Artsy afterlife: a new breed of urban taxidermists give animals ‘life after death’

Amber Maykut is part of a resurgence of taxidermists committed to never killing for the sake of art using animals that have already been killed for other purposes

If you have a limb fall off, dont worry, just keep it and we will reattach it later, Amber Maykut announces to the class. I am in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, at a Sunday afternoon introductory taxidermy class. The eight assembled students, all dressed in black, are focused on peeling the skin off their still slightly frozen rodents.

The mice, in a small mercy for me if not the mice, arrive already dead and come from a pet shop that sells them as snake food. After the students remove the mouse carcasses, Maykut carefully collects them in the Dollar Tree plastic bag she uses to transport them. The carcasses will be fed to her friends pet snake, ensuring no part is wasted.

Maykut is part of a resurgence in the dying art of taxidermy, once the province of rural hunting communities and now enjoying a renaissance in urban areas. Men in their 50s and 60s who specialize in creating big game trophies are still the majority of the profession, but a new breed of taxidermist is emerging to carry on the baton. The latest taxidermists are based in cities such as New York and Los Angeles, they are young, predominantly women, playful in their taxidermy compositions and committed to never killing for the sake of their art and using animals that have already been killed for other purposes.

Maykut teaches a taxidermy class in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Photograph: Alex Welsh for the Guardian

In addition to regularly teaching classes, Maykut sells her taxidermy on Etsy and sources taxidermy props for film shoots and trendy stores as window dressing and home decor. While Maykut has taxidermied birds, a boar head, squirrels and countless other creatures, her main focus is mice posed with props. She usually sells a minimum of two of her elaborately posed mice a week on Etsy for around $150 each. Some of the most popular are wedding mice, taxidermied mice that have been dressed to look like a bride and groom. She also collaborates with a professional puppet maker who helps create the tiny props and outfits, like the mouse replica of the English heavy metal band Venom that the two are working on for a custom order.

All of Maykuts taxidermy mentors and teachers are older men who have showrooms in rural parts of the country. When she first started learning the craft from them, she worried they would think it was strange that a young woman from the city with no interest in hunting wanted to learn how to taxidermy. Instead, they were psyched just to have anybody coming there wanting to seriously learn, she says.

The taxidermy community recognized that it needs to change with the times and has been receptive to change. Maykut was invited to join the board of New Jerseys Garden State Taxidermists Association, where she has been pushing ideas around using social media to reach a new audience and moving taxidermy competitions from rural areas to places with a bigger and more diverse audience. She sees her classes as another way to introduce the craft to more people and foster other budding taxidermists.

Amber Maykut says her mice classes are a way to frame taxidermy as something cute and whimsical, not something related to hunting, she explains. Photograph: Alex Welsh for the Guardian

These days, in New York City alone, in addition to Maykuts classes, Atlas Obscura offers regular taxidermy classes with another young woman taxidermist, Katie Innamorato, who comes from an art background. The Morbid Anatomy Museum offers its own version with its taxidermists in residence, Divya Anantharaman, who teaches classes on topics like how to taxidermy a chicken or make wearable taxidermy for fashion.

Like the teachers, most of the students in Maykuts classes are women. Taxidermy classes fit into the DIY movement, she says, and is another craft that people can learn when they get sick of sitting in a cubicle at work, one that has become a popular part of home decor for its kitsch value. Her mice classes are a way to frame taxidermy as something cute and whimsical, not something related to hunting, she explains.

Taxidermy on the walls of Amber Maykuts apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photograph: Alex Welsh for the Guardian

In addition to its embrace of whimsy, an emphasis on never killing for the sake of taxidermy has set the new generation of taxidermists apart and shifted the types of animals that are taxidermied. Finding already dead animals for her work has led Maykut to the pet shop mice doomed to be snake food, furrier auctions, where she picks up the heads fashion designers dont want, butcher remains of animals like quail, rabbits, deer and ducks as well as pest control companies that kill raccoons or other small mammals. Maykut sees her work as an homage to the animal, a way to give them a second life, life after death.

While the new iteration of the age old craft is more humane, a strong stomach for death is still required. Maykut grew up in an industrial part of New Jersey, without any exposure to dead animals but she does recall her interest starting early, when she would collect dead butterflies as a child that she found around a lilac bush. I would covet them and go hide them in my bedroom under my bed growing up. It was pretty and I would just look at it. So I would start hoarding these dead insects secretly, she tells me. That childhood habit let her to learning how to preserve the butterflies. Before I did taxidermy I was pinning butterflies, that was the gateway drug for taxidermy for me, she says with a laugh.

Back at the class the students are finishing up their mice with props provided by Maykut. Can it be a goth mouse? one student asks. Another student contemplates a Van Helsing mouse but settles on making the mouse a nun instead. A bible and cross prove to be popular props, as do a set of tiny vinyl records and bottles of wine. After miniature top hats and other props, evaluated for their cool factor have been hot glued to the students creations, Maykut walks around with a syringe full of embalming fluid to inject into the heads of the mice, complementing the students on their work and providing tiny tweaks to their morbid masterpieces.

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