A Mouse on Your Mantle: The Very Victorian Art of Taxidermy

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I dragged a sharp X-Acto blade down the dead mouse’s back slowly, so as not to pull out any of her fluffy white fur. Her skin split easily, like I had pulled a zipper.

As she did the same on her mouse, the student next to me asked if I thought it was weird that her first thought was if this was how surgeons cut in to human patients.

I’m an animal lover in that I think most of them taste good, but I’ve never so much as filleted a fish for dinner, so it was with apprehension that I signed up for a class with taxidermist Divya Anantharaman, who also offers private lessons for the aspiring taxidermist. Her fascination with creatures big and small began when she was a young girl growing up in Miami.

“I picked up a lizard that died in our bug zapper and I felt so bad for it because it died unjustly, because I didn’t want mosquitos biting me at dinner time,” Anantharaman, 29, told me before class. “I was five years old and I put him in a box with rocks and shells and other beautiful things and he started to stink after a few days—my mom was horrified.”

I enrolled in Anantharaman’s anthropomorphic mouse class for $110 (mouse and all the fixins included). Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter originated this art form in the mid-1850s, which reanimates the animal posed in human dress, in the midst of a typically human activity, by crafting elaborate weddings and tea parties with cute, departed critters like kittens and rabbits.

In present day Brooklyn, Anantharaman considers anthropomorphic taxidermy an opportunity for creative reincarnation.  “If this guy came back to life,” she said of the mice she worked with, “maybe he wouldn’t want to be a regular old mouse, maybe he’d want to have a sword and dress up like Zorro.”

Anantharaman hunts and traps animals bound for her personal collection, but not for pieces she sells or instructs with. And she’ll make a meal with the meat she hunts, she said. “As bizarre as it may sound these days, if I’m going out for a deer, you can feed a fucking village with that, and that sounds so much better than buying a weird oval cutlet of mystery shit at Associated.”

I walked into the class with some trepidation, but felt at ease when I met Anantharaman, a lovely, petite woman in high-waisted, bejeweled short shorts, a black tank top and massive hoop earrings. Her fingernails were long and manicured in a variety of bold colors.

“Do you know what kind of mouse you want?” she asked me sweetly, as I placed my purse down in front of a half-frozen mouse thawing on a plastic dinner plate.

I didn’t. I hardly thought about what my mouse might like to come back as. A tuxedo-clad tap dancer, perhaps? Or a regal, crowned queen? Maybe the tiniest mob boss?

Anantharaman, who also teaches a class in English sparrow taxidermy, gestured toward a table covered in miniature bits and bobs, like thimble-sized top hats, pink plastic flowers, and assorted plastic high heels reminiscent of my childhood Barbie collection.

Underneath a powdery white, dry preservative, I noticed my mouse’s dainty black spots on fluffy, otherwise white fur, and decided it was definitely a girl mouse. I selected a doll’s blue cotton skirt, a pink plastic bow and a tiny turquoise vinyl purse.

Fascination with taxidermy as a craft has found a mainstream audience: Anantharaman’s penchant for collecting dead animals landed her on TLC’s My Strange Addiction, and the Science Channel’s reality show Oddities is centered around Obscura Antiques and Oddities  in the East Village, and inspired a San Francisco spin-off.

Raine Anakanu, a jewelry designer and fellow taxidermy student, works at Gothic Renaissance in Union Square, which carries two pieces by Anantharaman. He said there’s a market for taxidermy in New York City. “We have a taxidermy crow,” Anakanu said. “It’s an antique because crows are protected by the government now so as a result he’s something like $1,300, and he would have sold many times over if it were a lower price point. I think $800 was the highest we got offered but he’s too special for us to let go for lower than mark.”

With gloved hands I picked up my mouse and turned her over. She and her fellow mice arrived from a pet store frozen (they were feed for large reptiles, but were about to be discarded, so Anantharaman snatched them up). She was still cold but nearly thawed. As I sat in front of my work station, which was outfitted with an X-Acto and two blades, tweezers, a paintbrush and a lace tool that resembled a wide needle on one end and a miniature spoon on the other, I was suddenly very eager to tear into the little beast.

