In the basement of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York, Divya Anantharaman fills a weathered utility sink with warm water and dead birds. Three bantams, a silky, and two roosters float in a cloud of feathers beneath soft fluorescent light. The birds are frozen solid, shipped to the Morbid Anatomy Museum months ago from a fancy chicken breeder in rural Pennsylvania. They have died of natural causes; save for the fray of old age and familial scuffles, their bodies are free from marks of trauma or neglect. Divya’s teaching partner, Katie Innamorato, circles around a plastic table towards the back of the room, taking stock of craft supplies and dentist’s tools arranged with thoughtful intention. The dark red cover of Ornithology by Frank B. Gill stands out among balls of twine and glimmering scalpels. Thawing the chickens is the first step to bringing them back to life . . . sort of.
Divya and Katie are artists in residence at the Morbid Anatomy Museum, where they teach alternative taxidermy classes and share their insatiable appetite for giving critter cadavers a lavish afterlife with the public. They’re part of the growing genre of “rogue” taxidermy that relies on kitsch elements to produce fantastical—sometimes gruesome—pieces of art while connecting urbanites and hobbyists with nature in an unconventional way. Bedazzled with jewelry, top hats, or makeup, the dioramas they create are more like an Alice in Wonderland nightmare than anything you’d find in the Museum of Natural History. A quick Google search of rogue taxidermy offers a labyrinth of mythological creatures stapled together in various degrees of skill: goat-fish, jackelopes, two-headed mice, and a melee of teacup-wielding kittens are just the beginning of the rabbit hole.
Though both women were trained in art—Katie in sculpture and Divya in fashion design—they employ scalpels with surgical dexterity and maintain an unmasked reverence for the creatures they work on. This hazy Sunday afternoon, five students have gathered in the raw brick basement to create their own works of gaudy revival under the taxidermists’ guidance (at $400 a seat). Katie and Divya take turns lifting the now-room-temperature birds out of the sink one at a time and wrapping each in a towel, squeezing the excess water from their feathers with a tender but firm grip before placing each bird on a red plastic tray in front of a workstation.
The class is unintentionally made up of all women, yet all as eclectic as their reasons for taking the course. A young college student is hoping to incorporate taxidermy into her artwork. A vegan is doing a self-professed exploration of the contradiction between her love of animals and her affinity for collecting taxidermy. They seem unsure of the mood and slightly self-conscious in the presence of the dead. Katie interrupts their awkwardness: “Are we all chicken enthusiasts?” she asks lightly before encouraging them to choose a seat—and a bird.
Even with Katie and Divya’s skill and unwavering passion, I can’t help but wonder whether this is really taxidermy at all—and it certainly doesn’t seem like conservation. At least, it’s not the kind I know. The house I grew up in was a mini macabre shrine to wild game. Deer skulls and antler mounts adorned the hallway to the bathroom, lined the shelves in the garage, and piled up in tomb-like layers in the waterlogged shed out back. Hunting knives and bone carvings floated in kitchen drawers among spent batteries and used twist ties. My stepfather, who killed and ate these animals, would draw up his thick Appalachian accent to recount his hunt through muggy pine stands and cottonmouth-infested marshes, pointing to tick bites, raw calluses, and swollen ankles as I listened in awe.
I have since filled more than a freezer full of elk, venison, and veal that I helped break down from roaming animal into skirt steak, rump roast, and short loin, working the hide for days, sometimes weeks, before it transformed into supple leather. Those experiences were my gateway into naturalism and, eventually, conservation. I learned firsthand what we lose when forests and valleys give way to shopping centers and feedlots. The memories did more than just stir curiosity; they inspired a foundational respect for the environment that I continue to build on to this day.
From John James Audubon to Theodore Roosevelt, hunters and taxidermists have shaped conservation efforts for centuries, as hypocritical as it may seem to those unfamiliar with the history. Carl Akeley, the father of modern-day taxidermy and an avid hunter, transformed museum dioramas throughout the late 19th and early 20th century from pieces of public amusement to scenically accurate works of art and education. It’s through these displays that the public learned about species in peril and moved to preserve flora and fauna across the globe.
The form has undoubtedly evolved with the times. It now expands far beyond trophy and sustenance hunting to combat poaching, honor species that have gone extinct, and preserve the animals in our lives that move us most. But sitting in an air-conditioned Brooklyn basement with women who create two-headed mice, spend their days fussing over birds as ubiquitous as the urban pigeon, and do not filter any fiscal return toward our national conservation programs, I found myself struggling to see how rogue taxidermy could be anything but a bourgeois, frivolous, hipster endeavor.
It only took nine hours and five stuffed fancy chickens to change my mind.
Part of this is how the class (and most rogue taxidermists) sources its animals. Most have died naturally—old age, fighting other animals, or illness are the most common causes. Others are stillborn from local farms or small-time breeders. Some, like the notoriously invasive European Starling, are collected after mass culling, often arranged by the Department of Agriculture in an attempt to control the havoc these birds wreak on farm fields and native bird populations. Before Katie and Divya began preserving the perished invaders, their carcasses would be toted off to rot in a landfill. “It seems unfair that something so beautiful could be wasted,” Divya says. That’s one reason she likes working on invasive and domestic bird species; there’s a greater challenge in getting people to value or respect something as abundant as starlings and chickens.
