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Vegetarian Taxidermists: How Does That Work?

12/03/2014 16:47 GMT | Updated 12/05/2014 10:59 BST

I get several vegetarians and vegans signing up for my taxidermy courses in London each week, which baffles people. How does that work? Being vegetarian and doing taxidermy do not seem like compatible lifestyle choices. Or are they?

I'll be blatantly honest. I really like eating meat. But for 13 years and until last September, I was a very strict vegetarian. If meat had so much as come within a few inches of my food, there was no way I would touch it. But at this point I was also skinning and preserving animals, something I did and still do quite often.

Starting taxidermy well before I started eating meat again didn't really bother me. It seemed like an obvious lifestyle choice. Having been a vet nurse in the past and seeing the insides (albeit of alive) animals, I was used to the 'ick factor'. The vegetarianism came from a love of animals and a hatred for the way the meat industry works (both of which I still have). Taxidermy came from a similar place which I think is true to why so many vegetarians take these courses.

First of all, cutting up a dead animal does NOT mean you have to eat the insides.

Many vegetarians learning taxidermy will make it very clear that the animals they work on must not be killed for the purpose of taxidermy (and I feel the same). Many see it as an opportunity, however, to preserve nature or make something creative out of what is normally wasted.

Angela Wooi, an artist and vegetarian I recently taught, told me, "If I taxidermy, say a pheasant, rabbit, or squirrel, and someone wanted to eat it, I wouldn't have a problem with that. In fact, I would find that respectful of the animal. I can't abide by the ill treatment of animals that are bred just for food. I think the 'surprise ' is that people presume vegetarians would be squeamish around flesh/meat, however I find it easy to separate the two activities. I know that if you handed some of my meat-eating friends a fresh feathered chicken to cook - they'd have more issues than I would over the 'blood and guts'!".

Not all vegetarians who try the craft are this liberal in their thinking, but in my opinion if parts of an animal are there, in good shape and just going to waste, then why not use them? To me, it is simply biological matter.

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Loving, respecting and an interest in preserving nature is common. Louis Neely commented that "taxidermy to me is being amazed by the anatomy and biology of creatures, and helping them live on after death so we can see and appreciate them".

Like me, a lot of the people I spoke to had grown up interested in natural history. Visiting museums and seeing how beautiful many animals are that you wouldn't normally be able to see sparked an appreciation for their beauty, but also an interest and curiosity about how they had been preserved.

This love of animals showed over and over again during my enquiries.

Anna Bob Lawley, another artist and vegetarian said, "I've struggled with this dilemma for a while now. People tell me 'I shouldn't like it,' but we can't help what little things in life bring us joy. I feel that it's giving the animal a whole new life, to live on forever, a whole new world of love, to be carefully restored, positioned, and decorated, and is a caring and thoughtful venture."

Taxidermy is also a very personal work of art to most. And while sometimes it causes a dilemma because it can be more of a reflection on a person's creativity than actual nature itself (such as in anthropomorphic taxidermy), I don't think that makes it something vegetarians should have to steer clear of. The fact that most taxidermists source animals ethically helps this dilemma.

Jessica Lay commented, "I feel that ethically sourced animals being used for taxidermy is positive, and as such, I can happily continue both my vegetarianism and my long-term interest in taxidermy. I hear that a lot of modern taxidermists only use animals that have died through natural causes or mishaps, so I think we are in new age of 'ethical' taxidermy. I am happy to be a part of it!"

I think about this very often, and whether being a vegetarian taxidermist is a cliché. I don't think it has to be. It makes sense. Each individual chooses their own level of comfort within it. I have had a few vegetarians and a few meat eaters alike unable to even make the first incision (See Sara Nelson's post about her struggle to take my class here).

I can't say that my switch from vegetarian to meat-eater had nothing to do with my ventures in taxidermy. Although it is slightly more complicated than just that.

Once I started handling meat myself, I became much more comfortable with the idea of it and decided I wanted to try it again and started eating it myself.

I'm now working on a project using animals that were killed for their meat, but incorporating the discarded parts (post taxidermy) as décor for a meal. In one, I am working with a food historian using birds to decorate meat pies, as they did 400 years ago and up until the 1930s. Imagine a pie with beautiful taxidermy wings, head and tail feathers coming out. Not wasting any part of an animal, creates a sense of satisfaction that my previous vegetarian self would have been proud of.

What are your thoughts?