Friday, 31 January 2014

taxidermy by numbers

Or How to Stuff a Rabbit in 18 Simple Steps...

Taxidermy has always intrigued me.

I can probably trace this back to:

a) seeing the fascinating stuffed exhibits at Tring museum (I still maintain there was a stuffed dodo there - but was it real?!)

b) when I was small we spent a few summers visiting friends in Devon, and part of the trip was always spent at a very eccentric old lady's house turned B&B, packed to the rafters with oddities. The conservatory where we had our breakfast was a blend of both stuffed and real animals - tortoises would crawl around your feet as you avoided the glassy eye of a stag overhead. She also had a ridiculous basement full of trinkets, and at the end of each stay she would let myself and my brother pick out a present to take home. I still have the porcelain harlequin doll I rescued from her Aladdin's Cave. Looking back, how she came by so many brand new and boxed toys does look slightly dodgy... but we'll gloss over that.

Recently, taxidermy has made the leap from bizarre great-uncle to hipster's front room, as foxes in top hats and mice in boxing gloves create a vintage talking point in any Stokey abode worth it's salt. Bars like the Zetter Townhouse, restaurants comme Les Trois Garcons and private members club The Kings Head have cottoned onto the Victoriana feel that comes with leather backed chairs, chandeliers, dusty old maps and... bulldogs in angel wings. Short evening classes made popular by the Last Tuesday Society and The Book Club have now made it acceptable to skin and stuff a mammal in the time it takes to sink a few large G&T's. With this in mind, I set off for the London Taxidermy Academy in Borough for a wild weekend's worth of stuffing. By popular demand, I took step by step photos and am now going to share these with you.

But first a massive DISCLAIMER: not for the squeamish!

Day One

1) Choose your victim.

I opted for a large wild rabbit (£350 for the specimen + course fees).We were presented with our dead animals (4 rabbits, 1 hare, 2 squirrels and 1 crow), which had been frozen for up to 5 weeks and taken out that morning - so they were beginning to thaw nicely. These are sourced from gamekeepers/estates and killed either by shots, traps or Harris hawks as pests on the property. Apparently they aren't specifically killed for stuffing purposes (but then why are guinea pigs on offer?! Ours not to reason why..)

2) First cut is the deepest.

Using a scalpel we slit down from between the front legs to the bottom legs, just through the thin top layer of skin so the body underneath was visible. For mammals, like rabbits, this means you don't actually get up to your elbows in blood and guts as the skin is literally peeled off the body keeping the carcass intact.

At this point I wondered whether we should have been supplied with aprons - they were 'in the wash'.

3) Separate skin from body.

Using a scalpel to nick away any membrane the skin comes away from the body surprisingly well. We make two deep pockets on either side of the body, and go right around under the back - so the whole middle bit of the rabbit is now detached from it's skin.
4) Pop out the back legs.

Once the thighs and knees have been exposed, the leg is detached from the body at the hip.

5) Pop out the front legs.

Same deal with the front legs, which are detached from the body at the shoulder.

6) Butchery for Beginners.

By now you basically have a skinned torso with no arms and legs attached. The skin can be pulled completely up and over the head leaving you with skin to your left, body to your right (there's a song in there somewhere).

Now it's beginning to smell a bit... Luckily the room is kept cold, which helps, but by lunchtime I am definitely ready for some fresh air / no ham sandwiches.


7) Headmasters.

The skin is now only attached to the body over the skull. Using a scalpel the skin is carefully detached from the muscle of the head until the eyeballs can be seen through a thin layer of skin. A slit across this, and then cutting around the eyelids means the eyeballs are left within the carcass but the eyeholes (literally) remain on your piece of skin. This was by far my LEAST favourite part of the process.

8) Eye eye.

The ears are connected to the head through a piece of cartilage. This is detached so the ears remain on your skin. The skull is then cracked with pliers across the forehead and between eyehole and jaw, so you are left with the front piece of skull still attached to your skin - this contains the jaw and teeth etc, which we want on our rabbit.

9) Insides Out.

Turning the skin inside out, we were now left with skin completely separate to body/carcass which is then chucked back in the freezer. And no rabbit stew, as it's dangerous to eat meat that's been bandied about over a chopping board all morning...

10) Skin and bone.

Carve the meat off the leg bones as if you were gnawing on a leg of turkey. This now leaves you with all the bits you'll be leaving on your stuffed rabbit (skin, leg bones, bit of skull)- which also looks like something out of alien.


11) Roadkill.

The skin is then stretched out flat, and sprinkled with various curing elements to dry out all the flesh and bones. Borax is sprinkled on the bones. Tanning oil is brushed over the skin, and then a powder called Lutan 5 is put on top. The skin is left overnight to dry out completely.

At this point it really looks like squished meat but I have bonded with it nonetheless. It may be roadkill, but it's MY roadkill goddamn you.

Day Two

12) Is that Serrano ham?

No it's not, it's your rabbit. Dried out now, and the colour of cured meat, it was all I could do not to tear off a bit to have with a coupla olives and a nice chilled glass of Chardonnay.

13) Wash and go.

Cold water + Fairy Liquid x a toothbrush + a helluva lot of elbow grease = whats needed now to clean up the skin good and proper. The aim is to scrub the skin and break it down again so it's all soft and white and lovely. A good 30 mins was spent on this bit, so imagine doing a giraffe... At this point the skins were looking very bedraggled and ropey. I began to think my rabbit would never look normal....

came up a treat
14) Charles Bunnington.

Once scrubbed, skins were turned inside out and blow dried on a cool setting. Call me a big girl, but this was by far my favourite part, especially grooming the tail and using a little comb to brush out the fur... The skins and fur were all sparkly, soft and stretchy.
The rabbits started to look beautiful again.


15) Stitch in time.

Throughout the process it is easy to get holes in your skin, either through inadvertent nicks through scalpel misuse, over zealous skinning or scrubbing. At this point skins can be neatly and easily stitched up using a neutral colour thread.

16) Turkey stuffing.

A length of wire is used as the backbone, and a stuffing 'body' made through tightly wrapping wood wool and cotton thread around it until compacted. Use the frozen carcass as a guide of how big to make the head/body stuffing. Wire is then poked through the front and back of the stuffing which is then wired into the leg bones, by poking it down through the feet tendons and coming out through the paw pads. This bit felt a bit gruesome...

17) Build me up (Bunnycup).

The stuffing body is placed inside the skin, and the legs and shoulders padded out with cottonwool. The front is then sewn up the middle. The head is stuffed out with more cottonwool, fed in through the eyeholes, and finally marble eyes are popped in at the end.

It's at this point that you can move your rabbit into position, and use metal pins to keep it's ears/mouth in place if you want to give it a smile (weirdo).

18) Et voila! Meet my first stuffed specimen - Mr Hamish MacBunny.

Done and done. It was a gruelling, full on weekend but extremely satisfying and not half as gory as I expected. Nobody was sick or passed out, and much to the dismay of some people, there were no 'taxidermy gone wrong' horrors. I can thoroughly recommend the expert tuition of Lee Paton at LTA, and it's definitely worth the money to create your very own taxidermy creation (which you can then. of course, jazz up in all manner of fripperies and froufrous...)

Party on.