BEFORE & AFTER: FENNEC FOX

Anyone who knows me knows a few things about me: how much I love a challenge, and how much I admire my esteemed colleague Chuck.

About a month ago, I visited Chuck in his studio in beautiful Ojai, California. As is tradition, we dug a bunch of things out of his freezer - and one of those things was a fennec fox. Hailing from Africa, Vulpes zerda is the smallest canine species in the world. They are a desert-dwelling animal and max out at approximately three and a half pounds. In the United States they are revered as exotic pets, and select zoos also have fennecs in their possession.

This particular fox came from a zoo. To be honest I'm not sure what happened to it, but since patches of its wrists and neck were shaved it appeared that it had recently received veterinary care. However, the appearance of the rest of the fennec's body leads me to believe it was severely neglected. Here is a peek at the condition it was in about halfway through my grooming process:

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The fur was so matted that I couldn't use a comb to untangle it. In fact, I had to use a stout rougher - a spiked tool so sharp that it cut holes in my palms - just to get some of the knots out. The tail literally fell off in three pieces because it was one giant dreadlock but eventually the knots in the rest of the pelt gave way and despite how much fur fell out, I was able to make it look alright again.

In the meantime, to give my palms a break, I used a cast done by Mike Frazier of Research Mannikins as a reference for carving foam to replicate the skull of the fennec. I set the eyes (raccoon eyes!) into the foam form, then imitated the musculature of the eyelids using clay. The photo below shows my carving next to the cast, whereas the photos above this paragraph show the carving after it had been inserted into the fox's face.

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The addition of clay, a keen eye, an artistic touch, and a good tool kit are where the magic begins to happen. I use plain clay and a solid set of tools that I've curated over the years. I sell curated tool kits - please email hello@mickeyalicekwapis.com if you are interested in reviewing options and purchasing one for yourself. Here is a photo of how the fennec's face began to take shape.

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In between setting the facial features and tucking the lips, I also created a custom form for the inside of the body, inserted it, and sewed the back of the fox up. It still looks rough around the edges!

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After more tucking, pinning, some quality time with a blow dryer, and a whole lot of grooming, the fennec is ready to be set aside for a few weeks to dry. Even tanned hides need time to cure, otherwise they are floppy and unstable. Here is the nearly-finished product:

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After a taxidermy project is posed to dry, there are typically still a few things that are rough around the edges. After the curing process, the pins and staples are removed. The cardboard stapled to the earliners is discarded, putty is used to repair any damage or holes, and the ears, eyes, nose, and lips get airbrushed. In addition, the animal is removed from its temporary base and placed on a permanent one, either something made of plain wood or something with a naturalistic environment. The plans I have for this guy include a habitat base with a butterfly or a bug on the ground. You can't even tell he was nearly beyond repair when I started!

It'll be another few weeks before I am able to get back into my studio and do all the finishing touches, but here's a photo of me and Chuck with some things we worked on together.

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Please do not practice taxidermy without a proper license when one is necessary. Local, state, and federal laws vary from place to place and it is your responsibility to make sure you are doing what is right. This is a comprehensive series of images from a taxidermy project, not a guide to the entire process - if you are a beginner, please do not assume that what I've shown you in this post is the entire taxidermy process from start to finish, or you could end up with a mess on your hands. Take a class where you are supervised by a licensed professional so you don't injure yourself!

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