The recent publication of Alexis Turner’s book Taxidermy has confirmed something that we at Our Hen House have been noticing for the past little while, namely that taxidermy is rather trendy these days. Thames & Hudson, the publisher of Turner’s book, describes taxidermy as the “height of cool,” and reviews of this book celebrate the ways in which “stuffed animals” are showing up in a number of fashionable places.
Taxidermy – the practice of taking a dead animal body and making it appear life-like – is, of course, not new. Early natural history museums relied on taxidermy to recreate tableaus from nature, as a way to illustrate things like the natural habitat of Mountain Goats or the wing structure of a Pelican. There is an odd tension in these kinds of displays, “life-like” scenes which are entirely dependent upon the killing of those represented.
The trends that we are noticing go beyond the natural history museum though. We have noticed taxidermy showing up in more and more homes, restaurants, stores, and galleries. There appears to be an ironic hipster-esque appreciation of taxidermy that is somewhat akin to the popular culture fascination with bacon as of late. In both cases the object is fetishized to the point where its origins as a living, breathing, sentient being seem forgotten. What is especially bizarre is that we are not dealing with what Carol J. Adams refers to as the absent referent – with taxidermy, the very visible dead body of the animal is, in fact, the point.
From London to San Francisco, more and more “stuffed animals” are showing up in stores, restaurants, and galleries in trendy neighborhoods. Shops catering to the demand for taxidermy offer a range of options for customers, something suitable for all budgets. For example, at Paxton Gate, a shop for those with “a predilection for the more bizarre side of nature,” a taxidermied hyena will set you back $1500, however a 5-7 inch pufferfish costs a mere $11. Paxton Gate’s owners emphasize the fact that the taxidermy items they sell are “ethically” sourced, that in most cases the animals “either died of natural causes or were otherwise trapped and euthanized in humane ways as part of animal care and control programs intended to manage wildlife populations.” Putting aside the obvious irony here (“trapped and euthanized in humane ways” is often the type of verbiage that covers up cruelty and instigates ignorance and complacency), I still find the deliberate display of once living beings troubling. On the one hand, I suppose this is somewhat preferable to the lengths our culture goes to sanitize and conceal animal death in most other circumstances, and yet the desire to display a dead mammal, bird, insect, or fish speaks to broader cultural systems in which the nonhuman is always the other – the marginalized, the expendable, the dominated. The display of the body of a once living being reinforces the cultural construction of non-human animals as lesser beings.
Exhibiting a dead body as if it were a work of art is, perhaps, the ultimate objectification of nonhuman animals. There is no pretense about the fact that this animal was once living and is now dead and his or her body is now rendered as a trophy, or perhaps, merely as an objet d’art. With the consumption of meat or the wearing of leather, a sense of cognitive dissonance can be facilitated because the resulting steak or pair of shoes does not resemble the once living being. Indeed, this conceptual distance between the life and death of an animal and the resulting products that are safely sanitized and packaged for us at the supermarket is one of the biggest areas of concern for animal rights advocates – how can we get people to see the connections between their choices and the animals whose lives are so deeply affected by them? With taxidermy, however, there is no room for cognitive dissonance, there is no mistaking that this is a dead animal. What I find especially troubling is that the trend for taxidermy seemingly extends to people who identify as vegetarian or vegan, people who, in other aspects of their lives, make conscious choices to not participate in the exploitation of animals.
Alternatives to traditional taxidermy exist. For example, Aimée Baldwin uses paper and non-animal based materials to create what she has termed “vegan taxidermy.” The website “Trendhunter” has even come up with a long list of “faux taxidermy art” that allows “animal rights activists to enjoy the look without sacrificing morals.” I wonder about this claim though – while I appreciate the talent, sensitivity, and creative vision that artists like Baldwin bring to their art, I still feel a little uneasy about the broader cultural systems that fuel the demand for this kind of work. In other words, this style of representation remains dependent upon seeing nonhuman animals as objects. The point appears to be to depict – not an animal – but an animal body, which, for me, is a bit too close to the goal of traditional taxidermy. What messages are we sending when we choose to represent an animal as a trophy or as a specimen?