I've only ever killed one animal, about two years ago. A mercy killing. I came home from working one evening and my neighbors presented me with a baby rat that had been hit by a cyclist. He was about three inches tall, with a tail the same length, and paws he hadn't yet grown into. He was suffering from brain swelling and his forehead was so huge he looked more like a chinchilla than a rat, and he couldn't move except for his twitching whiskers. After long consideration, it seemed the right thing to do. In fact, there was little else I could do. I looked up humane ways of killing a rodent and with my flatmate looking on in despair, I did the deed whilst crying my eyes out. Minimise pain and suffering, despite the tears, sadness and reservations I had about it. I didn't want to be a 'killer', but there I was with little choice.
I put that little rat in a bag and placed him in the bottom drawer of the freezer. I didn't know if I could ever face it again, but I also didn't know what else to do at the time. I felt a loss like no other. A loss within myself for having done what I did. Could I ever live it down?
The answer is yes. A year later, I decided it was time to face that difficult evening and I made him into a piece of taxidermy art. He now stands upright on our mantel piece, holding a fragile and small glass pendant of a child's doll head as a representation and reminder of my own feelings towards the fragility of life and how easy it is forget how brief and impermanent life is. My own personal memento mori, if you will.
I'm an animal lover. I have been a vet nurse, owned cats, dogs, rodents and various other small animals my whole life, saved several kittens on various holiday with nothing but water, heat, honey and care, and have studied the history of veterinary medicine. However, dealing with dead animals, taking their skin and using it for other purposes, turning them into something different to express my own creativity is sometimes called "disrespectful", especially when I tell people I anthropomorphise these animals (give them human characteristics).
I find it interesting that it is acceptable to raise millions of animals for food (one of the most harmful industries to nature), dress up our dogs and cats in outfits, and take endless pleasure in watching animals act like humans while they are alive - yet making them into pieces of art, set in human poses and activities after they are dead makes many people squirm. In fact, I don't only find it interesting, I like that my art challenges boundaries and the conceptions of what should and shouldn't be done. Isn't that one of the points of art? I think the fact that so many people are interested in trying anthropomorphic taxidermy, and that I have the ability to make it accessible to those people creates a need for these conversations.
I would like to make it very clear that I am neither cruel nor hateful to animals, despite what animal-rights activists and their supporters may say on their websites or on Twitter. I understand that people will have this opinion and I am okay with having a conversation about differing opinions (as long as I am not threatened, attacked or childishly called names).
I realise that some people have different values, and view life and death through a different lens, believing their physical body should be valued as who they were when they were alive, even after they have long left it. My view, however, is quite different. I see death as biological matter. I see it as a resource to be used as needed for learning, not to be wasted. I provide learning experiences about death, science, anatomy, craft, preservation and nature through my teaching, and the pure enjoyment and value in this is obvious by the current demand for this art. I have no qualms using animals in this way.
And to that end, aligning with my personal beliefs, I have donated my body to science in an effort to give something irreplaceable back to society.
Attacking me and accusing me of hating and killing animals is utterly ridiculous. I absolutely adore animals, but at the end of the day, a dead mouse is unused biological matter, molecules in a pile, and I have no problems breathing new life into it creating something that gets people conversing about life, death and art.
In this blog series "I'm a taxidermy artist" I aim to address some of the common questions, criticisms and misconceptions about working with dead animals.
To find out more about my taxidermy workshops in London, click here.