Inside the female-led world of ethical taxidermy: ‘It’s not just for hunters’ | San Diego

Four dead rats. Two white guinea pig carcasses. One lifeless brown rabbit. A group of women hovered tentatively over the bodies, holding scalpels.

“Are we slicing all the way through?” asked KC Carmela, one of the attendees, a scalpel in one hand and a rodent in the other. “Like butter? Or a banana?”

The women stood around a folding table wrapped in heavy-duty plastic, at the very back of an otherwise ordinary storefront in San Diego. The theme of the Saturday workshop: “you-pick-which-animal” taxidermy.

“Just, very lightly, go through the membrane a little bit,” the teacher, Simone Pixley Weinstein, told them, lifting up one of the rats. Her nails were painted sparkly shades of pink and red, and festooned with miniature jeweled hearts and flowers. With the blade of a knife, she indicated where they would delicately cut around the rat’s torso, right under the arms. “And then the skin starts to lift.”

The group got to work. For a brief moment, the room was quiet. Tiny tufts of rabbit fur came loose and floated through the air. As the once fuzzy bodies became slick hunks of flesh, a deeply raw, earthy smell fell over the small space. The abstract idea of taxidermy was suddenly very, very real.

“The first cut is the deepest,” someone sang.

A student handles a rabbit in Weinstein’s class. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

The joyful, grisly scene was just another day at Pixley’s Oddities, the tattoo and taxidermy shop Weinstein owns in southern California. She has hosted taxidermy workshops like this one for years, helping first-timers and taxidermy aficionados create hauntingly beautiful, macabre pieces of art. While taxidermy might once have conjured up the image of a grizzled hunter mounting a deer’s head to a cabin wall, Weinstein is one of the many women and increasingly diverse people who are redefining the practice.

Less than a decade ago, when Weinstein first decided she wanted to get into the trade, one local business told her simply: “We don’t teach women.” Today, women flock to the classes she teaches, and scores of female and LGBTQ+-run taxidermy businesses have taken root in California.

Many taxidermists, Weinstein included, also practice what’s known as “ethical taxidermy”, which broadly means that animals were not killed for that purpose. Instead, the animals are sourced from farms, pet stores and, in states where it’s legal, sometimes from the side of the road. Vegetarians and vegans have even become taxidermists.

“We feel like we’re giving a second chance at life to this animal,” Weinstein said.

Even after years of doing this (Weinstein also cleans and maintains the San Diego Natural History Museum’s taxidermy collection), the 34-year-old is disarmingly soft-spoken. She picks up each frozen animal gingerly, almost as if she doesn’t want to hurt it. She still seems surprised – and elated – that people show up for her classes at all.

“I guess let’s get started!” she said before the cutting started, her hands fluttering up to her face. “I’m so excited, y’all. I feel like this is gonna be really fun.”

Simone Pixley Weinstein demonstrates how to shave foam to use as filling. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

‘Dead inside’

A hulking, nondescript freezer in Weinstein’s shop holds mysteries – and stories. She carefully rifled through its contents during a lull in the workshop, pointing to dead and frozen animals of every variety. One large black trash bag held a coyote, stored for a friend. A spotted rabbit was encased in a zip-lock bag. Underneath, guinea pigs, squirrels and other small creatures had been given a home.

The animals that wind up in Weinstein’s freezer often come to her at random. She frequently gets direct messages from friends and strangers alike, mentioning that they found a dead squirrel or possum, or maybe their pet rat died. Weinstein also takes in dead “feeder” animals, such as mice and bunnies, that are bred to be food for big reptiles and would otherwise be thrown away after reaching certain expiration dates.

“Someone texted me: ‘I have a squirrel,’” Weinstein said of a recent acquisition, pulling a beige tote bag from the depths of the freezer and opening it briefly to reveal a furry body at the bottom. “I said: ‘I have a tote.’”

Instead of being tossed, Weinstein’s menagerie of animal carcasses rises from the dead – at least visually.

Left: Preserved animals at Pixley’s Oddities. Right: Participants soak animals in alcohol. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

At the front of her store, animals that have been skinned and stuffed hang from the walls and cover the floor, sit atop pedestals and stare out from glass cases. There’s a jackrabbit sporting gold-painted horns (a “jackalope”) and a porcupine, posed mid-lunge, draped in a string of pearls. “Dead inside,” a pink neon sign flashes above a taxidermied wild boar, teeth bared and wearing a gauzy bow.

