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Taxidermy Artists React to Cecil the Lion's Death

Cecil the lion's killing has led to uproar against taxidermy, but what do actual taxidermists think?
July 29, 2015, 8:28pm
Image courtesy Jeremy Johnson

There are no words. #CecilTheLion http://t.co/waVk22aHZT pic.twitter.com/hrceEKY3Dc

— Blackfish (@blackfishmovie) July 28, 2015

Yesterday, dentist Walter Palmer was outed as the killer of Cecil the lion, a cherished Zimbabwean emblem of the fight for conservationism. International outrage has ensued after what Vice News describes as a "brutal kill[ing]." The discussion has sparked considerations about banning trophy hunting and brings the practice of taxidermy to the foreground.

Now there is an online witch hunt aimed at Palmer himself and his lackluster apology for luring the lion from its sanctuary, hunting him for 40 hours as he slowly weakened, then skinning, beheading him, and leaving his body to rot.

In Palmer's homestate of Minnesota, a taxidermy movement criticizing the callous treatment of animals has been brewing for over a decade. In 2004, taxidermists Sarina Brewer and Scott Bibus started the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART), a group dedicated to repurposing roadkill, humanely hunted game, and animal hides that would otherwise be discarded like garbage. While this community of environmentally-conscious taxidermy artists (and their equivalents)may seem indistinguishable from the trophy taxidermy practice, they are using their art to explore the relationship between humans and animals.

From Katie Innamorato, a prominent MART member who dresses squirrels and foxes with lush forest greenery, to Brooklyn sculptor Kate Clark, who uses clay to sculpt eerily beautiful human faces onto animal bodies, taxidermy artists, too, are reacting powerfully to Cecil's killing. Today, we spoke to five artists who work with animal remains about the horror of trophy hunting.

Jeremy Johnson, Cleveland, Ohio

My general stance on game hunting is quite negative. Trophy hunting especially is not something that I care for much at all. However, there have been some conservation efforts to allow a certain amount of lion culling to protect tribes people. Basically these programs charge an arm and a leg to a rich Americans in exchange for that arm and a leg going back into tribal support. At times this can be a win win situation… with a controlled lion population, tribes people will discontinue mass slaughter if one of their own is taken by one of the lions. That is not the same as canned hunting, which goes too far. (The breeding of lions for hunting.)

This situation goes far beyond anything that any hunter could possibly think is OK. Luring any animal out of a park for hunting is already criminal, but to do this with a mostly tamed lion is extraditable. Not just because this lion was liked by humans, but because humans guaranteed Cecil's protection.

Katie Innamorato, New Jersey

Image courtesy Katie Innamorato

The news about Cecil the lion is really upsetting. This guy Walter [Palmer] clearly gets enjoyment out of killing all these animals. It's a really fucked up situation, all the hand-in-hand parallels between trophy hunting and conservation, actually.

This situation is different though because he went about everything in completely the wrong way. It's crazy to think that a lot of these people just want this animal up on their wall, whereas people like me, Sarina Brewer, or Divya Anantharaman, are all animal lovers. We're breathing life into the stuff people throw away or is left to rot. None of us is killing anything to make artwork. That, I think, is the big difference.

Kate Clark, Brooklyn, New York

Licking The Plate detail, © Kate Clark

The only positive in this situation is the outrage. In my work, I express the idea that people have a desire to reconnect with nature. The outrage shows that there is a desire to rekindle this connection, which has been lost. The hierarchy people feel over animals has gone too far.  Cecil's killing is a really obvious, horrible example of our separateness. My work physically combines animals and humans in a really seamless way, so you're confronted with someone who reflects you, but also has an animal body, forcing you to come to terms with an animalistic inheritance.  I repurpose the older, worn, or flawed hides I use, which would otherwise be wasted. My work celebrates the animal, and our connection to the animal.  Walter Palmer represents the opposite of this idea. Killing Cecil for sport is an example of humans imposing human will over a majestic and important part of the world.

Mick Minogue, Dublin, Ireland

via Mick Minogue

There's so much about the story of Walter Palmer that pisses me off. You see a lot of assholes every day on the news having done some heinous shit but there's just something about a smug as you like dentist throwing the buddy arm around some meat head in a dry hump pose over a dead lion that makes you embarrassed for humanity. I am pissed that this shit happens so easily and even the ones protecting the lion threw a blind eye for some hard cash. I'm pissed off that reading this story led me to see even more pictures of that evil tooth puller with even more cowardly trophies.

[…] I recently finished a commission where I had to customize a real taxidermy hedgehog and make him look like Sonic the Hedgehog. I bought the hedgehog from a cautious taxidermist who told me the hedgehog died of natural causes (an overdose of sleeping pills whilst watching re-runs of Friends I presumed). I didn't tell him that I needed it to paint blue and add on little gloves and red sneakers […] I was at the bottom of the list of a weird  and dark industry. This is where it starts, first hedgehogs, then lions.

I can't use the word art when talking about taxidermy, I think that theres a skill to it but when you use the term art you kind of give it a beautiful purpose which I don't think there is a need.

Jessica Joslin, Chicago, Illinois

Athena. Replica of Great Horned Owl skull, antique hardware, chandelier parts, silver, brass, cast pewter, glove leather, glass eyes. 26" x 30" x 20"

The key to showing that respect is taking care that all animal remains were sourced in a legally & ethically sound way […] To those of us who love animals, poaching is reprehensible. There should be no gray areas with regard to the taking of endangered and threatened animals. There should be no permits, or "accidents" that allow the wealthy to circumvent animal welfare laws. Cecil the lion is a symbol of all that is wrong with our current system, but his death will not be completely in vain if it helps draw attention to the desperate plight of so many endangered and threatened wild animals, and the need for stronger protections.

There are tons of questionable specimens being sold on eBay. It's a poacher's paradise, because some people don't ask questions. The death of Cecil the lion has caught the public's imagination, yet there are thousands of lion skins, heads, skulls, and bones available at the swipe of a credit card. Some may be the result of poaching, but even if they are legally obtained, should that even be a possibility?

Divya Anantharaman, Brooklyn, New York

Image courtesy

Divya Anantharaman

We need to learn all the facts, and hold all parties responsible for this disgusting atrocity accountable. I am not a supporter of what this guy did in any way—it is poaching, and poaching is despicable. But no self respecting hunter would shoot a captive or endangered creature that clearly has a tag on it indicating it is from a wildlife sanctuary. When done legally with regulations and ethics, there are instances where hunting has been shown to promote wildlife conservation, environmental stewardship, and help certain species thrive (there's even a Ted talk about it).

These animals cannot exist without a healthy habitat. Habitat destruction is a huge threat to wildlife. I know a lot of people have problems with hunting and hunters, but we need to make the distinction between responsible hunting and poaching. For regulated hunting, the story isn't black and white—there are too many grey areas, especially in Africa, where many issues stem from a rough history of colonialism that has led to unrest and corruption.

We need to truly listen to the people that live on the land, and hear their solutions. We can accomplish more by having an open conversation where people hear each other out and exchange ideas for action. I hope dear Cecil gets his justice, that those responsible are held accountable, and that we create more effective wildlife laws and conservation programs so that this never happens again!

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