Mickey Alice Kwapis

taxidermy & craft

"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!

Mickey Alice Kwapis is a Chicago-based taxidermist, jeweler, and person who does a lot of stuff. All site content ©2011-2017 Mickey Alice Kwapis and Niche Lab LLC. Questions? Use the contact form.