DISCUSSED: Alternative Taxidermy, Victorian England, Arab Slave Ports, Natural History Museums, Gender Dysphoria, Queer Theory, South Dakota, Pressure Tanners, KFC, Fleshing Knives, Meat Loaf, Robin Williams, Aryan Children, Starving Vegans, Fox Testicles, Creator Worship

Maya Bookbinder and I are going to the Annual Taxidermy Convention, Competition, and Trade Show, a recurring shindig hosted most years by a red state and held this year in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and to which folks drive in from miles, their rugged vehicles lugging trailer hitches stuffed with truncated deer heads mounted onto plaques of gleaming wood or badgers posed lifelike by pools of polyester resin or wildcats and mountain goats arranged mid-clamber up a fake boulder. Winners take home ribbons for the Champion Life-Size Mammal, the Noonkester Boar Award for best taxidermied boar, and the coveted Judge’s Best of Show. They hone their techniques at seminars such as “Fleshing and Tanning” and “Interactive Turkey” and shop for pelts, glass eyes, Critter Clay, and ear liners. They can sign up for a big game hunt in Africa or arrange to have their domestic pets freeze-dried for eternity.

Maya, a twenty-one-year-old art student at the Rhode Island School of Design, is firmly into “alternative taxidermy”—a blue-state hybrid born of art schools. When a professional taxidermist gifted Maya an imperfect coyote carcass, she skinned it and chopped the hide at the neck. Preferring the free-floating look, Maya didn’t attach the mounted head (in taxidermy-speak, to mount is to affix an animal hide to a premade animal-shaped form) to a plaque, as is typically done. A friend of hers really liked the result, so Maya gave it away. She last spotted “Scampers” leashed and attached to a wheeled board, being tugged around an art party in DUMBO by a stranger.

If realness is the aim of the average taxidermist attending the Annual Taxidermy Convention Competition and Trade Show, whimsy is the goal of the alternative adherents. But while their goals may differ—even contradict—the necessary skill set is the same. Most traditional taxidermists are mentored or self-taught, or are graduates of more official institutions such as the Second Nature School of Taxidermy in Bonner, Montana. Maya spent a few weeks living with Jan Van Hoesen, a Michigan-based, award-winning traditional taxidermist. Together they ate bear, cared for Jan’s pet bobcats, hit the regional taxidermy gathering, and worked on some animals. Jan was horrified to learn that Maya intended to use her newly sharpened skills to create weird-ass, fantastically reanimated animals. Traditional taxidermists have no truck with urban art schoolers fashioning coyote pull-toys from God’s majesty.

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Michelle Tea is the author of four memoirs and the recent novel Rose of No Man’s Land. She curates the monthly RADAR Reading Series at the San Francisco Public Library, and loves jackalopes.

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