Recently Catster ran an article on taxidermy and cats. My husband is a state- and federally licensed taxidermist and a full-time professional biologist who does taxidermy part-time. Nonetheless, I’d never really put together the thought about cats and taxidermy until friends started casually asking me, “So, would you ever consider having Chris do taxidermy on one of your cats after they die?” Um…no, it actually, it never had occurred to me. And though the grieving process is a wrenching thing to go through (we can all relate to that), the idea of doing taxidermy on a beloved pet somehow didn’t appeal to me.
I knew Chris wasn’t crazy about the idea, either, and I decided to ask him why. He’s shared the lives of many pets with me, including our cat Jamie, who was with us for 20 years, and whose death was particularly difficult. Of course, this is his opinion only, and taxidermists vary in their approach to this, as will potential customers. Chris pointed out that while he too has been asked if he would apply taxidermy techniques on domestic pets, he has never done taxidermy on a pet, and he shares the opinion of his teacher, Dennis Rinehart, on this topic. I asked Chris some questions, and here are his thoughts about the pros and cons of preserving pets.
The obvious goal of professional taxidermists is to make their customers happy. One may think that preserving their pet will make them happy, but when all is said and done, having the preserved animal is not ever going to be the same as having your live pet, with all their endearing personality aspects, next to you. The essence of the animal is gone. When you have spent years with a pet, says Chris, you know their personal physical details and behavioral mannerisms, and you deeply understand their personality. Even the best pet preservation effort can never capture what is no longer there. “People are hanging on to an emotional need, and that can be difficult to fulfill, leading to unhappiness, the opposite of what we are trying to provide. Personally,” says Chris, “I would not want a taxidermy representation of a pet collecting dust.” Consider whether this is a way of hanging on to a life that is gone. Much work necessarily goes in to a taxidermy piece, thus it is expensive. There may come a time when you’ll stop noticing that representation you spent a lot of money on. Ask yourself if the money might be better spent on adoption, rescue, or care for living pets in your household.
A qualified, skilled taxidermist will do a very professional job within the constraints of the tools and methods currently available. However, the customer may still not be satisfied. When there’s emotional history at stake (i.e., your bond with your pet) it’s easy to see how this could become a very upsetting situation. You may be expecting more than the taxidermist can provide. What if the taxidermist didn’t capture the essence of your animal, in your opinion? What if the job just doesn’t look right to you? Or, what if it is a good job, and you realize, belatedly, that it really isn’t the same, or even fulfilling? At this point, the work is done, you have the piece, you’ve spent the money, but you are not fulfilled. All of these are reasons why many taxidermists shy away from pet preservation.
Taxidermists do plenty of trophy animals for clients — deer heads, fish, small game, waterfowl, etc. Why is this any different than preserving a pet? The difference, to Chris, is that there’s a hunting or fishing memory that the client wants to preserve, but not years of bonding and emotional history. When a client brings in a deer for taxidermy, they are willing to spend hard-earned money on the piece so that they can remember the story of the hunt, or the situation in which the animal was taken. “A trophy is something that does more than fill a wall space,” says Chris. “It’s a memory; a story of an experience that the client wants to capture.” However, there’s not the deep emotional connection with a trophy such as what we may share with our cats or pets. In the end, it comes down to a personal decision.
Once upon a time, people who wanted to preserve their pets could only rely on traditional taxidermy methods (i.e., completely skinning the animal, preserving the hide, disposing of the body carcass and internal organs, fitting the hide over a form, providing glass eyes and teeth, etc.). Now, less invasive freeze-drying methods are available which, in Chris’s opinion, can be as good as and possibly superior to traditional taxidermy, depending on certain factors such as the type of the animal and its overall body size and muscle mass. Freeze-drying involves removing larger internal organs, freezing the animal in a desired pose, and freeze-drying the animal in a specially designed sealed chamber. Freeze-drying gradually removes the body’s water content under very cold conditions, and dessicates and dries the skin and muscle mass. Freeze-drying works best for smaller pets. “The bigger the animal, the more likely that deformities will occur during the freeze drying process.” Less muscle tissue to dehydrate means less structural deformity. On longer-haired animals, much of this shrinkage is not visually noticeable because it’s hidden by the hair. This procedure takes a lot of time, so expect to pay a lot for this work. Some taxidermists offer this option, and some businesses specialize solely in freeze-drying pets.
If doing taxidermy on your deceased pet is something you want, know that there are qualified taxidermists who will provide the service. Make sure they are familiar with the process and get personal references. See if customers have been satisfied with the taxidermist’s work. It helps if the taxidermist belongs to a professional organization, such as NTA, a national organization, or other state-related organizations. Most states have a professional taxidermist organization. Finally, your taxidermist only knows as much about the animal’s special features as you tell them. Spend time going over the animal’s features with the taxidermist before leaving the shop. Visual aspects such as eye color, nail color, ear skin color, freckles, nose color, etc. fade with death. The taxidermist wants to get things right but you will need to provide color photographs highlighting any special features. Also tell them about the essence of the pet — its behaviors, personality, etc. All of this might figure into how good a representation the taxidermist is able to make of your pet.
Personally, I probably will never do this. Even though letting go is very hard, I don’t think that taxidermy preservation would fill the hole in my heart after a pet leaves the earth. Obviously, letting go, or preserving a pet, can be an emotional topic. What do you think about taxidermy and cats? Is this something you would consider, or not? Share your thoughts in comments.
More on cats, taxidermy, and letting go:
About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of a short story collection about people and place. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.