Whimsical taxidermy catches on in Baltimore

After decades of being relegated to man caves and hunting lodges, taxidermy is hip.

Three cable television shows delve into the art of preserving animals, and its practitioners. There are national taxidermy competitions and conferences and even a New York City museum devoted to the art.

At Bazaar, a Hampden curiosity shop that opened last year, ducklings that died soon after pecking through their shells, jars with preserved fox and coyote heads and even a rare albino raccoon are on display. The shop can't keep up with the demand for the taxidermy workshops it began hosting last month.

Tickets for an upcoming class on preserving moles -- and outfitting them with eyeglasses and coffee mugs -- sold out within minutes, said Bazaar co-owner Greg Hatem.

"We had people lined up at the door to get in the class," he said.

Unlike the stuffed bucks and bears of years past, today's taxidermy skews toward the fanciful. Think two-headed squirrels, goats with fishtails or mice wearing petticoats.

Practitioners are more likely to scour country roads for dead animals than hunt. And, in contrast to the boys club atmosphere in most taxidermy shops, many of the biggest names in taxidermy today are women.

"It's like any other art," said Miranda Beck, 36, a Federal Hill esthetician. "It's so interesting to me to have these wild, untamable animals in my living room, to bring the wildness in."

Beck vowed to learn taxidermy to mark her 30th birthday, and, since then, she has preserved eight animals. And that's not counting the pets she mummified for friends or the earrings she fashioned from deer vertebrae.

A self-described "anatomy geek," Beck savors studying animals she would never be able to get close to in the wild.

"You notice the different textures of fur," she said. "Otherwise you'd never know the difference between the fur of a raccoon and a fox."

While modern taxidermy -- the practice of preserving, stuffing and mounting animals -- arose in the 1700s, the current fascination is inspired by the whimsical creations of the Victorian era, Robert Marbury said. He is a Baltimore resident, although he's also the president of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists.

Traditional taxidermists attempt to create perfect specimens of animals in lifelike poses, but rogue taxidermists create chimeras -- say, the head of a chicken on a body of a cat -- or pose animals to make them look human. The works are playful, sometimes tongue-in-cheek, and often beautiful.

Marbury, whose book, "The Rogue's Guide to Taxidermy," is slated to be published in the fall, says taxidermy provides a connection to the visceral realities of fur and bone and death -- a contrast to the virtual worlds that consume us.

Mitch Webb, president of the National Association of Taxidermists, said "there's been a real uptrend" of interest in taxidermy, although the growth is difficult to quantify.

Television shows that profile rogue taxidermists such as AMC's "Immortalized" and the Discovery Channel's "Oddities" have introduced the art to a larger audience in the past couple of years. Workshops are being offered from Portland, Ore., to Nashville, Tenn., and curiosity shops similar to Bazaar have opened in New York and San Francisco. 

In Brooklyn, N.Y., the Morbid Anatomy Museum, a library and museum devoted to taxidermy, opened in 2008 and has grown so popular that it is moving to a larger space in April.

Beck, the esthetician, was among a dozen people who filed into Bazaar for a winged-guinea pig-making workshop on a recent chilly Sunday.

A partially thawed guinea pig was placed in front of each seat, and participants studied them carefully, picking the furry face they found most appealing. Some of the students looked a little queasy as reality sank in.

"If anyone needs some fresh air, you can go out the front door," Bazaar co-owner Brian Henry said. "Or if there's an emergency, you can go out the back."