Following is a transcript of the video.
Amber Maykut: I think you just have to be accepting that death is just part of life and that death doesn’t have to be the end. I think taxidermists often feel like everyone else sees death as this more tragic thing and that it’s the end and that we see it as an opportunity for a new beginning, so it’s not the end.
Narrator: “Taxi-dermy” means the “arrangement of skin.”
Amber: Basically, you’re removing the skin from the specimen, and then you’re cleaning and preparing the skin, then you’re moving it onto a mannequin or form.
Narrator: Ancient Egyptians were the precursory taxidermists. Although they didn’t actually remove the skin, they embalmed bodies of animals using injections, spices, and essential oils. They also used salts found in lakes in the lower region of Egypt to preserve skin, specifically borate of soda and sulfate of soda. Many, many centuries later, taxidermists like Amber use borate of soda, or Borax, a white powder in tanning formulas, to treat animal skins.
Amber: It’s a powder preservative that gets put on the inside of the skin before it gets mounted onto the mannequin, and this is gonna keep it from decomposing. It’s gonna dry it out. It’s going to keep any pests from being interested in it. Then when you have thicker-skinned animals like a deer or fatty animals like a bear or a raccoon, they need to go through a wet-tanning process, so that basically would be using a liquid tan and submerging it in it for a number of days.
Narrator: Once those skins are tanned, they can be mounted: placed on a mannequin that is carefully sculpted to accurately portray the body of an animal.
Amber: Mount your skin onto the mannequin. Sew it up. Blow dry it. Pose it. Let it dry.
Narrator: Amber earned her taxidermy license after apprenticing under a professional. Like most trades, skills are passed from teacher to apprentice, and Amber intends to continue that tradition.
Amber: I learned by doing it hands-on, so by experiencing it hands-on by someone who knows what they’re talking about. I think that’s really important, and I saw a niche there in the market of people wanting to learn this trade.
Narrator: Amber’s Brooklyn Taxidermy is one of two taxidermy studios in New York City, but she’s not like traditional taxidermists who work with hunted game. Instead, she uses frozen feeder animals that would be used to feed reptiles, euthanized animals from the NYC Animal Care Center, deceased animals from zoo and wildlife preserves as well as pet stores, deceased house pets, and leftovers from butchers.
Amber: So it’s a really symbiotic relationship. Butchers use the insides, and they would throw out the skins, the antlers, so otherwise that would go in the trash, so then I use those parts. So that would be rabbits, quails, pheasants, ducks, goats, deer, anything you could eat.
Narrator: Amber’s freezer is stuffed to the brim with rats, butterflies, and other deceased animals.
Amber: These are innards from the squirrel that was skinned today, so these go to my friends’ pets who have pet snakes, or they go the zoo across the street from my mentor’s shop.
Narrator: Animals she’ll bring to life in a days-long process that includes gutting, skinning, mounting, and everything in between. Like many taxidermists, Amber entered the trade as a curious amateur.
Amber: My friends who have work from me from a long time ago, you’re like, “Um, give that back. Put it in a bonfire, and we’ll make you a new one.” I guess I was just doing it as a hobby, and it just kinda grew, and then I kept buying dilapidated pieces or broken pieces or dirty pieces from a stoop sale or flea market trying to figure out how to fix them, getting books and YouTube videos on how to do it, and eventually I took some lessons and went to school for it.
Narrator: There’s a wealth of knowledge online: manuals listing tools and how to use them, directions on how to skin and preserve mammals and birds, and instructions on how to make models and mannequins. And taxidermy has played a role in history. One look through a natural history museum, and you’ll see various exotic, trophy-hunted animals lining the floors. In the 1800s, scientists used taxidermy to study animals outside of their geographical region. Many natural history museums have pivoted away from this outdated practice. The Smithsonian in DC declined to replace its last full-time taxidermist and instead opted to hire freelance taxidermists for exhibit repairs only. And maybe a mounted deer head on a wall comes to mind as well.
Taxidermy and hunting have long gone hand in hand. In many cases, bigger mammals mounted from the neck up can be eaten. Artistic taxidermy took an eccentric route in the Victorian Era with the introduction of anthropomorphic taxidermy. Picture cats dressed for a wedding, or magician mice. A lot of taxidermists today create anthropomorphic taxidermy.
Amber: I think that it’s an endless world of, you know, possibilities. I’ll never feel like I’m good enough. I’ll never feel like I’m done learning. There’s so many different animals and species and things to explore and try. Giving another, a second life or sometimes a third life to animals, paying them some homage, some honor, to show them in a realistic way.