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Taxidermy for Beginners

After asking you guys over on Twitter if you'd like a post on a recent course I attended, and after a sizeable response, I thought I'd throw together this wee post on Taxidermy for total beginners as some of you curious cats were interested in just *what* on earth you do to create taxidermy. So last weekend, Matt & I attended a beginners taxidermy course with Mabel Edwards who has been in the taxidermy business for the last 4 years. Matt had found out about the course by chance so we quickly snapped up some tickets for the 4-hour session at the Winchester Discovery Centre and I was super excited. I'm really interested in taxidermy and like collecting but the thought of making my own? It had never crossed my mind. I knew it would be a fiddly job that you needed patience for which, as someone who enjoys creating art, I thought I could handle but even if I have to prepare raw meat for cooking I will freak out about touching it a whole deal. So the idea of cutting up and gutting an animal in order to stuff it? I didn't know if I would cope with it but it turns out - I found it fascinating!

The 4-hour course was led by Mabel and she instructed and guided us through the process from start to finish. The class of 10 were an eager group and we all came into the room to see a little white mouse laid out in front of each seat with a scalpel and some tweezers nearby. In just 4 hours, we would take our mice from frozen ex-pet shop snake bait to a fully mounted taxidermy. So I'm going to talk through my experience, briefly what we did, and if I'd recommend the experience. Before I kick things off though, I should mention a couple of things: the taxidermy course and of course the mice used were completely ethically sourced. They were mice that were frozen to become food for the snakes in the store but instead were used for this - giving them a second life if you want to look at it that way! And secondly, I've purposefully not included any "gory" or bloody photographs for those of you who may be squeamish. Saying that though, there *is* going to be a couple of photographs of the mouse skin without it's innings, it's skin turned inside out and yep you guessed it, a photograph of a dead animal. So now that I've warned you, please carry on scrolling and reading only if you wish!

So first of all, we needed to tackle the little frozen fella. Using a scalpel, we cut an incision down the back of the mouse and had to de-skin it. It was strange - I was expecting this to be a lot more gory and grotesque than it was. It was quite clean to do. We all had medical gloves on but Mabel pointed out that she often chooses to work gloveless as as long as you wash your hands once you're done, there's nothing to worry about. The only downside to this part of the process was the smell of some of the mice. Overall it was a clean job but as some people had pushed a little too hard with their scalpel, they had nicked the innards and therefore had caused the insides of the mouse to leak a little and start to smell! Some members of the class found this harder to deal with than others but I honestly thought the smell was bearable. If you've ever had cooked meat stored in the fridge for a couple of days and then opened the tupperware - yeah, the smell is like that just a little stronger. Once the skin felt pretty loose, we had to cut the legs and arms off to keep the lower joints intact for stuffing later and we also had to decapitate the head to keep it looking as realistic as possible.

This was the longest part of the whole process as once we had totally removed the organs inside the mouse, we then had to make sure what we planning to stuff was as clean as possible too. By using the tweezers, we had to pick and scrape the inside of the skin to make sure no fat was attached. The skull also needed all of the fat and "gooey" bits like the eyes and cheeks removed so they wouldn't rot inside of the skin. By using some basic cleaning agents and the scalpel/tweezers, this was done in no time and next we washed and dried the skin, ready for stuffing! After a quick soak and swim in some water and washing up liquid and a quick blast with the hairdryer to fluff the little rascals up, we were ready to make the body and get them mounted.

As you can see, my little guy had lost his tail during the previous processes. The tail bone needed to be removed and the skin is much more delicate around the tale/anus area of the mouse so my heavy handedness caused it to all to snap off completely. The beauty with making a taxidermy mouse though is there seems to be very few mistakes during the course of making it that can't be rectified, so the tail could be added later. The first job once the mouse was fresh and clean was to give the little fella some eyes again. With some poly-filler and some black beads, this was a quick and easy job whilst the skin was turned inside out. We then simply needed to carefully push the skull back into the skin (the muzzle was still attached to make this easy) and the arms and legs also needed to be put the right way around again. Once back to "normal" we needed to make the body. Just out of shot of all of the photos, we had the organs/general insides left out on a paper towel. Sounds gross, but this was purely to help us get an idea of what size body we needed to create for our mice as obviously no two mice would be the same! We then began wrapping cotton thread tightly around cotton balls to get a realistic body. It was a simple job of getting the right size and shape by adding more and more cotton until it looked about right. Then, just using some craft wire, we wrapped it around the body to mimic arms and legs and now we needed to add the skin.

This was by far the most frustrating part for me. Getting the wires to feed through the limbs so you could pose the mouse was so fiddly and after 3 hours of nonstop making this little guy, I was quickly losing my patience. I finally cracked it though and all that was left was to sew up the back incision we have made at the start and then mount the mice! When I first thought about going to the course, I was convinced I wanted to make something realistic and not give the mouse cheesy props or poses but when I realised what I created was far from perfect (some areas of the skin tore, my sewing could have been better, the mount could have been neater etc. etc.) I figured I'd just have fun with it as I knew I wasn't going to keep it. So naturally, I rummaged through a box of goodies that could be added to my wee mouse - a bowler hat, a mini vacuum cleaner, a little book... But I settled on some bowling pins and a bowling ball...

And there we have it! As you can see I wasn't too careful by the end of the class. I didn't really mount it properly and I made zero effort to hide the wires in the limbs. By the end of the class I was quite tired and hadn't necessarily lost interest, but I had lost concentration. If you're someone who is interested in taxidermy or you're quite up for trying something new and different, I'd really recommend a class like this. I found it really insightful, it has made me think even more highly of taxidermists as I never truly realised how time-consuming and precise it all is, and it was also a great learning curve that others are intrigued to hear about. Although I didn't end up keeping my little guy because he was far from perfect, I do feel like I could always make one again myself in my own time because I understand what skills are involved now; it's just a matter of practice makes perfect. This class has also convinced me I would love to do a bird taxidermy class (although they are supposed to be much harder to do), and of course, a bug mounting course is high on the list now too. For £60, you have the opportunity to not only make your own taxidermy but to keep it too which is an absolute bargain in my opinion! We also got a free glass of G&T out of it too and it was a unique way to spend our afternoon.

If you've enjoyed this post please let me know as taxidermy is a big big interest of mine that I just don't talk about enough on NB!

- A.
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