The Current

Dead animals into art? Meet these women 'rogue taxidermists'

“We’re working with animals that were part of the food chain that maybe never got to see a life past that food chain."

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"I've got here a bag of frozen dead rats."

So begins The Current producer Karin Marley's visit with Hamilton, Ont., taxidermist Ankixa Risk. 

From there, Risk gives a lesson in how to turn a rat pelt into a fantastical creature — a three-headed rat perched in an amethyst cave, for instance — or a piece of "portRATure."

Taxidermist Ankixa Risk turns a rat pelt into a a three-headed rat perched in an amethyst cave. (Karin Marley/CBC)

Risk and her Casual Taxidermy business partner, Jessica Lee, are part of a resurgence of taxidermy — a movement led by women. They teach rat-stuffing workshops to everyone from couples on date nights to corporate team-building events.

As with other "rogue taxidermists," ethics and a love of animals are at the core of their work.

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We're giving them a new life.-  Taxidermist Ankixa Risk

Their rats come from a reptile zoo — they use the pelt, and the rest of the rat goes back to the zoo for food.

"We're working with animals that were part of the food chain that maybe never got to see a life past that food chain," says Risk. 

"We're giving them a new life."

Displayed are hoof candlesticks and a hat made out of starling mounted onto a traditional Amish bonnet. Both items made by Beth Beverly of Diamond Tooth Taxidermy. (Beth Beverly)

But they're not averse to working with roadkill animals as well. 

"Give it a wee shake, shake off the bugs, and there you go," says Lee.

Philadelphia's Beth Beverly has a different take on the ethics of the animals she uses for her taxidermy work.

If you are going to take an active part in harvesting an animal, it's a huge insult to not use every part of it.- Beth Beverly 

Along with roadkill or leftovers from ethical farms, she will also accept specimens from hunters, as long as they use all parts of the animal — or give the meat to her.

Her ethical stance has meant that she's eaten everything from skunk, to snake, to coyote stew.

Philidelphia-based taxidermist Beth Beverly, of Diamond Tooth Taxidermy, says the baby goat she made is one of her favourite pieces. (Beth Beverly)

"If you are going to take an active part in harvesting an animal, it's a huge insult to not use every part of it," says Beverly.

 "I also feel like if I'm consuming this meat that's readily available to me ... that's one less person taking part in the factory farming industrial complex."

Even PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has come around on ethical taxidermy, which they had previously called "cruel."
Materials used in 'Poseidon's Penchant' by Sarina Brewer: Stillborn goat, sea bass, roe deer antlers, clay, gold leaf. (©2015 Sarina Brewer)

"The most important thing is to look at how the animal died," says Katie Arth, media assistant manager for PETA.

"If the animal died naturally or in an accident, then PETA doesn't have a problem with preserving their carcass. The issue comes to ... most animals who end up being taxidermied, who are violently killed by hunters. No animal wants to be shot to death and have their head mounted on a living room wall." 

This change of position comes as a surprise to Sarina Brewer, one of the originators of the "rogue taxidermy" movement. When she started working with animals parts in her art in the 1990s, she received hate mail nearly every day, including from animal rights activists.

"There was a huge amount of pushback," Brewer tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti. 

"My work was seen as being created for shock value. People said it was disrespectful."

Materials used in 'Chasing Demons' by Sarina Brewer: Roadkill albino and melanistic squirrels, refurbished antique ormolu mirror. (©2016 Sarina Brewer)

Brewer defines the movement — which ranges from do-it-yourself classes to art displayed in galleries — as "a genre of pop surrealist art characterized by mixed media sculptures containing traditional taxidermy-related materials that are used in an unconventional manner."

Brewer's interest in using formerly living materials as art goes back to a childhood love of animals — and a desire to preserve their bodies once they had died.
Materials used in 'High Horse' by Sarina Brewer: Dyed vintage zebra mount, deer antlers, gold leaf. (©2014 Sarina Brewer)

She objects to PETA saying that animals don't want their heads mounted on a wall. 

"My response would be — did you have a meeting with the squirrel before it passed on and are you in charge of its last will and testament," says Brewer. 

"How you deal with a dead person or a dead animal  — you can't really impose your personal opinion about how that should be dealt with."

I believe that a lot of people were there to look at death- Joanna Ebenstein

Joanna Ebenstein, co-author of Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy about a quirky Victorian taxidermist who is an inspiration for the new movement, helped bring taxidermy lessons to New York.

The level of interest was overwhelming — at one point, the waiting list ran to 650 people.

Rabbit school house art by Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter. (Errol Fuller)

Ebenstein believes the renewed interest in taxidermy shows a desire to look at death in a new way, in a culture that has forced it into the background.

"I believe that a lot of people were there to look at death … to kind of challenge themselves, to open up an animal and fathom their own feelings about what that meant," Ebenstein tells Tremonti.

"I think it was a way to face something that they were curious and maybe slightly afraid about."

Kitten Wedding art by Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter. (Joanna Ebenstein)

For Ebenstein, ever since childhood, the line between life and death has been a blurred one. She grew up loving her pets and wanting to be a veterinarian — but also had a collection of dead animals preserved in formaldehyde.

"To me, this was just an extension of my love of animals," says Ebenstein. 

"I would never ever kill an animal. I loved animals, but I also loved them dead."

Listen to the full segment above.

This segment was produced by The Current's Karin Marley.

WEB EXTRA | This music video for the Canadian punk rock band Billy Talent features Ankixa Risk's rats and mice in stop-motion action.