I Mounted a Fox: An Interview with Allis Markham

Allis

There is more than one way to skin a cat, or so I’ve been told. My cat-skinning skills are surprisingly limited, but if anybody could speak to the truth behind that old adage, it would be professional taxidermist Allis Markham.

Allis’s work can be seen all over the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History, where she is a staff member, and in at least one Disney ad starring Taylor Swift shot by Annie Liebowitz, because Hollywood.

When not at the museum, Allis works from her private studio, Prey, where she practices ethical taxidermy, meaning: her work is created with the belief that no part of an animal should go to waste. Her specimens are sourced only from natural or unavoidable deaths. No kittens were intentionally harmed in the building of this business.

At Prey, she also teaches classes with titles like “Birds 101,” “Mammal Skinning & Tanning,” and “BYOB — Bring Your Own Bird.” Her Instagram feed is way cooler than any of ours, but really, that was to be expected.

Taxidermy! How does one get started in that?
 Like most little girls, I grew up wanting to be a taxidermist. No, that’s sarcasm. The truth is, if you look at a Venn diagram of science and art, taxidermy is where they meet. But I got here in the most roundabout way possible.

I grew up spending my summers in Indiana. My family has a ton of land. I spent a lot of time in my childhood just running around and finding bones, hunting with my grandpa and my uncles, and we just used everything. Feathers, bones, the buckskin. It wasn’t weird to me to just make things out of animals. You use every part of them: you eat ’em, and then you can make a fabulous clutch purse. That’s a little bit how I grew up.

I also did a lot of sculpture. During the school year, I was hidden away in the ceramics classroom at my school.

But then as we all do, I never really pursued that. Instead I went to school for anthropology, however briefly, until the money ran out. I just kind of landed in marketing and did well there. When I moved out to L.A., I eventually became the director of social media strategy for Disney. My job was basically to tell programmers what the men in the suits wanted, and tell the men in the suits what the programmers could make, which they never approved. It felt like I was never finishing anything. I never made anything that I could touch, or I could hold, or was tangible.

I had collected taxidermy for some time, repairing stuff here and there, and was curious about it. And one day I just lost it and was like, “Screw it, I’m going to taxidermy school.” And I went.

I spent two weeks in Montana at the Advanced Taxidermy Training Center, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it, especially at the end of the day, this sense of accomplishment.

I got back, and I’m in the middle of L.A., so what am I going to do with that? I don’t know where to get specimens, there’s more I need to learn, there’s no taxidermy supplier here, there’s not a tannery for me to send skins to. I didn’t really have anything to do with it. Finally, my husband suggests, “Well, the Natural History Museum! There’s [head taxidermist] Tim Bovard. Why don’t you just track down that guy?” And I went online, figured out how to get his e-mail, got him to meet with me — I think I just kept bugging him. Eventually, he let me come and start volunteering there.

I was still working at Disney. I started volunteering from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and then I would go to work at Disney. I remember distinctly going to work without a change of shirt, and there was, like, cougar blood on my shirt. And I was just like, “I’ll say it is coffee. I spilled coffee on myself.”

After a while, I hated Disney so much, I just quit. I started showing up at the museum enough that Tim had no choice but to hire me. That was three or four years ago. I took a staff position. I cut down to part time to open my studio in March.

Are there famous taxidermists that you look up to? Are famous taxidermists a thing?
 Oh sure — if you’re a taxidermist. We’re the unsigned artists. If you get a piece of taxidermy, you go “Oh, that’s a fox.” You don’t go, “Oh, that’s a piece of art, I wonder who made it.”

For me, George Adams is one of my favorite taxidermists. He did a lot of work from the 1940s to 1960s. He did all the large mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. I really like his work because they’re just big and muscular and you can really see everything, but at the same time, it’s…I can look at a diorama and know it’s George Adams, because you’ve got this big muscular male, and you’ve got the female, and then you’ve got a young male and a young female. And not all animals hang out in family groups, and certainly they’re not all hanging out in patriarchal societies.

We have this cougar diorama in the museum and it has a male in it, and what people don’t realize is that males would jump on that female and those cubs and absolutely eat them because they don’t hang out as family groups!

He also shows the musculature, the best of the species. But most times in the wild, every animal is just trying to survive. I really like his stuff, but at the same time? Little bit of that old-fashioned sexism in there.

Being Tim’s protégé, I absolutely love the subtlety of his work. With him, the attention to detail he gives to a hummingbird is no less than it is for, say, a cow. We did a full sized, twelve-hundred pound Corriente heifer, and just as much attention went into the hummingbird.

