The animals may be not be alive and well, but the art form definitely is. Anna Bradley-Smith delves into the weird and growing world of taxidermy.
Coco holds out a dead duckling on a tray. Its small, fluffy body stands upright, ready to waddle away; its eyes are open and unblinking.
Coco’s eyes are also open, unblinking, fixed on something to his right. Standing with a hat on his head he looks majestic; big furry paws clasping his little friend tightly.
“Coco, my bear, I just look at that and think ‘wow’,” Maria Henare says.
“For me there’s taxidermy, and then there’s taxidermy. There’s really masculine stuff and then there’s cute stuff, and I like the cute stuff.”
The centuries-old craft is becoming new again. Retailers and taxidermists across the country say new buyers are emerging, waiting-lists are getting longer, people are taking lessons, and stuffed animals are increasingly appearing on screens and pages. It’s become a hipster hobby.
The demand isn’t just for animals coming from the high and lowlands of Aotearoa, but for vintage works from days-gone-by, unique and quirky collectables, but most importantly – one-off pieces.
Henare owns the Eclectic Antiques store in Nelson. Although she only sells a few taxidermy items, it’s where her personal collection takes residence.
While bargain hunters peruse porcelain teacups and diamond rings, two peacocks watch on from above the counter. A kune kune pig guards a cabinet full of old jewellery. The watchful eyes of Coco and his duckling look out from beside the till.
“I guess I’ve always liked it, but it has to be a little bit interesting for me to like it.”
Henare’s first foray into taxidermy wasn’t one piece, it was a small collection.
“Emus and a wee pig, a wee kune kune pig, they were my first ones. Now every time I see a piece and think it’s cute I buy it. A lot of my taxidermy I don’t sell.”
And that’s not for a lack of interest – people regularly come into the store asking to take one of her beloved animals home.
The reason for its increase in popularity is hard to pinpoint, and there are a number of explanations floating around. People who live behind a computer screen wanting to connect with the real-world, a desire to own something unique and lasting, a changing perception of the craft – where preservation of a dead animal is the driver over killing it for show. Some say it’s to do with the current fascination with the undead, seen in the rise in popularity in zombies and vampires.
Henare puts it down to trends.
“I think sometimes all people need to see is a House and Garden magazine, or something like that and they’re all into it. It’s a very trend based thing. All you need is someone showing it, it’s like a dress on the red carpet.”
Over the last decade taxidermy has taken off in New York and Paris and – as everything old becomes cool again – it has spread from there.
Henare thinks of the craft as a form of preservation – “I don’t think of it as animals being killed as much” – but she’s not blind to those who do.
“When I first moved to Nelson I started at the market and I was put next to the greenies.
“I had this whole rack of furs and they pushed it over. I just got down and didn’t react and started putting them back. I looked over and go ‘well what have you got on your feet’ and they all had leather sandals on.”
Alfred Traxler sees himself as a dealer, taxidermy for him is primarily business, but there’s definitely passion behind it.
Originally from Austria and now working from his home in Nelson, where foxes, a white king cobra, impala, stags and other items cover flat surfaces.
“I’ve had it all, from embryos of dogs and possums to bears, a belly from a crocodile from Papua New Guinea in 1969 it goes on and on. This is my favourite latest piece, it’s from the 70s,” he says, holding up a wild cat with eyes wider than saucers.
He says recently he’s noticed in an increased interest in taxidermy with his online business, Junkstyle.
“What always goes is Bambis, we can’t get enough Bambis. And also deer.”
Stags heads, he says, sell like wildfire.
“It all goes out to Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, but Auckland is a big hot-spot for it. It just takes one shot of a crocodile belly or a kangaroo or deer in a flash magazine and the trend is set.”
He says he understands some people view it as cruel, but he sees himself as a middle man. Plus, he says, all the animals he deals with are from days-gone-by – today killing and mounting an animal costs more than the resale value.
He says the increase in demand has been paired with a growing desire for customers to know where, when and how an animal’s died.
