On Saturday, the 28-year-old fashion designer Divya Anantharaman struck a coy pose in the doorway of her kitchen. “I’m going to take the bird out of the fridge so it gets to room temperature,” she breathed, as if the “bird” were perhaps a roasted turkey, and not a pair of dead finches in a Zip-loc bag.
When she’s not traveling for her day job as a shoe designer for women and tweens, Ms. Anantharaman spends her weekends doing taxidermy. She answered the door in high-waisted black shorts, oversize glasses studded with rhinestones, sparkly green stick-on fingernails and bare feet—a bit of Brooklyn, where she lives, meets Miami, where she grew up. Ms. Anantharaman, who is dark-skinned, curvy and full-lipped, is gorgeous enough to pull this garish combination off—even as she clears a model of a human skeleton from the dining room table. “Last night I had some friends over and we were going to do taxidermy stuff, but we ended up just playing with my anatomy model,” she apologized.
Ms. Anantharaman has stuffed about 50 animals, and collected many more off eBay and from friends, who know that animal remains make an ideal house gift. The young fashionista tried to stuff her first mouse about four years ago on a whim, an experiment that evolved into an obsession with the rite of animal preservation. She’s using her winnings from Lifetime’s 24 Hour Catwalk, a grand prize of $10,000, to create a new line of taxidermy-themed footwear: high-heeled bunny slippers with real bunny heads, pumps covered in white mouse skin, that kind of thing. She has yet to name the collection. “Probably either ‘Ampoule’ or ‘Friends Forever,’” she said.
Her collection won’t be out for another two months, but there’s already plenty of haute roadkill littering the runway. We don’t mean mink stoles either—that stuff is for Grandma. Today, the truly fashion-forward lean more toward the German designer Iris Schieferstein, who famously produced a collection of heels made out of horse hooves, stuffed doves and snakes, for which she won approval from Lady Gaga. Another Gaga favorite, Alexander McQueen, awed fashion-watchers with his 2006 autumn and winter collection, Widows of Culloden, which featured antlers, bird cadavers and a pheasant-feathered dress. If you need something below the ankle to go with one of the pigeon head-pieces from London hipster goddess Reid Peppard, check out Alexander Fielden’s delicate hedgehog heels, or Niels van Eijk and Miriam van der Lubbe’s moleskin mole slippers, complete with eight sets of claws.
Those seeking more affordable taxidermy-chic can shop on Etsy, the online marketplace for handmade goods, where hundreds of such items are for sale. Brooches and necklaces are popular, as are tableaux of animals wearing uniforms (anthropomorphic taxidermy) and mad scientist, stitched-together, Human Centipede-style creations (rogue taxidermy). A winged rat is $275. A two-headed duckling is $70. Raccoon with one fist in a box of Cracker Jacks? $310. And on.
As an art, taxidermy is edgy, ecologically-friendly, lo-fi and crafty, which helps explain its popularity in the funkier pockets of Brooklyn and Manhattan. The Carnivorous Nights Taxidermy Contest in Park Slope just held its sixth annual event in December. The same impulse driving do-it-yourselfers to brew their own beer and cobble their own instruments together from recycled goods is, apparently, driving some young people to stuff their own cadavers. When it comes to artisanal taxidermy, off-the-gun-store-rack won’t do. Creative strongholds Observatory and the Brooklyn Brainery both recently hosted taxidermy classes, unleashing cohorts of amateur taxidermists into the wild. Nightclubs like Freemans, Home Sweet Home and the Jane all sport taxidermy decor—“hunting lodge hipster,” as a friend put it.
At this time last year, Animal Planet was airing American Stuffers, which focused on a pet taxidermy business, and the History Channel was running Mounted in Alaska, which focused on more Sarah Palin-esque game. Taxidermy frequently appears on Discovery’s Oddities, which revolves around Obscura Antiques & Oddities in the East Village. In January Jack White turned up on the History Channel’s American Pickers to haggle over a taxidermied elephant head.
While the goal of traditional taxidermy is to mimic nature, rogue taxidermy is out to scramble it. Weirdness is the thing.
The artist Damien Hirst, whose famous taxidermied-shark sculpture, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, sold for a reported $8 million, tried in 2003 to buy a collection of oddball taxidermy. Tableaux of a kitten’s wedding party, a group of hamsters playing cricket, a two-headed goat and so on, created by the Victorian-Edwardian artist Walter Potter, perhaps the first notable practitioner of rogue taxidermy. Mr. Hirst offered £1 million for the collection, but it was auctioned off, and Mr. Potter’s whimsically macabre pieces scattered. “It is,” Mr. Hirst wrote in an op-ed in The Guardian, “a tragedy.”
Kelly Owen, a Manhattan taxidermist who sells her work on Etsy under the name Morbid Curiosities Taxidermy, has a steady stream of orders for custom pieces. “I think it’s because it’s so niche,” she said of taxidermy’s recent popularity. As cute as such pieces can be, she added, “at the end of the day, it’s dead animals. That’s the main medium. I think it can only go so far as a trend.”