What’s the proper verb, when taxiderming things? Do you say “to stuff” or “to mount”?
 We don’t say stuff. Something inside me dies whenever I see the word “stuffed.” It’s is actually a really derogatory word in taxidermy circles, but of course not everybody will meet a taxidermist that they’re going to offend, so that’s fine.

But now I know. So the next time I’m at a party with a bunch of taxidermists…
 Now you know. I mean, I don’t get offended, but. “stuffed” comes from the days of study skins. Study skins are, like, the grandpa of taxidermy. When a biologist, zoologist, a gentleman adventurer back in the 1700s, would find an animal, they would basically just take out the viscera or the organs, or maybe just some of the body, the musculature. To put it technically: the big chunks of meat. They’d take that out, and they’d literally stuff it with horsehair or sawdust.

Now taxidermy is a branch from that, when some people — it’s a bit of an argument on who — they decided, hey, rather than have these things look like animal popsicles, what if we added wires? What if we treated the skin? What if we added clay? What if we added eyeballs? And they started to look anatomically correct. So that is where taxidermy comes from, and that is why “stuffed” is not the preferred nomenclature.

What is the verb? “Taxidermize,” which no one is going to use. The correct thing to say, and honestly it sounds filthy, is “mounted.” I mounted an elephant. I mounted a dog. I mounted a fox. I mounted a deer. It’s mounted.

You know that’s what we’re going to call the interview now. That’s going to be the headline. “I Mounted a Fox: An Interview with a Taxidermist.”
 That’s fine with me. Foxes are sexy. [laughs] There you go. If you want to say taxidermied, that is commonly accepted.

Owl

It does sound fancy, yeah. So what is a typical day at your studio like?
 Well, when it comes to taxidermy, despite what my friends with birthdays coming up might think, I can’t just whip up a cat. It’s a lot of work!

Let’s say I’m going to do a raccoon. First I have to skin it, and it only takes me a couple of hours, and then I have to salt it to dry it out. The salt removes water, but and also bacteria. And it’s got to sit like that for a few days.

After the skin’s done sitting like that, I’ve got to tan it. Tanning is the chemical process of turning raw skin into leather. That takes a few weeks for a medium sized mammal. Something like a cow, that’s a few months. There’s this whole process that takes place. I’m also building the musculature, the skull, this sculpture that I’m going to drape the skin over and sew with clay underneath. Being a taxidermist is multitasking.

Here’s what I did today: I went to my studio, where I had a carcass of a cat I had coated with fiberglass. That’s called carcass casting. I’m trying to create a mould to pop out a form.

The good thing about living in Hollywood is that there are a ton of movie, makeup, prop-making places here. I find a lot of crazy materials. Just imagine this: I have a cat. There’s no skin on it —

Ahhh!

— And I drape the whole thing, in two different pieces, in fibreglass. I take out the cat carcass and I have this hollow mould. Then I can kind of pop out this very raw sculpture, put detail in.

Today was pulling this fibreglass covered cat carcass out of the freezer, working with my assistant to manhandle the fibreglass off of it, and my hands learned the hard way why it’s called fibreglass. Not fibrecotton, that’s for sure. It was like, “Ahh, that really hurts!” Totally ruined my manicure.

Then someone else brought me a deer head, just a wall mount head, for repair. I don’t normally do little projects like that, but the guy seemed cool on the phone. I looked at that, and thought about working on it, and then didn’t.

What else did I do…oh! I’m working on a warthog for my brother-in-law. So I chiseled away, draped the skin over it, fit it a few times.

The other thing that I did — I seriously had to clean my studio, because I have a class this weekend, and I thought, “Maybe they would not enjoy stepping on pieces of blood-covered cat clay?” So I cleaned that up. Then I picked up birds for tomorrow’s class. Every single day is different. I love that.

I don’t know if this is a trade secret, but where do you get the animals from?
 I don’t believe in trade secrets. I would love for more people to have these skills, so I’m happy to tell people wherever.

So, the warthog I bought from Taxidermy.net. There’s a form on there. They killed it in Africa. People who go game hunting in Africa, they don’t waste protein. Usually in game hunting, there’s an outfitter you hire, someone local, and they’ll work with the local villages to skin it, and the hunters collect the meat.

The last museum expedition to collect animals was 1986. My boss Tim went. They’re not wasting a thing. Even lions — they’re not wasting protein. This warthog was from a guy that went to Africa years ago. It was all tanned up and everything. He had the skin and the head, figured he’d never do anything with it, needed the money, and I bought it. For me, that fits with my ethics. Someone ate it. I know someone ate it.