“It’s like tattoos, if you get one, you get another one and you can’t stop. I reckon taxidermy the more you have the more fascinated you become.”
And the trend is global. Last year’s World Taxidermy Conference in Missouri, which has been running for more than 30 years, was bigger than ever before. There are Instagrams, Twitter profiles, blogs, Facebook pages and countless websites dedicated to taxidermy tips and pictures. Beginner kits to make a taxidermy mouse can be bought online for about $50.
The practice began in Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries as a way for explorers to preserve animals they had collected on their travels. It developed in a time when there was no colour photography or flights to far-off countries, and it allowed for the study of animals that would not have been possible otherwise.
However the practise declined during the 20th century, as photography and big game hunting became less socially acceptable and various wildlife conservation acts were enacted. There’s no denying the desire to kill and display various animals led to the endangering and demise of many species. The list in Africa and Asia still under threat continues to grow, and the outcry over the killing of endangered animals is as loud as ever.
But there’s a paradox with the practice – the passion to acquire animals and the passion to protect them. An example of this was the former United States president Theodore Roosevelt.
Roosevelt took up taxidermy around the age of 12 and grew up to be a big game hunter. In the 1880s he co-founded a game preservation society that is the foundation for wildlife conservation in the US. The group established the New York Zoological Society, which evolved into the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Conservation and education continue to be entwined with taxidermy. Stoats, ferrets and other pests are stuffed and taken to schools as examples of what kill native birds. Stillborn, elderly and sick animals that die in zoos are often mounted for museums. The same goes for native birds that are found dead. And then, of course, animals that fall victim to culling programmes can end up in a collectors’ living rooms.
James Lekner, who started Flock and Herd, the country’s main supplier of vintage and new taxidermy, says he got into the trade by accident.
“I am an obsessive collector and my collection got out of hand after about ten years of hoarding.”
Lekner started selling off items, and requests started to roll in – Flock and Herd was born. His customers, he says, are an eclectic mix of society ranging from wealthy private buyers to tradies who pay off items and then layby another.
“What they do have in common is the obsession to purchase new items for their collections that nobody else has.”
The challenge of acquiring the exotic items he’s famed for, he says, is sourcing them from ethical and legal supply lines, “and getting them all past the watchful eyes of DOC, MPI and Customs with the correct documentation and permits”.
Getting animals ethically and legally is of the utmost importance to him as an animal lover and to his customers, he says.
“There are enough natural deaths of animals in the world to keep every taxidermist busy. All of my birds die naturally in a bird sanctuary and are worth far more alive than dead so we give them a second life, so to speak, once their time has come.”
He says his larger species such as zebras and giraffes are sourced form government culling programmes, or are old vintage items.
“I get offered items on a weekly basis that I have concerns about but I won’t touch it.”
NZ Taxidermy Association president Mark Walker says over the last few years hunting has become more popular, which may have influenced the the year’s worth of taxidermy work he has waiting. Other taxidermists around the country boast similar waiting lists – some up to 18 months long – and many have that without even advertising.
“A lot of it is word mouth,” he says.
Walker, who learned the craft young, says he’s experienced an increase in business over the last few years, and recently he’s been holding classes in the craft. Although he sticks with wild animals, he says he’s had a couple of calls to do pets – something he declines.
Pets, anthropomorphic taxidermy – think a hedgehog dressed as a granny in a rocking chair, and rogue taxidermy, where animal parts are combined to create mythical creatures, have also been included in the growing taxidermy trend.
Papier-mache and wooden stag heads are common sights in home decoration stores, and artists have adopted taxidermy as a material for their work. One such artist is New Zealander Karley Feaver.
“I chose to work with animals because I have an absolute love and passion for them. I grew up on a farm so animals have always been in my life,” she says.
“I only use animals that have died of natural causes, for me it’s an ethics thing. I don’t have an issue with people hunting for animals, but I just prefer not to encourage that type of behaviour.”
Seeing dead animals close up and having them in the home isn’t for everyone, she says. But like Henare, Traxler, Lekner and Walker, she says everyone is entitled to their own opinions.