Some of the women at the workshop were new to this environment, while others had already dipped a toe into taxidermy or animal preservation.

Meagan McWhorter was part of the latter group. Growing up, McWhorter “never supported” taxidermy, she said. “I thought it was just hunters, hunting things and killing things for fun, and putting a trophy on the wall.”

But scrolling through social media one day, she found a handful of educational videos about the process. All of the taxidermists she saw were women. “I love animals so much,” she said. “I realized this is something I actually really support and would like to continue to support.”

Weinstein’s workshop, McWhorter told the others as she worked on her rabbit, was a Valentine’s Day gift from her boyfriend.

Washed skins were later stretched over foam molds to mimic the animals’ original bodies. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

Amy Jennings, who was doing taxidermy for the first time, also wasn’t squeamish about the process. Skinning a rat was similar to working with chicken thighs, she said, only with a scalpel rather than a knife. But she also didn’t want to mess up the final product by cutting into it haphazardly. “OK, I don’t know, I don’t feel confident,” she said as she approached the tricky elbow area, handing the animal off to Weinstein. “I want it to be perfect.”

After the women removed each animal’s skin – creating something similar to a once living sock puppet – the pelts were dunked into a cup of isopropyl alcohol. The washed skins were later stretched over foam molds to mimic the animals’ original bodies. The small heads were then mounted on wooden displays and decorated; the guinea pigs were surrounded by a garland of fake flowers, and the rabbit would later be christened with its own pair of horns.

Jennings wasn’t sure where her taxidermied rat might end up in her house. “Maybe in my kitchen?” she wondered aloud. “I’m not good at home decor.”

‘Flesh and bones’

Beyond the pure novelty of taxidermying an animal for the first time, many practitioners take on the art form for a much more profound reason: to examine the thin margin between life and death.

A workshop attendee sprinkles borax onto a skinned half of a rat. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

As a teenager, Weinstein was diagnosed with leukemia. While she grappled with the concept of her own mortality, the typical teenage world spun on around her. Weinstein’s friends were more interested in talking about “like, wanting to have sex or something”, she said.

“And I was just like, ‘Sex? I want to talk about the fact that we could die. We could die tomorrow,’” Weinstein said. “Taxidermy allowed me to process death. And there’s a whole community of taxidermists that feel the same way.”

Out in the California desert, roughly 150 miles north of Weinstein’s shop, another taxidermist knows what it’s like to hold death in their hands. Reno Lott, or “Roadkill Reno”, took their first taxidermy class from Weinstein. In the five years since, they’ve set up a studio near Joshua Tree, created a full-time taxidermy and “pet preservation” business, and worked to memorialize a vast array of animals – including their own two pet dogs.

At one point, Lott was holding one of the dog’s hearts in their hands, thinking that this had to be “one of the deepest things I will ever experience”.

“It was so beautiful and life-changing and changed my perspective on how I see my own death, my parents’ death, the death of loved ones,” they said. “You have to realize that everyone is just going to become flesh and bones. And ultimately, that is the deepest part of what you learn through taxidermy.”

For other people’s deceased pets, Lott offers different services: preservation of the entire hide, tail, ear or paw; bone jewelry; full skeletal articulation (meaning the animal’s cleaned skeleton is arranged into a lifelike pose); and more.

A participant sews two rats together. Photograph: Alan Nakkash/The Guardian

Lott also uses the desert to their advantage to salvage and preserve bones. They often take butchered-down remains and place them at the bottom of an old goldmining shaft (a ragged hole in the ground that Lott lovingly calls the “death pit”), where insects will naturally start to eat the flesh over time. Lott eventually descends a ladder into the pit, picks up the bones and lets her own army of flesh-eating beetles finish cleaning the bones inside. The whole process, Lott says, is “very symbiotic”.

Because somewhere past the shock of flesh and bone and fur is “something deeper”, some kind of ancient truth that keeps Lott interested in taxidermy. In talking and thinking about death, Americans can be “so quiet and fearful” compared with those from other cultures, they said.

“That’s my number one reason for getting into this all: let’s contemplate this without fear and without the pressure that it’s wrong,” they said. “And let’s see where that gets us, and what peace that gives us when our loved ones pass, or when we are getting ready to pass.”

“I don’t know,” Lott added, a beat later. After many years of dealing with death, the mystery of it all still looms large. “It just feels important to ponder. But I haven’t gotten the full answers yet.”

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