You can spend a Saturday afternoon browsing antiquarian book stores, fighting traffic to the beach, lazing in the park. Or you can mount a flayed rabbit to hang in your living room while a chef turns its innards into a nose-to-tail feast.
That’s what 6,000 people did last weekend during 23-year-old taxidermist Elle Kaye’s “edible taxidermy” masterclasses at the Feast food festival in the Docklands area of London’s East End. Chef Alex Armstrong prepared the meal for participants while Kaye schooled them in the art of reconstructing ex-rabbits. Armed with the gruesome tools of the trade, Kaye and Armstrong did the dirty work before students arrived. “We carved out the carcasses and I preserved the skins,” says Kaye. “That gave participants an opportunity to try taxidermy without skinning the specimen, which some people find hard to stomach.”
They might find the blood and guts of taxidermy unappetizing, but walk into a random bar on New York’s Lower East Side, in London’s Shoreditch, or Berlin’s Kreuzberg, and odds are you’ll find an atmospheric moose head suspended from the walls. Browse the hipster homes photographed in The Selby Is In Your Place, that bible of hipster interior, and you’ll see elk horns on every other page.
And we live in an age when taxidermy is featured not just in bars and apartments but prominently in contemporary art. British artist Polly Morgan shot to fame in 2005 when one of her first professional pieces as a taxidermist, a white rat curled up in champagne glass, was bought by Richard Branson’s sister for £2,000. With clients like Kate Moss and Courtney Love, Morgan has been dubbed a “taxidermist to the stars.” But she’s also considered one of the UK’s most successful contemporary artists. Taxidermy also put Damien Hirst on the map, and Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan is famous for his arresting taxidermy horses.
Kaye’s “edible taxidermy” is the latest iteration of a seemingly inexhaustible supply of taxidermy trends. Her masterclasses were designed to provide taxidermy novices a taste of the more immersive experience she normally teaches. And the novices come in droves. “Taxidermy has become the cool thing to do on the weekend in London,” she says. “It’s being slightly reconceptualized in its presentation, whereas before it had this old stigma associated with dusty old cabinets in manor houses and stately homes. It’s becoming a more digestible movement; people aren’t afraid to use it in a challenging way.”
And young, urban-dwelling taxidermy enthusiasts—those who believe 1,000 square feet is an expansive amount of space to decorate with stuffed game—long to liven up their minimalist IKEA living rooms with antique and naturalistic décor. Even better if that décor is cutting edge, too.
“Taxidermy is appealing because it’s still slightly unusual, it’s still slightly macabre, and people aren’t sure how they feel about it and that’s attractive to them,” says Kaye.
Indeed, there are countless newspaper articles, dating back at least a decade, documenting the hipster trend of purchasing—but rarely getting bloody creating—stuffed animal carcasses. Kaye says that while faddish taxidermy is still with us, it has taken a slightly different shape. “I’ve noticed a real soar in the trend, but I think we’re slowly moving away from the dioramas and museums and the ideal of the Victorian and the cabinet of curiosities.” Instead, it’s artists, foodies, and locavores. “Every other week I see a new advert or tweet or something online advertising a taxidermy workshop.”
Despite the expanding popularity of her profession, Kaye considers herself a “very traditional taxidermist” who stands apart from the majority of DIY taxidermists trying to short-cut the process rather than turn it into a skill set. “Some people are more interested in going to the event and taking an animal home. But there’s no longevity in stuffing a mouse,” says Kaye.
So why is eating one before stuffing it any different?
“I’m a conservationist and I very much believe in recycling and utilizing every part of the animal. I always eat my taxidermy within reason,” says Kaye. Wood pigeon, pheasant, partridge, grouse, peacocks, hares, wild rabbits, and waterfowl are all dietary staples. Domestic animals are off limits not only because they’re bred on an unnatural diet, but because “the animal belonged to someone, so I believe eating it would be an invasion of privacy.”
Before Kaye, edible taxidermy had not yet been introduced to the mainstream on an educational level. Now, as this sub-trend continues to gain cultural traction, Kaye hopes to clarify misconceptions about the practice and honor the animals she's preserving in her work.
“Even though they've passed away, you have an opportunity to give them a new life,” says Kaye. “There’s no better way to do that animal justice.”