London's Coolest Class is ... Vegan Taxidermy?
This London class involves playing with animal carcasses—and people travel from all over the world to do It
Little bits of soft, innocent flesh decorate the paper towel in front of me. There’s blood everywhere. How does a vegan of 15 years end up in a taxidermy class wearing plastic gloves, willingly de-fleshing an animal carcass? What did this poor mouse ever do to me to deserve having his soft fur pulled away and body picked apart with cold metal tools and tweezers? More surprisingly, how does a vegan teach such a class—multiple times per week—embracing and encouraging the masses to manipulate dead animal carcasses? How can she live with herself?
Meet Suzette Field, London’s resident vegan taxidermist. At the forefront of the growing “ethical taxidermy” movement, Ms. Field uses only “ethically sourced” animals (more on that later) and is dramatically changing how people think about and approach taxidermy.
As a child, Ms. Field collected objects from the natural world: rocks, crystals, shells, bones, and animal specimens. Twelve years ago, she began to specialize in taxidermy and for several years, ran a quirky shop and museum in East London that Anthony Bourdain featured on his Layover in London show. She now works full time leading taxidermy workshops and produces morbidly themed events.
Born in California but raised in the U.K., Ms. Field speaks with a British-inflected accent. She dabbled in vegetarianism as a teenager and has been vegetarian, and now vegan, most of her adult life. She believes animals are beautiful creatures and she enjoys teaching others to preserve their beauty post-mortem. Her long blond hair, broad smile, and sunny disposition were not what I was expecting from someone specializing in morbidity.
Her eyes light up as she warmly explains the importance of cleaning the brain out of a skull. A group of travelers from around the world, who have little in common other than a vague interest in trying something new, duck their heads down, and begin scraping the meat away from the bone. Not only does proper cleaning prevent a future maggot infestation, but fully cleaning the skull means you can keep the teeth. Oh goody!
We slice bones, gouge out eyes, pull out tongues, and heartily slice up mice and guinea pigs in a fashion that is somewhat reminiscent of high school biology class. The pungent aroma filling the room is just as pleasant as the task at hand. An iron stomach is recommended.
For the past few years, Ms. Field has led taxidermy classes in her “executive shed”, a sunny studio in the backyard of her home. Classes include a home-cooked vegan lunch and a brief lecture on the ethical and environmental merits of veganism. Her workshop was initially titled “Learn the Tricks of Taxidermy”, but as nearly every review of the class referred to how delicious, interesting, or impactful the lunch was, she began promoting it as “vegan taxidermy”.
London’s vegan scene is especially strong, including everything from vegan pie and mash and elaborate afternoon tea to vegan fish and chips made with banana blossoms. I expected a vegan taxidermy class to be full of local hipster herbivores hoping to one-up their friends on social media. I doubted that meat eaters would be interested in a taxidermy course led by a vegan so committed to her cause that she felt the need to include “vegan” in the workshop title. Wrong. While a number of vegans take the classes, plenty of students are happy meat eaters.
Who is the average student? “The curious individual”, says Ms. Field. In other words, everyone—from the barber down the block to the corporate executive looking for staff bonding retreats. All ages, races, ethnicities, religions, and nationalities have enjoyed her classes. Ms. Field has even welcomed U.S. Army soldiers stationed in Germany who made the trip specifically to take her class. British Army soldiers—who receive an educational allowance to pursue professional interests—enroll in her class, write a report about it, and receive an official diploma to present to the Army.
Relatively few taxidermists exist in the world (vegan or otherwise), so enthusiasts and taxidermists-in-training regularly visit from Singapore and Australia and stay for an entire week to take all of Ms. Field’s workshops. As Disney is turning all their classic movies into live action films, she has taught many special effects artists hoping to better understand animal anatomy in order to create more realistic-looking animals on screen.
Workshops typically last six to eight hours. The first half of the session is devoted to skinning, de-fleshing (which is exactly what it sounds like), and washing, punctuated with interesting anatomical facts and taxidermy stories about the varieties of dead animals that friends (and strangers) have offered her in the past or about taxidermy gone wrong—revenge of the maggots! The second half of class focuses on the art of taxidermy, where students create a form (aka a mannequin), sew incisions, wire the limbs, clay the face, and mount the animal on a piece of cork or silver birch.
