Interview Q&A: Ethical taxidermy, modernity and misconceptions about the craft.
Back in May I was interviewed about my thoughts and opinions on ethical taxidermy, the misconceptions of the craft to what my favourite piece and what motivates me to create. I hope you enjoy it.
What does ethical taxidermy mean to you?
Ethical taxidermy means to me that it hasn’t been killed for the purpose for taxidermy and I strive to source the specimens I use in my work in the most humane way possible. I do not kill any of the specimens I work with. I get a lot of my specimens from the RSPCA. I also get my birds of prey from a DEFRA wildlife officer who gets birds that have died of natural causes. A small amount of my specimens are sourced from road-kill, reptile food etc. It is an ethical dilemma sometimes when it comes to sourcing specimens and clients coming with their own specimens.
Most of my specimens that clients give me are birds that are window or road casualties they want preserved. However, I do get game and wildfowl birds that have been shot and people come to me to preserve them. Currently there is massive debates about the meat industry and the environmental concerns around this. What is more environmentally friendly? Mass produced farmed chickens or shooting a pheasant? There’s an argument that meat doesn’t get more free range and death doesn’t come much quicker than a good shot. Grouse are also controversial as they are one of the only indigenous game birds in the UK. Some game shooters illegally shoot birds of prey who are natural predators of grouse.
According to the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust its estimated that 35 million pheasants are now reared and released each year. The Independent suggests that in the UK, there isn’t much of a market to eat game, so the majority of these birds that are shot are unceremoniously disposed of, which isn’t in the spirit of shooting for the purposes of countryside management or to put food on the table. Another ethical issue is shooting mammals and birds in the UK for pest control. Birds such as crows, pigeons and grey squirrels are classed as pests in the UK. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 states that it is an offence to kill any bird or mammal unless a license is held, but section one allows exemption if an organisation or individual complies with general license regulations.
One argument suggests that doing pest control is beneficial for a wide variety of native species including plants, butterflies and birds. And that organisations that provide shooting opportunities carry out wildlife management and pest and predator control have seen reverse declines in bird species such as song thrush, whitethroat, dunnock and black bird.
I make sure that all specimens are legally and ethically sourced as possible. And have terms and conditions that my clients must sign before any work is undertaken. I keep logs of all my specimens, detailing where the specimen was found, how it died and dates of when it was found/died and when it was mounted.
Does this art form hold any personal significance?
On a personal level Taxidermy represents to me celebration of life, not death. Yes, okay the
specimen is no longer alive, however it is showing the beauty of nature and wildlife, expressing the life of an animal or bird by preserving it. I love wildlife and nature so being able to show people the real thing gives me great satisfaction.
Can you share one of your favourite taxidermy experiences with us?
I always had an interest in taxidermy. I was fascinated with the fact that you can see wildlife up close and personal and they wouldn’t run off as wild animals do. It was something I thought “How on earth do they do that?” It didn’t go any further until I did a taxidermy course with taxidermist David Keningale in 2014. He showed me how to preserve my first squirrel which I found that had died from a tram collision in Nottingham. I fondly named him Steve.
One of my more hilarious and slightly disturbing experiences I have had with was when I had a
customer who delivered a severed Jacob Sheep’s head to the wrong house, and had my neighbour phoning me saying “There’s a bag of blood here and I think it’s for you?”. Thankfully, they were understanding and as an apology I thought it was a good idea to give them a bottle of red wine, not realising the connotation of the colour of the wine to blood.
Do you feel that the animals you work with are still spiritually present?
When I work on my specimens, I am only working with what they have left behind. They have
definitely passed on and left their body which I work on to preserve them.
How do you feel taxidermy has changed from its antiquated past uses to the modern and ethical art form we see today?
In my opinion taxidermy has changed in a positive way, however I do think taxidermy still holds that resonance with Victorian taxidermy and how they shot/killed a lot of birds and animals for trophy hunting and for the purposes of getting them preserved. I feel there is two ways it can be looked at.
One part being the human intervention with animals to the point of extinction and the other part
being that those extinct specimens are now preserved in museums. It is like a double-edged sword.
Lots of these bird and animals were hunts for the sake of sport and trophy hunting, however only a small percentage of these animals/birds are now displayed in museums. Prime example being the passenger pigeon which went extinct in 1914 due to the relentless killing combined with large-scale habitat destruction, these iconic birds; population crashed from billions to zero in just fifty years.
There is still some misunderstandings from the public with modern taxidermy and how they are
sourced. It can be a contentious subject sometimes when discussing where animals are sourced.
