"I have an issue with live blood," taxidermist Katie Innamorato told us as she readied to rip the head off of a dead rabbit. "It freaks me the fuck out."
Sitting in the basement of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, I was one of nine students squeamishly awaiting our first lesson in taxidermy. ("We all look so normal!" Erin McCarson, a fellow student, noted with surprise before the class began). Our instructor, Innamorato, travels the country teaching the brave and curious how to create their own jackalope head mounts—classes cost around $250 for the five-hour lesson.
I wasn't brave, but I was curious. As a vegetarian, I was also nervous. Would manipulating a rabbit corpse into a work of art be just as bad, ethically, as eating one? I wondered.
Whatever my fears, Innamorato dispelled them. Sporting a fresh thigh tattoo of her pet fox Banjo and "cat husband" Havoc, Innamorato rotated from student to student with a silvery fox tail dangling from her waist. She had originally wanted to work as a veterinarian, but seeing animals in pain turned her away from the job. Instead, she started picking up roadkill and using her talent for sculpture to turn the corpses into art—kind of like recycling.
Although she also teaches taxidermy using other rodents, Innamorato's jackalope class might be, well, the cutest she offers. Jackalopes—as a concept—have existed since the 1930s, and many people still wonder if rabbit-antelope hybrids are actually real animals. They're not: "When I lived in Arizona I thought I saw a jackalope," student Fifi Dupree confessed to the class. "I was wrong."
According to the New York Times, Wyoming's Douglas Herrick deserves credit for the invention of the jackalope. Herrick's brother Ralph told the paper's obituary section that Douglas came up with the idea when they threw a dead jackrabbit across their shop. "It slid on the floor right up against a pair of deer horns we had in there. It looked like that rabbit had horns on it."
To make our own jackalopes, Innamorato first wanted us to follow her example and twist the head off a bunny.
"I don't know if I can do this," someone in the room said.
The first steps, before the decapitation, seemed easy: We massaged our frozen bunnies to loosen up their skin. After we gave our bunnies a massage, we slit their tiny, furry wrists. We then followed the skin around the back of the necks with our scalpels. (Many of the rabbits' noses began to bleed at this point.) With the skin loosened, we slowly peeled it up over the rabbit's heads, a movement akin to taking a sweater off. We then cleaned the inside-out hide of any meat that could rot. The pink, fleshless, bug-eyed heads remained leftover, staring up at us from the table.
Innamorato explained a couple easy ways to clean the skulls if we wanted to hang onto them: We could simmer the rabbit heads in a pot for half an hour to 45 minutes and then whiten them with peroxide, or simply bury the skull in the backyard and dig it up again in a few months. As for other preservation techniques, she said, "You can buy formaldehyde off Amazon. A lot of people don't know that."
The participants who lacked an interest in preserving the skulls donated scraps to Innamorato. She utilizes every nook and cranny of the rabbit bodies in her art and is currently mulling over the idea of gluing two bunny rumps together and calling the piece "Going Nowhere."
Next, we smashed our deflated bunny skins into cups of alcohol. Innamorato gave us foam, and then we carved it match the shape of the decapitated heads. (Some students had worked up the guts to twist the rabbit heads off themselves; I left that part to our capable teachers). Once we successfully cleaned our skins, we worked to fit them on bodies made of foam, clay, and fine shreds of wood. Then we glued beads into the empty eye sockets and used pins to make the skin hold and dry naturalistically. With some wiggling, we pushed plastic into the ears to prop them up from the inside, and for the final touch, we glued pieces of deer antler on the bunny heads. After five exhausting hours, our jackalopes were complete.
The entire process is, well, gross. But even as a vegetarian I had a hard time finding fault with taxidermy. Innamorato has a deeply rooted moral viewpoint that keeps her treatment of animals respectful and professional, and she's eager to educate her students on the topic. "When I was a kid," she said, "my dad would tell me, 'Do you know where meat comes from? Cut off your leg, that's meat.'" We're not that different from rabbit corpses, after all.
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