prominent and popular in today’s society? It’s because most commercial taxidermists working on a large scale don’t categorize themselves - they’re just taxidermists. And just because they don’t label themselves as “ethical” because of this new trend doesn’t mean that they don’t respect or care about the animals they work on, or attempt to utilize all of the parts. 

Speaking of anthropomorphic bunnies and mice, those are typically the ones which are raised or farmed for food - animal food. Typically purchased frozen from either large suppliers or small-time reptile breeders, these animals are bred, raised, and killed to fed to other animals. Feeder animals from a good breeder are taken care of, fed well, and not neglected - because if they are malnourished or have any kind of infection, they can cause the animal that eats them to get sick, and the breeder would end up with a whole lot of angry clients. When these animals are killed they are either euthanized using a carbon dioxide chamber, where the CO2 slowly replaces the oxygen until the animal dies, or they have their necks broken and die instantly. The first option is more widely used, less traumatizing and dangerous, and much preferable for taxidermy purposes due to less damage. Typically when these animals are used, their carcasses get repurposed and as much of the animal as possible gets used.

What are the uses for different animal parts? The Native Americans sure have a good mentality about it, and nothing goes to waste. My grandfather had a similar approach, which is why I’m such a stickler for knowing how and when to use all different parts of an animal. Obviously the skin and fur of an animal gets utilized completely in the taxidermy process, because that’s the essence of a taxidermy mount. Everyone knows that skulls are cool - they’re fun to clean and they look cool on display, whether as a standalone piece or when turned into some type of artwork. What about what’s inside the skull? Most people don’t know that the brain of any mammal native to North America, with the exception of the American Bison (otherwise known as a buffalo), contains enough acidity to tan its own hide. For example, the brain of a deer can be used to tan that deer’s hide. The brain of a squirrel can be used to tan that squirrel’s hide. You get it. Did you also know that poop can be used to tan hide? That’s how some Moroccan leather gets its wonderful medium-dark finish. Feces. I’ve got to hand it to them, though - that’s resourceful! (They also use urine.)

Meat from almost any animal can be eaten by something. I’ve eaten rabbit meat from my own classes and I’ve had students feed rat meat from my classes to their pets. I’m not Shrek, so I’ve never tried eating rat meat myself. I can’t imagine it would be horrible, just a little tedious considering how many rats one person would need to eat for a meal. Same thing with squirrels - people eat those too! But what do you do with, say, cat meat from someone’s deceased pet? Easy enough - compost it, and give it back to the earth. Bugs have to eat something! Animal organs are also useful - they contain tons of nutritional value, which makes them great for pet food. I’m an advocate for this forum where people talk about feeding their dogs whole frozen (skinned) rabbits and let them have at it with a rabbit-sicle in the backyard. Another thing to do is fix them in formalin and create a wet specimen for display purposes. Once you’ve stripped away the skin, fur, meat, and organs, you’re left with bare bones - almost literally. After they’ve been cleaned there are a whole slew of things you can do with them. Most people who practice taxidermy make things out of bones like art or jewelry, but you can also grind them into a fine meal and use them to fertilize your garden. Bone meal is made of actual bone! No matter how a specimen is acquired, or whether you personally consider it “ethical” or not - this is how all of the parts of an animal can be used.

This is where the idea of “leftovers” comes in. A few people are advocates of only using “leftovers" from farming, trapping, or hunters, and this idea has been strongly promoted by an organization called the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. Taken from their website, "Members salvage their materials from a number of sources, some of which include roadkill, discarded livestock remnants, casualties of the pet trade, animals that die of natural causes, and destroyed nuisance animals that are donated to them.” If we're getting technical, leftovers from farming would include hides, leftovers from hunting strictly for meat might include hides, but leftovers from trapping wouldn’t include hides since the whole point of fur trapping is… to get fur. Bones or organs are viable leftovers from any of these practices, since neither bones nor organs are the primary target for farming, trapping, or hunting. Beware of anyone shilling a mount of a whole animal claiming they received the skin as a “scrap” - that’s just not possible since a whole skin is not a scrap. “Casualties” of the pet trade - this could include anything like a cat or a dog that dies at a pet store, but often I see taxidermists who use feeder animals claiming they are casualties or worse, that they died of natural causes. Again, that is just not reality. It’s fine to use leftovers, it’s fine to use animals that have been killed specifically to feed to other animals, but transparency is key and being honest about specimen sourcing is a lot better than blatantly lying to make yourself feel better - especially when you’re lying in order to maintain an identity as an “ethical” taxidermist.