Finished specimens usually end up on top of a mantle or bookshelf, sometimes to the horror of a spouse, inevitably serving as a conversation starter at dinner parties. Occasionally, students have a specific destination in mind for their finished piece so some preserved animals find their way to much less common homes. One woman stuffed a crow in order to put it on the top of her Christmas tree while another student stuffed a weasel to use as a hat decoration. Several couples have made his and her mice to sit on top of their wedding cake.
Most taxidermy workshops go off without a hitch but Ms. Field recalls one woman fainting early on in the class. She arrived late, just in time for the skinning process, and proceeded to fall out of her chair and dry heave on the floor. After a glass of gin and tonic, she managed to finish the class and went home with “a lovely rat”.
The phrase “ethical sourcing” typically refers to businesses sourcing food, fabrics, and goods that have been produced under environmentally-friendly conditions, by workers who receive a fair wage and are treated well. As such, I was a bit puzzled when Ms. Field described the animals used in her classes as being “ethically sourced.” In the world of taxidermy, at least in the world of vegan taxidermy, this means that no carcasses were killed specifically for the purpose of taxidermy—sorry not sorry, trophy game hunters!
Pest control, game keepers, road kill, reptile food, and culls (the selective slaughter of a wild animal to prevent over-population) are the most common ethical sources of carcasses. Ms. Field is also regularly contacted by people who have found a dead animal that they suggest she collect for her class. Some of these leads are useful but they are often too far away or impractical to retrieve.
Reptile food is the easiest method of securing ethically sourced carcasses. Unlike in the United States, it’s illegal to feed live animals as food to reptiles in the European Union. Since reptiles won’t eat anything unless it still has the skin on and appears to be alive, rodents are frozen with all of their fur and sold whole to pet owners. The frozen rodents will eventually expire so vendors sell them to Ms. Field at a discount when they’re approaching the expiration date. The conditions the mice were initially raised under are less clear but Ms. Field believes the vendors she uses have relatively humane practices.
Note to any amateur home taxidermists out there —freezing is an important part of the taxidermy process, as it kills 65 percent of bacteria and any parasites that may be living in or on the animal’s body. Freezing, which does not affect the quality of the skin, is particularly important with road kill, as it will also kill any potential maggots living on the carcass.
Gamekeepers and pest control managers are another good source of animals. A pest control manager of a golf course or a gamekeeper managing a large estate might be tasked with ensuring no pests dig up the grounds. In both cases, unwanted animals found on the grounds are killed and, instead of being discarded, are sold to Ms. Field as part of a truly creative side hustle. Though she initially contacted companies across the greater London area trying to convince them to sell her their unwanted dead animals, they now reach out to her.
"Field sports,” such as pheasant hunting, are a heavily licensed activity in the U.K. (think thousands of dollars for a single day of shooting) and the shoots can only be carried out during designated seasons. Birds that are shot for “sport” (vegans, such as myself, are physically unable to refer to hunting as a sport without including quotation marks) are often discarded after being killed. Ms. Field occasionally receives these would-be discarded animals from gamekeepers of hunting grounds. As the birds are killed with buckshot, injuries to the skin are minimal and the bodies remain eligible candidates for taxidermy.
Not all ethically sourced animals, however, are allowed to be used as taxidermy specimens. U.K. endangered species regulations stipulate that animals on the list cannot be used unless they died in captivity. Even in this case, a special license is still required. If Ms. Field were to find a dead barn owl on the side of the road, she would not be able to preserve it because she couldn’t prove how the animal died (“sport” hunter gone rogue?). The bird can only be preserved if it came from an owl sanctuary, has the ankle ring to prove it, and has a veterinary report showing that it died of natural causes. Please don’t arrive to her class with your own dead animal.
London is truly one of the finest culinary cities in the world, for vegans and meat eaters alike, and now the strong-stomached among them can come together to enjoy a meatless meal and de-flesh an animal carcass together, the way Mother Nature intended.