The Right Stuffing

For do-it-yourself taxidermists, hope is a thing with feathers—or fur and sometimes horns.

Emily Humphries removes a frozen crow from her kitchen freezer, places it on a metal workbench in her garage and lights a scented candle. She draws a scalpel down the bird’s chest, pulls back the thin layer of skin and prepares to stuff it. Despite the candle, the smell of rotting carcass fills the air.

A Portland State University film student from Spokane, Humphries recently had a mounted elk tattooed on her chest over the words taxis derma. She bartered with the tattoo artist in exchange for one of her works, a stuffed and mounted mole.

Humphries, 22, is among a growing number of do-it-yourself taxidermists, many self-taught and working on roadkill or other dead animals they scavenge. Humphries, who says the hobby has become an obsession, recently finished a raccoon and a scrub jay.

"I like the process of taking something," she says, "seeing how it works, and then bringing it back to life."

Taxidermy has long been a staple for museums and the living rooms of hunters who want to show off their kills. It's long been dismissed as a gruesome art that's passé and cliché.

But there's been a resurgence of interest in the art—fueled by an eye for kitsch. It seems no hip restaurant or bar can go without a mounted animal head. 

"It's morbid and weird, but there's something classic about it," says Brooke Weston, a Whole Foods chef whose taxidermy was shown recently at the Globe on Southeast Belmont Street. “It’s appealing and hilarious and ironic.” 

John Janelli, a Florida taxidermist and vice president of the National Taxidermy Association, has also seen heightened interest in his field. He says the Internet has helped make how-to guides widely available as the art itself comes back in vogue. "Regular folks are rolling up their sleeves and getting into it," he says.

Paxton Gate, a natural sciences store on North Mississippi Avenue, has sold a lot of taxidermy since opening last year, often to bar and restaurant owners looking for signature pieces.

"People tell us about projects that they're doing with collected roadkill and animal bones," says co-owner Andrew Brown. "There's definitely a steady trend line increase in this stuff."

Debee Smith, a bartender at the Florida Room in North Portland, does freelance taxidermy at her small studio in Northeast. 

"It's pretty incredible to be able to get up close to an animal that you would normally have no interaction with at all," says Smith. "There's something almost mystical about looking into the eyes of a beast like that."

Like many hobbyists and homegrown artists, Smith gets dead animals from the urban landscape.

"I got a call from a girl who watched a squirrel get electrocuted and fall off a power line," said Smith. "I was there in minutes."

Smith is a recent graduate of the Oregon Taxidermy School, founded in 2007 by Caleb May in response to intense interest in the art. May says he has had no trouble filling his five-week training course; costs can run $6,000. It's $5,000 if you BYOA—bring your own animal. 

But the self-taught have no trouble getting the key material to do the job. "Borax," says Humphries. "Lots and lots of borax." The white powdery mineral helps soak up blood and other fluids, and helps prevent hands from slipping while pulling muscles and tendons from the bone.

The stuffing itself—shavings known as wood wool or excelsior—can be found at craft stores. Taxidermists then add glass eyes, paint and makeup. 

It helps to have a strong gut. To prepare the crow, Humphries hangs the bird from hooks. "At this point," she says, "you sort of just pull the skin off like a sock." She also recommends VapoRub under the nose to cut the smell.

But it turns out taxidermy as a kitchen-table hobby can be illegal without the proper OK from wildlife officials.

Under state and federal law, only recreational trappers, licensed rehabilitators and educators with permits can pick up dead wildlife—even that squished opossum in front of your house.

Other laws aimed to discourage poaching can also apply. But these permits go only so far. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act, for example, makes it a federal misdemeanor (up to six months in jail, and a maximum fine of $15,000) to possess any part of a protected bird, including a crow like the one Humphries worked on.

The risks don't discourage hobbyists. "I know I'm not doing some large-scale operation," Humphries says, “so I don’t worry too much.” 

Not everyone sees taxidermy as a harmless art form. "We'd never preserve and display a beloved human family member," Nicole Dao, spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, wrote in a prepared statement in response to WW's questions. "Photographs and video footage of animals in their natural habitat that show them interacting, playing, searching for food, and even relaxing, tell us far more about their behavior than a taxidermy display."

Not surprisingly, PETA also takes a dim view of "Frankenstein"—an art form of mixing and matching animal body parts. A YouTube video demonstrating the steps to attach duck feet to a mouse body has more than 35,000 hits.

"It's a morbid and disrespectful hobby, like patching a bit of your dead grandmother's foot onto the head of a stranger who was hit by a car, because you feel like it," Dao says.

Humphries doesn't condone this kind of mash-up taxidermy. But she says many people reject what she calls the "hardcore PETA mentality." She's a vegan and animal lover who sees the art as respectful.

"People in Portland seem to be really into using what they find and not being wasteful," she says. "Egyptians used to preserve only the most important people, so really I’m honoring these animals.”