Some people believe that roadkill is unethical and shot specimens are ethical due to the instant
death. Some people believe that animals that are by products of the food chain such as reptile food are ethical. It is a broad subject which is highly debated, and I would say subjective to some extent.
Taxidermy has come a long way since the days of the Victorians preserving animals and birds, but I still feel there is still a little way to go.
Where, if at all, do you see a place for spirituality and witchcraft within this art form?
I do see the link with dead animals and birds with Paganism and Wiccan. They are used in rituals and ceremonies. It stems back thousands of years ago. Bones could be turned into anything from a knife to a sewing needle. An antler could be used as a weapon or a farming tool. Anything was useful. I think personally, Paganism and taxidermy tie well together as both have great links to nature, and appreciate the natural beauty in wildlife. In some shamanic traditions, animals parts can be used to connect the practitioner to the animals.
Some bones or certain animals might represent something symbolise to that person, such as someone wishing to celebrate fertility might use the antlers of a stag. However, in modern Paganism it’s usually not okay to slaughter an animal just to use its parts in ritual. However, some might disagree.
What do you think is the biggest misconception regarding taxidermy and taxidermists?
The biggest misconception I would say is that there are a minority of people I have come across think taxidermists have no respect for the animal/bird and we have killed it for the purpose of taxidermy. It is far from the truth, a taxidermist studies wildlife to the way a bird behaves to how an animal poses when running or eating. I found a lot of taxidermists are passionate about the conservation of wildlife and preserving natural habitats.
Tell us a little about your own work! Do you have a favourite piece, where does your interest stem from, and what motivates you to continue creating?
My own work is a mixture of taxidermy, textile sculpture and embroidery. I started my own business the end of 2014 and developed my brand Taxtiles. Which is a merge of two words "Textile & Taxidermy". I experiment with the techniques used in taxidermy to create bespoke luxury items for the home and office.
I studied BA (Hons) Decorative Arts at Nottingham Trent in 2015 and specialised in 3D
Textiles/Embroidery while also doing taxidermy.
I have been doing traditional taxidermy since 2014, trained by professional taxidermist David
Keningale. Additionally, I have also had training from specialist bird taxidermist Carl Church in 2017. I also do skulls preservation, entomology pinning, habitat restoration and re-casing.
All taxidermy specimens and fur/feathers are ethically sourced and have been either road-kill,
euthanised wild-life from the vets, RSPCA and WWT Slimbridge, which couldn't be saved due to
injuries and illness. No animals or bird are killed when making the pieces of taxidermy.
They were already dead when acquired. I never kill any of her specimens for my work.
My textile sculpture is also referred to as "vegan/vegetarian taxidermy" fauxdermy or "textile
taxidermy". The techniques used in the textile taxidermy are from traditional taxidermy translated into fabric, using sustainable yarns, threads and fabric. I then developed the technique which I called the term “weave-binding”.
All sculptures are pose-able and can interact with each other. Even the textile trophy heads are
pose-able with the ears. Every sculpture is bespoke and individual. They can vary in colour and
personality which gives them character. None of the textile taxidermy has any part of an animal or bird inside it.
Additionally, my free-hand embroidery illustrates motifs inspired by British wild-life. They are
created into canvassed wall-pieces or cushions.
My favourite piece I would say is this blue squirrel which I created end of 2017 as part of a larger
body of work when I exhibited at the RHS Autumn show in London.
My interests stem from wildlife, nature and animals. I’ve always loved wildlife as a child, creating
characters, collecting TY beanie babies and visiting zoo’s when I was young. What motivates me when creating my pieces is the endless possibilities of what the outcome could be. As every piece I do is bespoke, no two items are the same. I love the process and the end piece, learning something new every time I create a new piece.
Do you use your taxidermy creations for anything other than decor and educational purposes?
I have had in the past people who have bought my textile sculpture (vegan taxidermy) who have
been visually impaired, the feedback I’ve received is that they love the tactile textures and feel of
the threads and yarn that are on the pieces. And they love the fact that the textile sculptures cannot shatter or break like ceramics or glass.
My work has been used for art classes when drawing for still life. I’ve also had my work used as
props in films such as ITV’s Victoria in series 3 – two taxidermy kittens (not pets) as part of the Great Exhibition episode.
Currently I preserve a lot of taxidermy for the John Moore Museum in Tewkesbury who have an
extensive natural history collection used for educating the public and local schools about wildlife and environmental sustainability issues.
Additionally, I also collaborate with other artists to create installations, film and merging my work with conceptual ideas and other materials.