Taxidermist Beth Beverly, above.
I recently binged on eight episodes of Immortalized, a reality TV competition about taxidermists. The show hasn’t been renewed for a second season, but my guilty pleasure has spiraled into a full-on obsession. I’ve always assumed that taxidermists maintain a certain level of detached ambivalence to whatever creature comes across their workbenches, but the contestants on that show seemed like surprisingly devout animal lovers.
A few weeks ago my fangirl status increased when I decided to visit Beth Beverly, a taxidermist based in Philadelphia and one of the contestants from Immortalized. When I walked into her studio she was sitting at her desk, which was cluttered with sandpaper scraps, rabbit paws, and guinea hen feathers. The blood and flayed carcasses I was expecting were nowhere in plain sight. I took a seat across from her as she rubbed black epoxy clay onto the eyelids of Tyrone, a small mixed breed dog she was finishing for a client.
Beverly keeps most of her dead specimens in a red-and-white striped freezer where they lay frozen, waiting to be stuffed. The freezer was so packed that the lid was weighed down with a metal toolbox. Inside, there were mostly medium-sized rabbits that had gotten into pesticides. She usually procures ‘naturally deceased’ animals from a farm in Cobleskill, New York, where her friends, Thomas McCurdy and Bailey Hale, raise goats, pigs, rabbits, and chickens. She just mounted the head of the couple's beloved sheep, Orka, who died during childbirth, as a gift for their recent wedding. She’s never hunted, but she told me about a visit she made to the farm last year that inspired an entirely new relationship to her specimens. It happened the moment she scooped up a young rabbit. She cradled it in her arms. She stroked the soft, brown coat and the pliable ears, and talked soothingly to the animal as she looked into its unblinking brown eyes. Then she snapped its neck.
Beverly tossed the twitching creature—not quite dead—on a butcher's block while Thomas McCurdy chopped off its head with an axe. “It was still kicking,” she told me. “Even after you cut the head off they’re still thumping their feet around.”
Nameless rabbit before the slaughter.
Beverly specializes in wearable taxidermy. She’s creative. She once made a hat out of a fox scrotum. She owes her appetite for her materials to a whole pheasant she bought from a butcher when she was still sharpening her flesh-mounting skills. She brought it home for taxidermy practice, planning to tear apart the pheasant with a scalpel, not rip into the flesh with her teeth. I get queasy whenever I remove the giblets from a store-bought chicken, but as Beth scraped the pheasant’s hide from the meat and the meat from the bones, she wanted to go full circle with the creature and have a taste. “It wasn’t just some anonymous lump of protein that I bought at the supermarket,” she said. “I grew up in a house where people were always on diets and food was not a good thing. My foray into taxidermy has led me down this path of exploring where my food comes from and wanting to develop a more intimate relationship with it.”
McCurdy skinning the rabbit.
She prepared for the kill with a shot of whiskey and an instructional YouTube video, and was surprised that she didn’t cry after she broke the rabbit’s neck. "I kind of didn’t feel anything," she said. "You have to field dress the animal. You have to start gutting it as soon as you can.” She tied the decapitated rabbit to a wooden beam by its hind legs and let the blood drain from its neck. She skinned it, yanking the hide off the body like a tube sock. The rabbit’s insides were still warm as she reached inside its chest and pulled out the heart. Beverly tried removing the bladder in one piece, but had beginner’s luck, ending up covered in rabbit urine. The marble-sized sac of pee resembled a white water balloon with red veins.
After she washed the blood and urine from her hands, she helped McCurdy prepare a slow-cooked Elizabethan rabbit stew. “But for the first time I wasn’t ashamed and I didn’t feel guilty,” she told me. “I was so nourished and full of good food, and the thought of even wasting a scrap of that meat was out of the question.”
Elizabethan rabbit stew.
The next day, Beverly packed a travel cooler with the rabbit’s heads, pelts, feet, and organs, and boarded a bus back to Philadelphia, where she scraped out the skulls and boiled the brains with spring water for a tanning paste. “I have a Native American friend and she used to tell me that every animal has enough brain to tan its own hide,” Beverly said. She’s not sure that’s true with large animals, but it seemed like a safe bet with rabbits. The concoction looked like a gray, gloppy sludge that smelled like a meat locker, but the Native American tanning technique preserves the hides and prevents rot. She mounted the rabbit head and turned it into a jackalope with a set of 3D-printed plastic antlers. The brain-tanned pelt was transformed into a neck wrap for McCurdy. The organs were designated treats for her cats.
The rabbit, transformed into a jackalope.
A few days ago, another fresh pheasant landed on her workbench—a hunter wanted it mounted. After she skinned and disemboweled the bird, she tossed the pheasant in a slow cooker with onions, carrots, celery, a head of garlic and vegetable stock. She cooked the gamey fowl for 36 hours, until the meat was fully tender. She claims that it tastes like turkey, a distinction she said she could make now that she’s eliminated factory-farmed foods from her diet. “I just figured, that’s great meat and I’m not going to waste it,” she said. Even when she’s not stuffing the skins, Beverly uses as much of the animal as she can. She just ordered a butchered hog from the farm and almost every part of the pig, from feet to face, will get eaten.
“I feel more satisfied,” she said, “knowing that I met my meat.”