AUSTIN, Texas—Growing up in a suburb of a suburb in Pennsylvania, my hometown’s main street looked like you might expect: funeral home, gas station/convenient mart, VFW pub… and a taxidermy office. (Back then, the state even gave public schools a day off at the start of deer-hunting season.) As someone more interested in playing text-based adventure games afterhours on my dad’s work computer, I never saw the inside of that last communal institution.
But I had a pretty crude mental image based on context clues: antlers lining the walls, camouflage outerwear tossed over a chair, pickup truck parked out back with dead animals in the bed.
Hosting its world premiere this week at South by Southwest, the new documentary has come to fix this exact kind of misconception. “You get anything from, ‘You do taxes?’ to ‘That’s really creepy.'” That’s how one profiled taxidermist describes people’s reactions when he tells them what he does. (It’s easy to see why another taxidermist has rebranded as a “3D-animal preservationist.”) “Some folks will lie and say it’s not creepy, but in the back of their mind, they think you’re Ted Bundy.”
The reality, of course, has little to do with any kind of fascination with death or killing. If ‘s ~85-minute ride is to be believed, modern taxidermy is as much if not more about art and nature preservation as it is about dead animals.
Stuffed with detail
Watch enough of these industry-spanning documentaries on the festival circuit and you grow to learn the beats: introduce a variety of interesting personalities you may not believe all fit in the same field, explain the techniques requiring more skill and know-how than anticipated, show major use cases, go over the general history, sit in with the community during its peaks (competitions, major conventions, holidays, etc.), and end by hinting at what’s the cutting edge or potential challenges lying ahead. That formula has been well-utilized for everything from nutria hunting to artificial intelligence.
That’s not to say Director Erin Derham hasn’t made an effective film—quite the opposite. She identified an topic for this type of documentary and executed it to perfection. As someone who has never even held a gun, I found the whole thing engaging. Taxidermy turns out to boast a fascinating history, the current ways to make a living felt unexpected, and the personalities and visuals within can be downright charming.
For instance, shows that the OG of taxidermy, Carl Akeley, turned out to be a major preservationist. “Johnny Depp would be the perfect Akeley,” says author Jay Kirk, who wrote the definitive biography. “Kind of zany but morbid.” Akeley became so passionate about perfecting his understanding of animals, he’d assemble 100-plus-person teams and travel to Africa solely to observe, sketch, and sculpt. (This was the early 1900s; boats were involved.) While Akeley was out doing these professional sabbaticals, however, he saw others killing so many mountain gorillas that the species was in danger of extinction—thus sparking the man to act. The taxidermy pioneer soon worked with members of Belgium’s royalty, convincing them to set aside roughly 200 square miles of forest in the Belgian Congo to create Africa’s first national park, according to the American Natural History Museum.
offers surprises about the modern industry, too. Some of the elder taxidermists working today, for instance, can fondly recall the Northwest School of Taxidermy—a correspondence-by-mail school that may have been the first formal training in the practice (today, there are plenty of reputable in-person options). Viewers also spend time with Tim Bovard, the last full-time taxidermist at a major US museum, who is a hero among modern taxidermists for his role mentoring young professionals (he mentored Allis Markham, one of the young taxidermists profiled heavily in ).
The documentary visits national conferences and competitions, where taxidermists from seemingly all walks of life compete for awards (winning at something like the California Coalition of Taxidermists show can be career-altering). And it flashes to alternative shops like Sabrina Brewer’s. While still a preservationist (none of the artists included in work with anything that hasn’t died naturally and been acquired ethically), her goal is more art than accurate preservation. She showcases creations like the Goth Griffin, a combination cat/griffin, and a mergoat named Capricorn, made by merging a stillborn goat, a carp, and wings.
ultimately delights by taking our limited or perhaps downright ignorant understanding of this niche field and using that for maximum impact. For every taxidermist who admits their parents should have probably been concerned (“I’d get on my bike and look for road kill, and I still have a memory, six or seven years old, being kind of embarrassed. I’d wait sometimes half an hour, ride back and forth until there were no cars around, then I’d jump off my bike, put my gloves on, put it in a bag, bury it in the woods, and come back months later and clean up all the bones,” says Daniel Meng, now a taxidermy champion who has helped places like the Cleveland Museum), the film subverts expectations with a project like George the Galapagos turtle. The last of its species, Lonesome George was adored by the researchers and conservationists who studied him. Preserving George required months of research and effort to capture the tortoise’s personality and precise features. “This is rebuilding a subject everyone knew intimately—they knew every wrinkle on George,” says taxidermist George Dante. “If I screw this up, it’ll be the last piece I ever do.”
Thanks to , the next time I walk by that old taxidermist space near my parents’ house, I won’t scuttle by so quickly. Like a watchmaker or woodcarver, this is a speciality field requiring extremely dexterous, precise, and careful abilities, but with a dash of biology and chemistry added. As Allis Markham puts it, taxidermy requires a special mix of obsessive-compulsive intertwined with artist. “Maybe you do end up like Van Gogh, a tortured artist cutting off an ear,” she says. “But if we cut off an ear, at least we’d make something from it.”