I arrive for my jackalope taxidermy class 45 minutes early because I'm nervous that all the good dead bunnies might be taken. To kill some time outside of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Gowanus, Brooklyn, I walk down the block to pick up a snack for my long day ahead. On my way, a man in a green van with aluminum foil covering the back windows blasts Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World." He waves.
I am about to spend the next six hours skinning, fleshing, and mounting a dead rabbit before ramming antlers into its head so that I have a decorative thing to show my mom over Skype, and so I can tell the internet that I did this.
"Yes," I think to myself. "What a wonderful world, indeed." I wave back.
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The jackalope head–mounting class, led by local taxidermist Katie Innamorato, costs $250, which is a pretty steep price tag for any single-day crafting class, but it does include all the tools and dead animal parts. Plus, Innamorato is open to answering any inane questions that come up, from "What is an ear butt, and is my finger inside it now?" to "Is this much blood normal? What about this much? THIS much?"
Even though I'm early to the class, which takes place in the basement of the museum, I'm still not feisty enough to grab one of the first rabbits soaking in a glass punch bowl that Innamorato gleefully sets in front of us at the beginning of class. It turns out the best way to get any party started is with a dead rabbit grab bag.
The eight of us—only one guy—sit around one long communal table with scalpels and red trays placed at each of our seats. Throw in a few Mason jars and some oversized balloons, and you have yourself a very Pinterest-worthy photo shoot.
We start things off by donning gloves and massaging our rabbits. I have problems with touching humans, but a dead rabbit actually isn't so bad. It feels like giving a neck massage to an oddly heavy stuffed animal that happens to be wet. It doesn't smell any worse than what you would imagine it to smell like, and I begin to feel bad that it's so tense. I wonder if rabbits have a sense of premonition.
Perhaps because I fished my wet Dutch rabbit out of the bottom of the bowl, my carcass has a snapped neck and hemorrhaging issue, giving it a pinkish hue in the neck where the blood pooled. Innamorato seems un-phased by this, so I massage on. After a few minutes, our rabbits are nice and relaxed. So relaxed, one girl's rabbit poops on her platter. This makes me think of women shitting the bed during childbirth, and for the first time I get queasy.
The next step is the caping, or the skinning of the rabbits, which is a bit like trying to pull a shrunken wool sweater over your rabbit's head, except the wool sweater is the rabbit's furry skin, and if you have a carcass that's hemorrhaging it's a bloody mess. Because we're just doing shoulder mounts, Innamorato gives us the option of keeping the unnecessary parts of our carcasses to take home. It seems liked the thrifty thing to do to save the feet, brains, and skull for a rainy day, so I do. The rest of the rabbit I give back to Innamorato, who had recently purchased 5,000 flesh-eating beetles that she keeps at her house to help her clean off bones. Plus, she has a fox named Banjo she visits in Virginia that helps her take care of her dead animal parts.
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After we successfully strip our rabbits, we dunk the skins—which look like fleshy finger puppets—into solo cups filled with alcohol. As we wait for the skins to do whatever it is they need to do, Innamorato leads our class around the corner to the Morbid Anatomy Flea Market. There, she points out some of her pieces at a booth brimming with fancy fox heads, animated rats, and a scene of Bambi hanging out with Thumper, an apple, and a bunch of butterflies. It's whimsical, to say the least. Four women stand proudly behind the booth, passing around furs and animal heads as a crowd of black-rimmed glasses and Doc Martens approaches.
I ask Innamorato if it's unusual that I'm meeting so many young female taxidermists today. "There's always been women in the field, but its predominately men," she says. "Within the last couple of years there's been a lot of ladies involved."
Innamorato first developed an interest in taxidermy in high school, when she would pick up roadkill and bury it in her parents' backyard for the bones; she liked collecting things and was interested in articulating—or re-assembling—skeletons. "I always liked going to natural history museums when I was a kid. When I was really young, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but as I got older I realized I can't deal with seeing animals in pain, and I can't deal with people grieving. I also can't deal with the color of live blood."
This is coming from someone who has just torn into my dead rabbit with her bare hands, holding its eyelids down with her fingers while warning us to keep our mouths shut in case the eyeballs burst.
When I showed up six years ago, besides their children and wives, I was the only lady there going through seminars and stuff.
"I started collecting stuff and finding things that were a lot fresher, and I wanted to not waste anything," she says, explaining that when she first started calling around to taxidermists it was almost entirely men—the "good old boys" as she calls them—and many just hung up the phone. Eventually she found a guy in Sussex, Pennsylvania, who offered to teach her. Innamorato remembers her first taxidermy convention in New Jersey. "When I showed up six years ago, besides their children and wives, I was the only lady there going through seminars and stuff."
Today, she says her classes are 95 percent female, and it's very rare to have more than one man in a class. She also enjoys having a community of people working in taxidermy, including many young women. She shares an example of when one of the other women working at the booth was commissioned to do 40 rats for a movie shoot, and Innamorato and others came together to help. "I have five freezers full of stuff, and I hate fleshing, so I was like, 'I will pay you in dead stuff if you help me with fleshing,'" she says. "We all work together." Before heading back, I ask Innamorato what else she has in her five freezers, and I stop her after monkey and baby horse.
Back in the basement, we're ready to pull out our skins and begin fleshing. This means scrubbing off the chunky, hardened bits of flesh from the skin with a combination of Borax, your fingers, and a metal brush. I try to scrub and pull away the meaty parts while also trying not to poke a hole through the skin. I'm considering just giving it the ol' "Meh, that'll do," approach I use to most things that are moderately difficult or annoying, and I take off my gloves, which are a nuisance. Then Innamorato tells us to make sure we're thorough, to avoid attracting maggots and flesh-eating beetles in the future.
If Tim Burton tried to lead a Build-a-Bear workshop.
My skin still feels pretty meaty by the time we carve rabbit head–shaped skulls out of foam and attempt to push them inside the skin puppets. The remainder of the class is basically like if Tim Burton tried to lead a Build-a-Bear workshop. We glue on fake eyes and cut scraps of milk jugs to line our ears to keep them perky. My skull is surprisingly small, so I shove clay through the eyes and nose holes to help build out the cheeks. I grab a bunch of pins to keep the skin in place as it dries over the next couple of weeks. Finally, I punch two antler horns into the top of the head and call it a day.
As I show off my final jackalope, someone comments on my rabbit's pink hue. "That's from all the blood pooling!" I say, excited to share my knowledge that this is something that happens sometimes with dead rabbits.
After about six hours, I leave with my jackalope, four wet rabbit feet, and a bloody skull and brains tied inside a robber glove. I hold out my loot in a large zip-lock bag on my subway ride home, securing seats on both packed trains with ease. Damn, I think to myself, what a wonderful world.