Anna Maria says the best thing about her job as a taxidermist is creating art of out something that is dead. She has always been fascinated with what happens to dead animals and whether there is life after death for them.
The basic process of taxidermy and the techniques involved vary depending on the animals being used. “Basically, when an animal is dead, the most important step is to freeze it. The process of decaying starts rapidly as soon as the animal is dead. So, freezing it will avoid ‘slipping’.
“Slipping is when the fur comes out of the pelt easily. To avoid this, I freeze the animal until I’m prepared for the process of ‘skinning’.
“Skinning is my favourite part. It takes a lot of patience and a really sharp scalpel. After I have removed the skin, the next process will be ‘fleshing’. This is when I remove all remaining flesh and fat from the skin. I use several chemicals for this process.”
“Next would be stuffing the animal. I use wires to replace the back-bone structure and stuff it with foam, cotton or pine wood.”
“The last step will be to sew it up and mount it as I see fit. It really is as simple as I’m explaining it here. The process might be tedious, but it’s so rewarding and fun.”
Although her lifestyle deviates from the norm, Anna loves it and worked hard to get to where she is today. She describes herself as someone who is in touch with her own consciousness.
“With all the impermanency of life, I live everyday focused on the little details which inspires and creates value in my life.”
The first time I met Anna several years ago, she was working at a music festival doing body art with henna. From henna, she changed her medium to acrylic paint and canvas. Soon after that, she was doing murals.
However, taxidermy had always been on her mind since she was young because she hates disposing of things, especially when they are beautiful and educational. “When something dies, I feel like the best way to memorialise them is by preserving them.”
Anna searched high and low for taxidermy classes and workshops in Malaysia for years, but failed to find anything substantive, so she decided to learn online. However, she still yearned for a teacher and mentor that could guide her in her journey as a taxidermist.
After a few years of searching, she found a veterinarian who actively does taxidermy for the national zoo and museum. Dr. Andy was a busy man, but he took Anna in as an apprentice nevertheless.
To practice taxidermy, Anna purchased dead frozen rats from a local reptile pet shop. The frozen rats are usually bought by pet owners to feed their snakes. She experimented a lot with rogue taxidermy on the rats. “Rogue taxidermy is where I exaggerate and create an unconventional look of an animal. For example, my collection of bizarre conjoined rats.”
After practising and learning a lot from her mentor, she started her little taxidermy business called ‘Anna and the Noisy Covent’. She promotes her business mostly via Instagram and Facebook.
Currently, Anna and her mentor co-own a studio in Senawang. Their plan is to divide the space into two. The main area would feature taxidermy art of all types and the second area would be a conducive work area. The idea is to combine a museum of the dead with a space for seminars and workshops.
“My teacher and I work well together because we both have the same mentality in this art of preservation. My time now is mostly occupied with getting our studio ready so we can educate and create awareness to Malaysians about taxidermy.”
According to Anna, many Malaysians are still quite ill-informed about taxidermy. She says that the worst part of her job is the ignorance that people have on the art and science of taxidermy.
“People often think I murder the animals and the whole process of taxidermy is hideous and gruesome. However, this makes me want to work harder on educating and creating awareness on this art that is not very well known in our country.”
On the other hand, Anna was quite pleasantly surprised to find that there are quite a number of taxidermy enthusiasts in Malaysia. “I am very surprised that most of my customers now are pet owners. When I started taxidermy, I did not expect pet owners in Malaysia to be so open and receptive to preserving their pets, but it has been great. More people are enquiring, and they are generally glad that there is somebody in Malaysia who can preserve their pets.”
Other than pet owners, many of her customers are also fishing enthusiasts who want their trophies preserved. “Fish are much harder and finicky to work on but the best part about working with fishes is I get to paint them after they are stuffed and sewed. The natural colour of the fish fades away dramatically after I skin them. So, the final process of fish taxidermy is to colour them.
“I paint and blend my colours with acrylic paint. Most customers would request to have the fish painted as close as possible to their original natural colour, but I do get customers that prefer me to go wild and do an abstract paint job on the fish.”
Some of her customers have requested for all kinds of weird things like a rat with bat wings, a rat riding a squirrel, a rat wearing a dress and a rat with angel wings. So Anna also often sculpts things like wings to be attached to the stuffed rats and accessorises the rats too.
“I welcome all suggestions and requests. I take it as a challenge to fulfil my customer’s idea of preservation.”
Taxidermy has helped Anna to see something dead in a whole new perspective. “There are so many possibilities to learn from and appreciate the dead. Just disposing them seems like a total waste.”
For more articles in Career & Skills, read 4 Lessons I’ve Learned After Switching from Government to Startup, and How I Learned to Deal with the Crippling Loneliness of Being a Freelancer.