Ms. Owen just finished a commission for two cameo-style mouse-head brooches, and she’s working on a large winged rat. “People either like it or they don’t,” she said. “If I wanted to do something that everyone liked, I’d be knitting.”
THE OBSERVER ASKED MS. ANANTHARAMAN for a demonstration of her craft, and she was happy to oblige. She’s given many such exhibitions; her friends are “very into it,” she said, and the guy she’s dating doesn’t mind her hobby a bit. She selected the larger of the chilled birds from the baggie and placed it on a heart-shape paper plate decorated with Snow White and Princess Jasmine. She gets a lot of her supplies from the dollar store, she explained.
Ms. Anantharaman’s Ditmas Park apartment is well decorated and dimly lit. Two red chaise longues squared off the living room. Atop the coffee table, a little white mouse stood in front of a miniature full-length mirror, holding a wand and peering into a book of spells. Nearby, a fluffy gray bunny was tucked between the legs of a bobcat that was frozen in mid-yowl. Two new, black guns were mounted on hooks made of hooves. Two long shelves held titles ranging from Ornithology and Taber’s Cyclopedia of Anatomy and Physiology to Jane Eyre and Alice in Wonderland, Ms. Anantharaman’s favorite book, bookended by a faux human skull. The two uppermost shelves held animals in various states of preservation: freeze-dried, like the still-born deer; pickled, like the tiny mice; or mummified, in the case of a frog resting on a bed of dried roses, swaddled except for its curving webbed feet. Adjacent was a white paper packet containing the creature’s organs.
The majority of the animals, however, were stuffed: there was a fanged duck in a pink bow, and another mouse dyed to look like a bright yellow Pokemon. “Like Edward Gorey at a rave” was how Ms. Anantharaman described her aesthetic sensibility. Or Zooey Deschanel through the looking glass, The Observer thought, as we glimpsed a mouse with plastic blue eyeballs embedded in its back.
Ms. Anantharaman’s cat, Fugazi, was curled up on one of the couches, glowering at us as Ms. Anantharaman brushed one of the finches clean. Fugazi has been known to eat the taxidermy, Ms. Anantharaman said. Emotionally, however, “he’s cool with it,” she insisted. “He knows it’s going to happen to him someday.”
The finch at hand was felled with a pellet gun, “probably by some asshole kids,” before Ms. Anantharaman found it during a hiking trip upstate. She scavenges her materials (occasionally in Prospect Park), but she recently got her hunting license and plans to shoot a turkey with a bow and arrow sometime next month.
Ms. Anantharaman is mostly self-taught, using clay-making tools and store-bought chemicals to fashion her creations. The only taxidermy-specific widget she owns is a guillotinelike device called a “tail stripper.” She also hopes to incorporate another hobby, perfumery, into her work—which seemed like a good idea given the sour, wet-earth smell coming from the finch.
Although Ms. Anantharaman appeared on an episode of TLC’s My Strange Addiction last summer, taxidermy isn’t really an addiction—just her favorite thing to do.
After her television appearances, she started getting fan mail, including a request to stuff a pet bunny. She’s had commissions from friends as well, including a hamster in her freezer that she plans to mount in a bowl of cherries. Once, a guy from her jiu jitsu class called, emotional in the tender moments after the family dog had passed. He asked about preservation. Ms. Anantharaman urged him to put the dog in the freezer if there was a chance he’d want it stuffed, but to think it over carefully. “Your dog’s going to be staring at you every day in the face,” she told him. He eventually decided against it. She has considered opening a pet taxidermy service, but she got hung up on the paperwork.
Taxidermy is heavily regulated. Ms. Anantharaman had to pass on a hawk once, because it’s illegal to take one home in New York. To work as a commercial taxidermist, she’d have to get certified; as a hobbyist, she can stuff as many small creatures as she likes.
She removed the bird’s guts to the princess plate and padded down the hall to the trash chute. She walked back quickly: “Shit, somebody was out there.”
Seated again at the dining room table—which is totally bleachable, she reassured us—she cooed over the dead bird’s pretty wings. “Aww, I’m so sad that he got shot,” she said as she removed the fatal pellets. “He’s so rumply! He looks like he had a rough night.”
After removing the eyes with tweezers, she stuffed the body with cotton and wire and sewed it up the front with plain black thread.
Some traditional taxidermists think it’s “disrespectful” to dress deceased animals in costumes, glue their claws to props, sew their body parts together to create recombinant circus freaks, or to incorporate them into footwear, Ms. Anantharaman said. In her opinion, rogue taxidermy is just another way of seeing the world. “It’s like the Impressionists,” she said.
The bird now resembled a bird again. Ms. Anantharaman had given it a fierce look with a pair of gold eyes made from sewing pins. She moved the bird to the closet to dry where Fugazi couldn’t get it.
“I’ll probably put a little top hat or something on him tomorrow,” she said.
A version of this story appeared in the New York Observer the week of April 25, 2012.