Not to use too many puns, but sourcing from roadkill is a whole different animal. While it’s REALLY GREAT to use something that you find on the side of the road and turn it into something beautiful and everlasting, this might not be the best choice - because in most states in the US and most of Canada (as far as I am aware, I don’t know that much about Canada), it’s illegal to salvage any part of an animal from the side of the road without either (a) a hunting permit and then reporting your find to the government or (b) an educational salvage permit. Taxidermists practicing without a license, or people scooping things up without a proper salvage or hunting permit are taking part in the illegal trade of animal parts, and technically become poachers in the eyes of the law. This makes you no different, in front of a jury or under a judge, from the man who killed Cecil the lion illegally. It might be on a smaller scale, but please make sure that you know the law and that what you are doing isn’t illegal. These laws may seem silly, but they protect animals in areas where people might go so far as to purposefully run them over and claim it was an accident, then haul away the carcass for personal use. I’ve also noticed a lot of people talking down on me and other taxidermists for having taxidermy licenses, claiming that it’s “just a fancy piece of paper from the government.” Guess what? That’s the literal definition of a license. You pay the government, you get a certification, and you help ensure that nobody takes advantage of wildlife. It’s the same as having a driver’s license - the government uses the funds collected to help maintain related programs.

As I tallied up the votes and analyzed everyone’s answers to the initial question asked, what ethical taxidermy really means, I found a handful of other miscellaneous answers. One is that taxidermy is ethical if an animal is found deceased - but under that definition, I could have someone walk in front of me to kill a bunch of animals and then “find” them for myself. I’m not saying people would really do that, but it’s a possibility in a world where people will do or say anything to justify their actions to feel better about themselves. Finding dead animals is another issue of legality like I mentioned above - especially to city-dwellers who find birds dead after they fly into windows. Possession of so much as a feather from most non-invasive migratory birds could land you in prison with some serious fines - so again, do your research. One person mentioned that ethical taxidermy meant the animal was “legally acquired” which makes sense, but there are lots of things that are legal that aren’t necessarily tied to any morals. The law doesn’t make something right automatically. Another person mentioned that euthanasia due to illness or injury constituted ethical sourcing, which is how the majority of museums nowadays receive many specimens. Lots of creatures die in zoos in the care of veterinarians, and they wind up being put to good use as educational specimens. An additional comment added that taxidermists should not kill the animals themselves, but most taxidermists are so busy being taxidermists that they don’t hunt, and if they do, many of them eat the meat. Lastly, and I think this might be the most important even though it was so overlooked, a handful of people mentioned that as a self-proclaimed “ethical taxidermist” it’s important to always have respect for the animal. I definitely agree with that, because without that animal, said taxidermist would not have a subject to work on.

Whew. That summarizes all of the sources of animals that the people I interviewed consider to be “ethical” to some degree. Now it’s time to dig into the commentary I received in between these different sources, where ideas clashed and some very interesting points were made.

One person made a comment about “unmurdered” animals. I’m not quire sure what that means, but I am going with the assumption that they were on the natural-death and roadkill bandwagon. Another made a comment that frozen rodents from a pet store are not “ethical” but that same person believes hunting is acceptable, so for some reason killing animals for other animals to eat is not acceptable but people killing animals for people to eat is acceptable.

A phrase used more than once was “grey area” and I have to agree. Taxidermy itself is a broad-spectrum craft and animals can come from all sorts of places. Once things start being labeled as “ethical” or not, it opens up a big can of worms. After many, many comments, a few people finally came to the conclusion that I was hoping at least someone would - ethics are subjective!

The phrase “ethical” means “pertaining to or dealing with morals or the principles of morality; pertaining to right and wrong in conduct” which means that without a definition of what is right or wrong, “ethical” doesn’t mean anything. What one person considers to be acceptable is not necessarily what another person would consider to be acceptable, and without a code of ethics to apply these matters to, there is no such thing as ethical taxidermy. It’s like saying you would like to date a woman with C cup breasts but not noting her band size - without one thing, the other doesn’t matter and cannot exist as a stand-alone way to analyze something.