Katie tends to gravitate towards roadkill and mangled specimens other taxidermists have discarded, and, like Divya, avoids harsh chemicals and sport killings in the process. Preserving elements of decay and mortality seems to be her signature. When Katie was in high school, she would bring home roadkill and bury it in her parents' backyard, letting the carcass fully decompose before digging up and preserving the bones for display. “I felt bad for all the animals I would see on the side of the road,” she says. “When I found ones that were fresher, I wanted to utilize everything I could.” So she started fleshing and saving the skins too.
The use of castoff animals and rudimentary techniques has led some critics and many traditional taxidermists to dismiss the entire genre of rogue taxidermy as roadside circus garbage. As Mark Van Leuvan, a nationally recognized taxidermist and the former president of the Garden State Taxidermy Association, said, “ It’s just bad taxidermy. They take a bad piece, cover it up with moss or whatever, and call it rogue.” The DIY style is built on a bared campiness that understandably rubs some the wrong way. But the genre’s broad parameters stretch far beyond craft classes like this one and include everything from fine art sculpture displayed in galleries and exhibits to “vegan” taxidermy that avoids animal products altogether. When the Minnesota Rogue Taxidermy Association was established in 2004—the first of its kind—their no-harm no-waste approach became one of the field’s founding elements and has broadened the art form (and discussion) to appeal to people who adamantly oppose hunting or don’t have access to wild game.
While both Divya and Katie are passionate about the art of taxidermy, they actually see the rogue approach as a way to protect the environment by bypassing the act of killing. They hope their work helps foster an appreciation for the beauty nature has to offer and, in turn, creates awareness and inspiration to conserve it. But they also recognize the value in sustenance hunting and traditional taxidermy. It’s what turned them on to the field in the first place. “When someone sees a mounted animal, it becomes an opportunity to study and appreciate that animal in a way that isn't possible from observing it in the wild,” Divya says. And, she notes, not everyone has the privilege to experience nature up close. Having grown up in Miami’s inner city, museum taxidermy was one of few ways she was able to intimately engage with wildlife. At the end of the day, Divya says, “We do this because we love animals.”
As Divya pulls a drumstick out of its feathery sleeve, she draws in a serious breath to talk about the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Due to the MBTA, students can’t source their own birds. “I’ve had students call the day before class and ask if they can work on a dead bird they found,” Divya says, “and the answer is no, no, definitely not.” Most of her students have never heard of the MBTA. A brief history lesson leads to the discussion of plume hunters in the early 20th century and circles back to present-day trendy feather earrings. Divya maintains this rhythm throughout class: instruction, history lesson, modern relevance.
Perhaps it is her youth, or charm, or that she’s gutting a chicken while wearing ballet flats and heavy eyeliner, but her students aren’t just listening, they’re talking. She’s meeting her audience where they’re at and prompting discussion about conservation issues in a way urbanized, environmentally minded hipsters find relevant—an audience many traditional conservation groups (including Audubon) are struggling to enlist. I pull my seat closer and listen.
When it's time for the students to take up their scalpels, they hesitantly press into the birds. Katie and Divya circle the room like yoga instructors, adjusting a scalpel angle here, pointing out seeds in a small pouch in the bird’s throat there. The demonstration is punctuated with lessons about process and bird anatomy. In a DIY approach like this, “it’s not necessary to use harsh chemicals,” Katie says, responding to a student’s question about acids. “As long as you remove all the meat, fat, and muscle, the skin just dries out and you won’t have to worry about bugs or rot.” At least, not for some time.
Soon, the women settle into a rhythm. It’s a process I’ve seen a dozen times and done just as many, yet something about this feels new. Some students silently peel, while others reflexively chatter, bouncing the discussion from factory farming to climate change to whether chickens fart. (They can, but they rarely have to.) The women work at their own pace, and the instructors let them. It takes time for you to get to know your bird, Divya says, and that’s OK. They’re working on their own terms, connecting with nature in a way that is somewhat foreign yet wholly familiar to me—a more sanitized, quirkier version.
After nearly seven hours of work, the women fawn over their resurrected creatures with joy. They delicately fluff feathers and tailor the supple skin around the birds’ glass eyes until they almost emote. One woman paints the glass pupils to emphasize its prehistoric features, which turns into a discussion about dinosaurs and evolution. I suddenly feel a pang of guilt for the gatekeeper mentality I walked into class with. In less than a day these piecemeal avians have triggered dialogue about birds, wildlife, traditional taxidermy, and conservation the same way a museum diorama, or mounted boar head, or copy of Audubon magazine displayed on a coffee table might. The discussions are the same; the audience is different. In a time of mass extinction and a mounting climate crisis, the one thing the conservation movement can’t be is prohibitively exclusive; we need all the allies we can get, including Brooklyn marketing directors and art students.
After much preening, the skin along the chest and belly of each bird is stitched closed once more. The finished products are rigid, terrifying renditions of real birds, but the students seem pleased nonetheless. They stroke their chickens and take pictures as Katie helps each student fit her bird on a Styrofoam platform, bending the wings to replicate a semi-natural state. Divya continues to primp, pet, and shape the birds into posture. The last chicken remains under her grooming hands for 20 minutes as she fiddles to get the shoulders just right. “I’m going to lose sleep over this,” she says as the left wing hangs awkwardly off the bird. “Really, I am.” And I don’t doubt her. In fact, I know exactly how she feels.
* * *
The Final Product
Photos by Camilla Cerea, Text by Emily Silber