A Day in the Life of a Taxidermist

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London Calling spoke to taxidermist Kim Zoë Wagner, digging deep into the grisly entrails of what it’s like to be a taxidermist.

Preserving everything from canaries to baby giraffes, Kim Zoë Wagner is a professional taxidermist working in London. She is long-time assistant to artist Polly Morgan, has made a hat of crows for fashion designer Pam Hogg, and even sold a rare albino peahen to illusionist Derren Brown. London Calling dug deep into the grisly entrails of what it’s like to be a taxidermist in the modern age.

London Calling: Can you remember the first time you pulled off the face of an animal?

Kim Zoe Wagner: The first bird I did was a crow, but there’s something about doing birds where you can’t really relate it to yourself. It’s so abstract. When I did my first mammal, a full stag, that was weird. I could really relate it to my own body.

LC: How did you get into taxidermy in the first place?

KZW: Originally I studied prosthetic make-up in LA. It was always my childhood dream to work in a lab and make aliens and monsters. After graduating I couldn’t find any work. I moved to London and still couldn’t find work. My mum said, ‘Why don’t you try taxidermy?’ It wasn’t anything I would have thought about, but I thought ‘Okay, let’s go’ since the processes are quite similar: sculpting, casting, working with anatomy, making something look alive. I wasn’t squeamish at all. I googled London taxidermy and the first person that came up was Polly Morgan. I contacted her and she said, ‘I need an intern, why don’t you come in and help?’ So I did.

LC: What is your first memory of taxidermy as a child?

KZW: My grandpa had a snarling boar head mount. I was terrified. It was in this old dark house in Switzerland, hanging in the stairwell. I would pelt up the stairs to get past it. It was a compliment to the taxidermist because I was so scared, it was so lifelike. I thought it was going to chase me up the stairs.

LC: You are commissioned by fashion designers, artists and taxidermy collectors to create work. What is one of the more unusual pieces you’ve worked on?

KZW: I did some work for the artist couple Tim Noble and Sue Webster. They take a big pile of trash then project a light onto it and the shadow on the wall is a perfect outline of the artist couple, almost like a portrait. I worked on their piece British Wildlife. It was a big pile of taxidermy; it just looks like chaos. You have to be careful because you’ve got to make sure wings are at the right angle or the bridge of a nose is exactly in place for when it’s projected onto the wall.

LC: You clearly state you are a taxidermist and not an artist. What is the distinction in your mind?

KZW: It’s like the difference between pottery for art and pottery you eat food off of. As a taxidermist I’m not an artist, I’m a fabricator, it’s a craft. There’s no intention of art behind it. I like to keep that distinction because for me, taxidermy has no meaning. It’s just a dead bird.

LC: So what makes you want to preserve it?

KZW: I think it’s beautiful, it’s as simple as that. I love having this perfect creature in front of me that I can touch, pull at the wing, look at all the beautiful markings and how it’s put together. Pheasants are so common here in England, but people are like, ‘Pheasants? Who wants a pheasant?’ I look at them and think they’re so beautiful. Look at the iridescence in the feathers, the detailing, everything that’s gone into creating this animal. There are incredible creatures that live with us in this world and we’re all sharing it together, it’s kind of amazing.

LC: Do you get dead animals sent through the post?

KZW: Absolutely! Recently I missed the post and had to go to the post collection office. They say you need to wait 24 hours. I was like, ‘Dude, I can’t wait 24 hours!’ The post worker said, ‘What’s in it?’ I said, ‘It’s just perishable goods!’ He said, ‘What’s in it?’ I said, ‘It’s meat!’ He said, ‘What kind?’ I said, ‘It’s a sausage alright! Just go get it for me!’ Usually people freeze the animals before they send them to me via an overnight service, so by the next morning they are thawed out. You wouldn’t want them to sit in the post office for days, who knows how hot it is in there.

LC: Do people come to you and ask for their pets to be taxidermied?

KZW: The only time I’ve done someone’s pet was this adorable little girl’s hamster. She would send me videos of it when it was still alive so that I could accurately taxidermy it. She had this other hamster someone else had taxidermied; they had done a really bad job on it, it was scary looking. But she put this pearl necklace on it and would carry it around and stroke it while she was talking to me about taxidermying the other one. It was just adorable. Her parents encouraged it. I found that quite touching. A lot of parents wouldn’t do that.