Until taxidermists have an actual code of ethics and take an oath to follow that code, which is outlined and has definitions for what is absolutely right and what is absolutely wrong, the phrase “ethical taxidermy” is something people simply use to make themselves feel better about having an interest in dead animals due to cultural taboos. At the end of the day, if you purchase a taxidermy piece or take a taxidermy class, the animal is already dead. If it’s important to you to make sure that your taxidermist or your taxidermy teacher is following your code of ethics, ask questions - but if you’re a taxidermist making references to your own work as “ethical” in order to gain more clients by giving them a feel-good attitude, you have to consider how ethical that actually is.

A situation mentioned in my Instagram comments involves a Canadian woman who has recently begun teaching “ethical” taxidermy classes but involves a lot of grey area. In interviews and in classes she cites sourcing from a “local menagerie” which has been named as three different facilities that raise and euthanize feeder rodents. After her classes, all of the carcasses supposedly go to a reptile rehabilitation facility in Toronto (which doesn’t exist to my knowledge or to the knowledge of my friend who owns the only reptile specialty store in the region) to feed reptiles that are “fur sensitive” which is literally not a thing. I’ve spoken to two different herpetologists and it’s been confirmed that this claim of “fur sensitivity” is bullshit (both of their words, not mine!). In a world where this scenario even existed, if a snake belonging to a rodent-eating species could not eat a whole rodent, it would just die of starvation far before a human intervened to feed it an ethically-sourced taxidermy-leftover diet. Whole rodents are the entire diet of certain reptiles, of course with the exception of snakes that eat insects, amphibians, other reptiles, birds, etc. etc. If “fur sensitive” snakes actually exist I would be interested in seeing photographic or video evidence, because it would be a very rare anomaly.

There are other taxidermists working in the industry under the “ethical” blanket with very good intentions, but a background in science, which means sometimes their clients just don’t understand big words and then they get upset or angry. While everyone takes “ethical” to mean “good,” it’s already been established that one person’s definition of what is good or bad differs from others. When reading phrases like “abatement” and “depredation” you should know that those words mean that the animal was killed on purpose (not for taxidermy) and is now being repurposed as a piece of art. The phrase “ethical taxidermy” doesn’t always mean something died of natural causes because everyone’s definition is different.

I also want to touch a little bit on big game or safari-style hunting that takes place most commonly in Asia and Africa. Hunting in Africa is a bit of a sensitive topic because of recent events, so let’s use an example my friend Dave from Wildlife Designs Taxidermy brought up. Here in the U.S. we might consider something like an opossum or a raccoon to be a pest, or coyotes that get into chicken coops - but in Asia, pests that destroy farms can be as big as elephants. (Hint: the pests are elephants!) Because humans have taken over elephant land, now elephants trounce through what humans consider to be “theirs” and one elephant can ruin an entire farm in a day just by walking around. While this is not necessarily an opinion shared by everyone, the idea is that the community would auction off a license to someone with a lot of money, giving them permission to shoot one elephant and keep it as some type of trophy, and then the money from the auction would be used to create a refuge for the elephants, which keeps them away from the farm land and everyone is mostly happy… except for the elephant that died, of course. This is the basic idea of all big game and safari-style hunts, and so with that in mind I believe that the illegal killing of Cecil the lion is an exception to the norm.

After being provided with all of this information, MY personal opinion is that it’s truly impossible to write a definition for ethical taxidermy which is why I’m an advocate for the phrase to cease to be used. Due to the fact that there is no one code of ethics for taxidermy, “ethical” means nothing in regards to my industry and my craft. My advice to students and collectors: adhere to your own code of ethics, find out as much information as possible if owning natural-death or roadkill-only taxidermy is your preference, and of course - if you’re a taxidermist, always be honest about sourcing if someone asks. For the record, I have adopted a model of sustainable taxidermy which you can read more about here.

I’m open to hearing what others have to say - let’s start a discussion in the comments.

Have at it!