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In the wake of the recent ivory smuggling scandal at La Jolla’s Carlton Gallery, there’s something shocking in the reverence in the way the newest class of taxidermists — many of them young women — talk about animals, and their art.
Simone Weinstein, co-owner of Little Dame Shop on Adams Avenue, came to taxidermy as an expression of art three years ago, when she and her business partner Katie Howard opened their shop. They offer regular creative workshops, including taxidermy.
“It’s an art form,” Weinstein explained on a quiet Saturday evening in the shop. A white rat with a leafy branch between its teeth stands mounted on its hind legs on the shelf behind her, nestled between feminist zines, curiosities and more taxidermy. “With taxidermy, I feel the reason why people get kind of put off with it is it that it looks like the animal,” Weinstein said, attributing much of the eeriness to the eyes. “I feel the reason why we’re interested in it is because we’re kind of scared of it,” she said.
Taxidermy has a checkered but extensive history, with links to trophy hunting, natural history and art. The profession, however, is experiencing an uptick of interest among women, according to Smithsonian. Blending taxidermy with creativity and whimsy has bred a new class of taxidermists specifically interested in both ethical sourcing and the practice as an art.
“It’s anthropomorphic,” Weinstein said of the fantasy elements many artists incorporate. “I think it’s a way for people to connect to animals.” Weinstein also volunteers in the loan program at the San Diego Natural History Museum, maintaining its traditional taxidermy. “I almost get more intimidated holding and touching an animal that is properly sat in a position where they’re about to eat or about to groom themselves, compared to one of our animals that’s like, drinking tea,” she said.
Weinstein and Howard modeled their tiny shop with community workshops in mind; a large table with long benches fills much of the floor. Weinstein teaches taxidermy classes, and they also attract taxidermists from across the country to teach.
Weinstein speaks about sourcing animals with an earnest reverence. “We wanted to make sure that any animals that do come in, they weren’t harmed in any way. So for us, it’s important as animal lovers that the animals were respected before they come here,” she said.
Weinstein said that for her work, she receives deceased rodent pets from friends and acquaintances, but for their Little Dame workshops, where they need animals in greater quantities, they often use “expired feeders.” When animals bred to feed larger reptiles and snakes age beyond a date that would ensure their freshness, they are often discarded by pet stores, said Weinstein. “Which means that they would throw away the animals. So instead of the animals being thrown away, we taxidermy them,” she said.
Taxidermy collection and licensing laws are complicated and vary from state to state. California restricts collecting roadkill, for example.
Weinstein’s taxidermy students can, in one day: First, skin the animal – generally rats, rabbits (Weinstein calls them “bunnies”) or European starlings – by separating the skin from the animal at the membrane. The carcass and the bones are then discarded or buried in the ground, with occasional exceptions: Bird skulls are partially left to support the beak, and some tiny rodent paws prove too difficult to skin.
Next, students prepare the skin. A poorly cleaned animal will rot, shrivel and lose shape. Weinstein uses Dawn soap, Borax and denatured alcohol (“I wander around Target and I think, ‘I’m shopping for taxidermy supplies and nobody knows this,’” Weinstein said).
While the skin dries, students build a form out of foam or hay, then place the cleaned skin around the form, finishing the piece with beads for eyes, pins to create expressions and any extra accessories. In some Little Dame cases that’s unicorn horns, or a teacup.
For Weinstein, practicing taxidermy is a way of connecting with animals and with herself, as well as finding comfort in death. She also said that some of her favorite things to taxidermy are birds. “You never hold birds. You can’t hold birds because they fly away,” she said. “So when you’re taxidermying a bird, it’s like a surreal feeling. You almost feel like it’s a privilege to be able to do it.”
Friday and Saturday brings December Nights to Balboa Park for the 41st time. Forty-one is also how many times you’ll want to mutter “Oh my god, move” under your breath at the crowds.
But for those of you who love crowds and are going anyway (godspeed), here’s my advice:
Tell us in the comments: What are your don’t-miss experiences at December Nights?