In Stitches: Tales from the Frontlines of Sustainable DIY Taxidermy

Detroit-Shoreway resident Mickey Alice Kwapis has been practicing taxidermy for years — and trying to dispel its unpleasant reputation. Her career has taken her all over the world, though she's got some classes coming up here in Cleveland for those with an interest. We sat down for a chat about dead animals at Sweet Moses Soda Fountain in Detroit-Shoreway, probably freaking out the man and his young daughter who were sitting nearby.

Eric Sandy: We were reading the New York Times piece this morning. Pretty cool stuff.

Mickey Alice Kwapis: So I did the interview in May, and all of the information that she published wasn't really accurate anymore. I got a Google Alert: taxidermy, New York Times. I'm not 23. I don't teach in tattoo parlors anymore. That was a long, long time ago. They went into a tangent about factory farming and animals, but they're not factory farmed. That's really important. The animals I use are raised for profit, but they're raised in a good environment where they're treated well. It's not factory farmed whatsoever. One of the most important things in my life is animal welfare. I do volunteer work. I'm a licensed animal wildlife rehabber. I try to give back as much as I can.

ES: Could you elaborate on what "ethical taxidermy" means?

MAK: Ethical taxidermy is a term that's being thrown around a lot. It's very trendy now, like "natural food." You don't really know what you're getting, but you think it sounds good. I don't really define myself as an ethical taxidermist anymore. I would consider what I do to be sustainable taxidermy. I only use animals that have been either raised for food, hunted for food or pets that have died of natural causes and have been donated to me. Occasionally I'll use roadkill, but it's usually not in great shape and you have to have a permit to pick it up.

ES: Where do you teach? When someone signs up, what happens?

MAK: I added new class dates in Cleveland on March 14 and 15. The classes are one-day, four-hour classes and students can choose to do one or both classes since they're different each day. People can visit for more info. But, for example, this weekend in Toronto I am going to be working in a private art studio where they host all kinds of classes. It's my first time teaching in that particular studio, but everyone signs up ahead of time and then I'll email them with a safety waiver and directions — all that kind of stuff. In the course of four hours, they're guided from putting on their gloves and being handed a slightly frozen specimen to a mostly finished product. They do have to take it home and regroom it, but it's a crash-course in taxidermy. After I get back from Toronto, then I go to San Francisco and then the next week I'll be teaching at the University of Washington.

ES: So you're all over North America.

MAK: And I just got back from a month in Australia. I got to experience so many cool things, like going to the med school at the University of Sydney. I'll probably be teaching there next year, because one of their staff members took my class and he's been practicing a lot. Seeing all their specimens was incredible. I can't wait to be teaching in that environment all the time.

ES: To back up a bit, was there a moment that got you into all of this in the first place?

MAK: I was attending the University of Michigan with the intention of someday becoming a lawyer. I was working a pretty mundane retail job. In my junior year, one of my co-workers asked me to come over and help her with a biology project. I get to her house and I'm expecting to help her with a paper or something, but I get to her door and on her kitchen table is a tablecloth, a dead squirrel and a bottle of wine. So we taxidermied the squirrel and we drank the wine, and the wheels started turning a bit in my head. I thought, this doesn't seem too hard but I could probably make it look a little better. On my birthday I went to the reptile show and I bought a frozen rat. I made a $5 investment. Everything else I had at home, and over the course of three years I've built my entire business out of that $5 investment. I still have the rat; it's actually really good! Once I made that, I Instagrammed it and some of my friends said they wanted to learn how to do that. And I figured that maybe I should start charging for this.

ES: What goals are you working toward these days? Are there certain animals you'd like to work with?

MAK: Well, in order to do a large animal I would need an assistant. I — do you know who Chuck Testa is?

ES: I don't think so.

MAK: He's ... I'll just show you. He's a taxidermist who works on Ojai, Calif., and he's an Internet sensation. I'll just show you, because then you'll understand. (Opens up YouTube, searches "Chuck Testa" and clicks on first video. Ed. note: You should do the same.)

ES: That's incredible.

MAK: So that's Chuck. He is one of my best friends and he has sort of taken me under his wing — sort of. I reached out to him the last time I was in California. I walked into his studio, and he was like, "You do this." And he hands me this hedgehog. Over the course of the weekend, we mounted a hedgehog, two owls, and he was working on an axis deer. It was really cool to meet someone who's been in the industry for longer than I've been alive. He doesn't consider himself my mentor, because he says he's learned just as much from me as he's taught me.

ES: How far back does this line of work go? Centuries, right?

MAK: I would say that taxidermy became most popular or common in the Victorian era. It's like everything, though: It goes in waves. The biggest thing that I want to strive for is that taxidermy is not just for decorating your uncle's hunting cabinet. It serves a purpose in science, education, conservation. It can be done tastefully.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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