I have a very good friend Vahe who’s a falconer, because of course a taxidermist has a friend who’s a falconer. I also get a lot of squirrels from him. He’ll fly his birds, and scare up game, and then he’ll shoot it. I get a lot of squirrels from him.

All the birds for my classes are either from Vahe or a guy named Randy in Wisconsin. He protects crops out there. He’s not a falconer, but he’s shooting these European starlings. They’re the most numerous bird in North America, they’re non-Native, and they’re really bad for the crops and for local songbird population. If Randy or Vahe can make a few extra bucks selling them to me, and we can turn them into something pretty, then there we go.

I also get animals from zoo deaths. I’ve got a relationship with a couple different zoos. I was recently gifted — and I’m sorry for my husband, but this is the best gift of my life — the owner of a zoo gave me two tiger cubs that have died. I’ve worked on tigers at the museum, but these are mine. I’m pretty excited about that. I don’t think David’s going to be able to top tiger cubs, but we’ll see. My birthday’s coming up.

In the taxidermy world, if you have something that died, either you found it in a state that it’s legal to salvage things — in California state, it is not legal to pick up road kill — but if it’s from abatement, pest control, your dog, I’m the girl who will buy it. Or if you ate it; I buy quail.

What does your house look like? Do you have animals on display?
 My house is one hundred years old this year. Unfortunately for my husband, it’s everything you’d expect from a creepy taxidermy house.

It’s definitely haunted.
 If I believed in ghosts, I probably wouldn’t be in my biz, because all the ghosts of all the animals might haunt me. But I love my house. It’s a little craftsman bungalow. There’s a lot of dead animals on the wall; I have a full size standing bear as well. I have a fully set up bar in my dining room — that sold the house for me.

I have a little building out back, where I have a workshop and a taxidermy studio. We went house hunting, keeping in mind, “Oh, we have to be able to have a taxidermy studio.” It’s an odd thing for a realtor to wrap her head around. Between that and the roving band of rescue dogs that are continuously running through this hundred-year-old house, it’s pretty kooky.

Do the dogs ever react to the animals?
 They’re pretty good. If I pull something down off a wall, then there’s some interest. My dog, Bacon, was not happy when I brought the full-sized bear in. It’s on wheels, and I was rolling it up the driveway, and he was just growling. He was like, “Uh uh. I don’t know what that is, but I don’t like it.” But he smelled it, and he was like, “No big deal.” Dogs will go up to the bear and smell its’ butt. They know! I don’t know how they know, but they know.
 One thing though, I don’t have cats. Cats are the things I warn my students about. Your cat could be eyeing a piece of taxidermy, especially a bird, for years, and you know how cats are. And then one day, it’s like, “rowr!” and they kill it. My boss has definitely had that happen.

We were doing a squirrel class, I told a student she could bring her dog on the last day. I know her dog, I love her dog. So she brings the dog, and for the first half of the class, the squirrels are just skins, and the dog is not interested. But once we put the skins on the forms and they started looking like squirrels, that dog, she started going into that prey drive. And it was just like, “Well, ok, I guess it looks like a squirrel now.”

Are there ever students in your class who get squeamish or pass out or hurl or anything like that?
 Oh my god, not yet. Don’t freak me out!

These are all the things that I worry about! When I was on your website earlier, I thought, “This is so cool. I would love to do this. I would last eight seconds.”
 You’d be really surprised. Here’s the thing: it’s not blood and guts. Not unless I’ve had a couple of drinks the night before. It’s because you’re skinning. You’re not cutting into something. I’m not dissecting something. You’re separating the skin layer from the muscle layer, and in between that is tiny connective tissue, but you’re not cutting through veins. You’re not cutting into organs. It’s none of that stuff.

The only thing that gets to people is when we have to get the brains out and the eyeballs out, and it starts to feel pretty real, but by that point you’ve been skinning for so long I think people get a bit desensitized.

But it’s so different than people think it is. Once you get in there, it shouldn’t feel different than butchering a chicken or a turkey for Thanksgiving. You’re not dealing with organs in taxidermy. It is literally the arrangement of skin. Taxi meaning movement or arrangement, and dermy is dermis. We’re not really playing with those things. I haven’t had anyone quit, I haven’t had anyone throw up. Occasionally someone will have a moment, but they’ll get back into it, and they’ll be fine. That’s the good news. You’d be fine. If you can talk about this stuff, you can do it. You’d have no problem. Most of the reaction is, “Oh, this is not as bad as I thought.”

Anna Fitzpatrick is a vegetarian. She is very much alive and not mounted in a corner of Haley’s apartment.

Allison Burda and Cam Gee live and work together in Toronto. They post drawings of chubby dogs and other stuff at allisonandcam.tumblr.com.