Taxidermy is an interesting hobby, to be sure. It has its gross moments, and it has its accomplishments. There are days when I feel dissatisfied with my finds, and days when I feel proud of my work. Taxidermy is, in its simplest form, an art, just like any other.
I begun my pursuit of taxidermy while I was in highschool, though I have always been fascinated by bones, animal skins, mounts and the like. And after all the years have come and gone, I can always look back with fond memory at that fateful day I decided I would follow my lifelong dream of being a weirdo.
Technically, it was for a project for school. I was charged with homework, and I had to perform some sort of presentation for the class on the subject of early North American life. What blah. Bored with my readings, I decided to do something spectacular, and I began to research the techniques, effects, and reasons behind the earliest form of taxidermy - animal skinning! Lucky for me, North America had quite a history of it. But unfortunately for me, I was at a loss of what to show my expectant class. At that time, I had no animal furs, and so I decided to procure my own.
Short on time and lacking funds, I could not do much but stress, but just then my cat bestowed upon me a generous offering of lifeless field mouse body. Thank the Feline Fates! I would skin my cats' poor quarry in the same manner that Native Americans did back in the day as a show of their unprecedented skills (and ultimately as a show of my unprecedented awesomeness). Surely none of my classmates would do as much work as I!
It is said that mice are one of the most ridiculously difficult animals to skin because they are tiny and you have to be very careful with them. Consequently, they also take the least amount of time to finish because they are so small.
The first mouse was very easy to remove the skin from, as I had frozen it approximately an hour after its death and had not given it a chance to degrade where my cat dropped it. But the second mouse I had scooped from my cat's hiding place... It was a lot more unpleasant, since it apparently had not been fresh when I found it (I did not know this, but its difficulty proved otherwise). I skinned them on my back porch, hanging them both from sewing string in the same manner a deer might be hung during a field dress. There was no blood, and I managed to skin the entirety of the tails as well.
Once they were brought inside, I took them to the kitchen where I spread them out, fur-side down, and pinned them on a thick piece of cardboard. Since I couldn’t find any neat blunt rocks near my house, I was forced to use a screwdriver for the process of removing excess flesh and fat from the skin. Mice skin is very delicate, more so than rabbit, and I had to be quite careful so as not so tear the skin. But alas, the second mouse took damage during this process. His skin was much more sensitive than the first mouse's.
Well, I had to dry them. Unfortunately since I happen to live in Washington, there is no sun. Ever. And so I was once again required to improvise. I put two coats of salt each over the mice to help speed up the process and tighten the pores. For the first coat, I salted each skin respectively and then rolled the skin up like a rug. For the second coat I placed them in front of a fan so they could be dried out quicker. This took many an hour to do, the first coat having to sit overnight and the second having to sit through a whole day.
And then came the most squeamish part. I knew that if I had to emulate the true Indian way I would have to just do it. With my first mouse, I used the braining method, and had to extract the mouse’s good ol' fashioned braaaiiiinnnsss for processing! I boiled the brain with a cup of water first and used that to work into the skin to make it soft and pliable. With my second mouse, however, I was adequately grossed out as well as too lazy to try it again, so I just skipped that process. Besides, the second's mouse skin was delicate enough.
Since mice are so small, I was not able to 'break' the skin on a stick or what-have-you. Mice skin is very tender as it is and any unneeded stress by trying to make it even softer would most likely tear it to tiny little itty-bitty pieces, which of course would be impossible to staple back together.
And since mice are possibly the smallest animals you can collect fur from, it doesn’t take a lot of smoke to finish the smoking process. I’d studied many different types of wood chip options that could be lit to produce different scents and colors that would be absorbed into the mice pelts, but none of them seemed very cheap or easy to get a hold of. Then I remembered some incense sticks that I kept in my room and decided to experiment with that by holding the mice directly over the lit punk so it could absorb the smoke. And whaddaya know, it worked like a charm. The skin kept a nice natural color and retained a smoky scent with a hint of vanilla.
After using a hair dryer to blow away any remaining salt, and to completely dry the fur tips, my little mice pelts were complete. I was quite proud of myself after everything was said and done. All in all, this process of skinning and tanning mice took about two full days each to finish. It was different, it was fun, and ever since then I have harbored a sincere interest in taxidermy and an appreciation for getting my hands dirty every once in a while. I have since moved on to animals larger than mice, and have grown better in my technique.
And yes, I did in fact get an A.