Anantharaman demonstrated how to arrange the creature on its belly and slit the skin from neck to base of the tail. It was surprisingly easy, even though I lost some fur in the process, but once the cut was made the skin gave way without a fight.

I peeled the skin away with a dull blade, which was really no different—and no more grotesque—than pulling skin from a chicken breast. If we didn’t puncture the carcass with the blade, Anantharaman said, the odor would be minimal and the innards would come out in one piece, not in a mess of blood, guts and vertebrae as I expected.

Anantharaman trolled the room, peering over her pupils’ shoulders and reapplying dry preservative to prevent moisture. Cutting the elbow and knee joints felt like breaking pencil lead. After I skinned the tail, and with a little extra coaxing from Anantharaman and her long, gloved fingernails, the inside of my mouse fell onto my plate.

I punctured a hole in the skull with the sharp end of the lace tool, wiggled it around to widen the hole, and scooped the brains out with the other end of the tool. Because the mouse was long dead, the brains liquified and were just a thick, pink goop. Once cleared of the brain, I packed dry preservative into the skull, pulled out the tongue with tweezers and popped out the eyes with the lace tool, which, once freed from the head, resembled large beads of black fish roe. I replaced them with black pin heads–repurposed sewing supplies.

I laid my mouse skin flat and Anantharaman painted a liquid antibacterial solution on the inside of the flesh. For such a small animal, Anantharaman said this solution, combined with the dry preservative, prevents decay and deters moths and pests. For larger animals, the skin might be pickled or tanned and preservation can take weeks.

We stuffed the mice with brick red self-hardening clay and stubby pieces of thick wire to hold up the arms and feet. I wanted my mouse to sit on a little plastic chair I found on the accessories table, so I created a curved form resembling an animated kidney bean with stunted, silver limbs. For mice, the extra weight from the clay adds stability, and because it reshapes well, it’s easy to position the animal in human poses. Forms for larger animals can be made from wood wool, plastic or hard foam, Anantharaman said.

Fitting the clay mold into the skin was like trying on a jacket that’s a few size too small. Once I squeezed the legs in and attempted to fit the arms, the legs came loose. If I took off the skin to readjust the leg wires, I ruined the alignment. I looked at Anantharaman wearily and asked for help.

“Sure!” she said, and smiled as she bent over to help assemble the creature. Her gentle coaxing of the wire stubs worked where my heavy touch didn’t. She outfitted me with a needle and white thread and I began stitching my little friend back together. Every few stitches, I pulled too hard and felt the thread break the mouse’s delicate skin at the seam, but with a more help from Anantharaman I put the mouse back together.

“So, was it as gross as you thought it would be?” Anantharaman asked as I hot glued the bow between my mouse’s ears. We all agreed it wasn’t.

“I’m comfortable around dead mice especially because I have snakes at home so I have a freezer full of dead mice,” explained Anakanu, who created a dagger-wielding “necromancer” mouse. “I thought it was going to be more blood and gutsy than it was. I was surprised because when my snakes eat mice it’s very messy.”

There was no time limit to the class; it lasted four hours and I needed every minute. Never did my gag reflex weaken, but at times my patience did. While a strong stomach is a requisite, a bit of doggedness might go further. Taxidermy, even of the smallest creatures, is an intricate art, I realized, and those with an artistic background, like Anakanu, are likely to catch on quickly.

By the time I finished my mouse—a pretty schoolgirl named Mavis, who is staring at me from beneath her pink bow as I write this, I was exhausted, but had that familiar high that comes from working out or assembling a piece of IKEA furniture. Mavis didn’t quite fit in her plastic chair, so she now leans against its rungs, since my clay form was too top heavy for her to stand on her own.

After class, I decided to take Mavis out for a drink and introduce her to my friends. I packed her in a metal takeout container and couldn’t wait for people to glance at the box in my hand and ask me what I had for dinner.

The next anthropomorphic mouse class is on July 6 at the Observatory. To purchase tickets and for details, visit Anantharaman’s website.

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