Taxidermy had been my thing since I was 23.
I had been leafing through a brochure for a local adult education centre when I saw ‘Beginner’s Taxidermy’ listed as a course. Until that point, my hobbies had been things like creative writing or swimming, so when I saw the taxidermy course advertised, I jumped at the chance to do something different. I can’t tell you why it gripped me so much; I’d always had an interest in animals (although my desire to become a vet had waned as soon as I turned six), and I used to love making the Blue Peter arts projects. Taxidermy seemed like a weird but magical way to put the two together.
We started the course, after the basics, by learning to taxidermy small birds. Sparrows, thrushes, the kind of birds you’d tend to find around any old garden. Our instructor told us that it’s actually easier to learn on bigger animals, like dogs. “Birds tend to be fiddly”, he said. Sadly, not many people wanted their beloved pooch mangled by a novice taxidermist, however, so birds it was!
The taxidermy process itself is really pretty straightforward. Ever wanted to know? Here you go.
First, you need to do the “preparing of the form”. Basically, you make a mould of the animal in question and then fill it with plaster. Step one – done.
Then comes the tricky bit – the skinning. The skin of the animal needs to be removed as soon as possible after death, but our teacher would come in with bags of dead birds that he’d frozen to make sure they didn’t spoil. Using a sharp knife, you carefully cut a seam up the belly, being particularly careful not to puncture any of the organs or body cavity. Then kind of work the knife evenly along the inside to loosen the skin, while peeling it back with your other hand. We were told to think of it as “taking off the animal’s jacket and trousers”. It’s important to remove as much of the flesh and fat as possible, making sure you don’t tear or rip the skin. The most important thing to remember – for birds, anyhow – is to leave the head intact. For a mammal, our teacher told us, you would remove the head skin the same as the rest of the body but for birds, fish and lizards you’ll need to remove the brain, eyes, and tongue and leave the shape of the head intact for preservation. The physiology of birds means that you can’t (and wouldn’t want to) remove the beak, so you only have to remove the parts that would rot and smell.
And that’s essentially it! You need to rub the skin in a chemical called Borax to keep it preserved and then, finally, you fit it around the mould, smoothing out any lumps or bumps. Then you stitch the seam together as tight and invisibly as possible and voila! One stuffed bird.
I don’t know why I’m going into so much detail about the process. I think I’m just trying to explain the work that goes into it. I know some people think taxidermy is for creeps and weirdos but I’m not one of them. I worked and studied hard at it. I’ve always had the desire to be the best at whatever I’m doing, and taxidermy wasn’t anything different.
I made the natural progression from small birds to bigger birds – owls and things. From there it was an even more natural progression to lizards, then small mammals and, finally, to what I’d been craving since the beginning. Dogs.
I loved dogs. I always had. I’d never had one of my own because I was so busy, so it was an honour to work with and care for other peoples’. Since I’d started taxidermy, I’d had the desire to work with dogs, to be able to give people a physical reminder of their beloved pet and I was finally in a place to do that. I began to work on commission. It had been seven years since I started and I took myself to all the shows and fairs that were possible, to get my work seen. And it worked! People began to take notice of me, and the bespoke requests started arriving via my website.
My first project – as I termed all my work – was a Golden Retriever called Barkley. He’d died of cancer at age 15 and his owners couldn’t imagine their house without Barkley there in some form or other. I accepted the commission and made a beautiful model of Barkley, sitting on his hind legs and begging for a treat. The owners loved it and I loved the rush it gave me, seeing my perfect work on display.
I made it sound like I was being flooded with work, didn’t I? Sadly, the commissions didn’t come in as fast as I wanted them to. I mean, dogs die all the time but the amount of people who want to keep a stuffed version around is severely limited. Most people were happy to just keep a chew toy, or their dog’s favourite ball as a memento. And a taxidermist can’t exactly go around knocking on doors, asking people if their dogs were about to die and if so, can I stuff them? That’s when you become a weirdo.
I started stealing.
Most dogs are quite trusting. Wave a treat under their nose and give them lots of strokes and pats and they’ll do anything for you. The hardest part was putting them down so you can start work, but you get used to it. And I always, always, returned them to the owners once I had finished my work. Strangely, I never got caught. I went for dogs from out of the local area. I was questioned once by police but they had zero evidence to prove anything.
I was enjoying it so much, getting such a rush out of it all, that I never wanted to stop. The progression I’d made, from tiny birds to large mammals, was incredible. I was amazed by my own skill and I wanted people to see it. I wanted to be known and recognised for my art.
And I was.
My final project was Daisy. She was two years old – quite a bit younger than I was used to – and I’d liberated her from a lovely family who lived a couple of streets away. I wasn’t worried. I’d return her as usual once I’d finished.
I went through the entire process as normal, working overnight to get it completed. I’d already got all my equipment and tools lined up, ready to go, so there was no need to freeze Daisy’s body once I’d acquired it. I made the mould and, while it set, I got on with the skinning. Remember what I said about the head? On mammals you skin it exactly the same way as everything else, removing anything that might rot or smell. Finally, pull the skin over the mould and arrange or dress the project as needed.
I took Daisy’s stuffed body back to her house and left her in the garden, in a sandpit that she loved to play in. Then I went home.
I saw the news the same time as everyone else. A missing toddler makes worldwide news. Madeline McCann had been proof of that. But it wasn’t just a missing toddler. The child’s body had been found, stuffed, in her sandpit. The more reputable TV channels and broadsheets didn’t show pictures of my project but inevitably, a few made their way onto the internet.
It took 32 hours for the police to arrest me. I’d been suspicious to them for a while and it didn’t take much of a leap to connect this murder to my unauthorised dog projects of the last few weeks.
I was jailed, of course. Given life imprisonment. Prison is hell, and having people threaten to “cut you up and stuff you like one of your sick projects” every day is getting a bit tiresome.
But the rush of being worldwide news? It’s magical.