By Claire Voon
Wearing a short black dress, sheer tights, heeled boots and a knit hat atop her curly, jet-black hair, Divya Anatharaman looked ready for a night out. Except dangling from the palm of her hand was a white ermine, barely eight inches long, its splayed, lifeless body cut open from its abdomen to its pelvis to reveal a tangle of sinewy innards.
“Now I’m going to skin your head off,” Anatharaman said to it brightly, “and we’ll get better acquainted.”
With steady fingers and a determined expression, she deftly maneuvered a scalpel around the ermine’s cranium, separating soft tissue from fur caked in a powdery dry preservative. Beside her sat one of her students, closely watching her every move.
Anatharaman is one of two taxidermists who teach taxidermy — the craft of preparing, stuffing and mounting animal pelts — through Morbid Anatomy, a Brooklyn-based organization devoted to exploring death and various curiosities. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, to parents of South Indian descent, the lithe 30-year-old has been fascinated by death and the cycle of life since her childhood. She often frequented the classroom where her mother taught high school biology to observe the tanks filled with electric eels, nurse sharks, lamb brains and fetal pigs that lined one wall. She also recalls witnessing the fatal electrocution of a small lizard by a bug zapper and her earnest attempt to preserve it.
“I took the lizard into my tin of curiosities, putting him on a bed of flowers and my prettiest seashells, in hopes that he would have a second life in peace and happiness,” she said. “I learned about decomposition this way, as the little guy stunk like hell after a day or two…From then, I was curious about taxidermy and how it could be used to reanimate something that died in order to celebrate life and the cycle of life.”
That curiosity has since blossomed into a passion as well as a full-time career in teaching. Anatharaman also sells pieces she has made, both online and at flea markets. Eager to spread her interest in taxidermy to others, Anatharaman hosted dinner and cocktail parties with a unique spin: learning how to make taxidermy before the meal. Her parties soon grew into small, casual teaching sessions until the founder of Morbid Anatomy, Joanna Ebenstein, invited her to offer classes through the organization.
Anatharaman jumped at the opportunity, quitting her previous job as a shoe designer. Now, she not only offers classes in Brooklyn, where she lives with her boyfriend, but also tours the country to teach people how to skin and stuff animals from ermines to mice — a skill that has also made her more aware of the natural world.
“More and more as humans we are disconnected from how the natural world works and what it means to consume and use animal products in the large amount that we do,” she said. “I would have never known about these things if it weren’t for taxidermy, and being able to share what little I know with others has been incredibly positive.”
Anatharaman’s classes are intimate sessions. This particular one of eight adults — ranging in experience from first-timers to hobbyists who sometimes compete — gathered around a communal table with their individual ermine specimens. As Anatharaman danced between students, guiding them through the process of cutting, fleshing (scraping the skin), washing, drying, stuffing and sewing, she carried light conversation, asking students about their days or talking about her cat, named for the punk band Fugazi.
Jokes were frequent (“This little guy must have been weight conscious!”), making for a lighthearted atmosphere despite the task at hand. Anatharaman focuses less on ensuring her students craft a perfect model through precise techniques and more on making sure they understand the process through straightforward instructions while enjoying it. She compares skinning to getting undressed: pulling off a tail is like pulling off a sock, coaxing limbs out of the skin is like taking off a pair of pants or freeing an arm from a sleeve.
“These ermines are pretty dreamy to flesh because they’re furry hotdogs,” she said. “The stuff comes right off.”
The environment she creates is essentially the same as that of an average arts and crafts lesson. But instead of working with materials like paint, glue guns and fabric, her class works with small animals and scalpels.
Still, Anatharaman sees the skill as one that marries science and art, describing herself as a “taxidermy artist” who finds beauty in anatomy and biology. She describes an ermine’s eyelids as amazing as she prepares to recreate its eyeballs with beads. Breathing life and personality into her finished models, her work stands out from the traditional mounts one may find on the walls of a hunting lodge. Deer, mink and jackal skulls are adorned with feathers, crystals, flowers and tiny trinkets; mice are dressed in elegant costumes as if prepared for a ball. She describes her aesthetic as “fantasy taxidermy.”
“Growing up with traditions meant growing up with lots of stories, mysteries and mythology from an incredibly rich culture,” Anatharaman said. “I draw inspiration from natural mythology and magic across all cultures, and I especially love stories that focus on the role of women as strong facilitators in these magical roles.”
Oddly enough, her classes are often attended mostly by females.
“It’s mostly girls who are into taxidermy now, which is this bizarre virile hunting skill,” Laetitia Barbier, head librarian and event coordinator of the Morbid Anatomy Library said. “And now it’s like a bizarrely feminine type of craft taught by girls and attended by girls.”
Taxidermy is a craft, and Anatharaman does see herself as a sculptor. While an understanding of anatomy and chemistry is necessary to preserve hides, an artistry lies in rebuilding every part of the animal, as the only original body part used in the final product is the skin. After Anatharaman skins a specimen, destroying its shape by removing the body, she rebuilds and recreates the interior form, using the carcass as a reference to shape a new body out of insulating foam, wire and straw. There is also an art in the engineering required to craft certain poses, to make free-standing or mountable models, in the understanding of balancing and manipulating weight.
Her students call her a “miracle worker,” but Anatharaman still has her share of critics. She has received emails from people accusing her of being unethical or cruel, with some brushing taxidermy off as “weird” or “sick.” Anatharaman, however, prides herself on her policy of ethical sourcing. Many of the animals she uses are naturally deceased, discards — such as stillborns — attained from sustainable farming and food services. The ermines, for example, arrived from a tannery’s freezer cleanout. Sometimes, she hunts for her own animals, but she dispatches them quickly and efficiently and educates herself fully on proper hunting methods. She also hunts with meat in mind, frowning upon factory farming and its wastefulness in throwing away animals or parts of animals.
“A lot of people don’t realize that responsible hunters and trappers are actually the biggest proponents of conservation, since the desire is to hunt for meat, not for trophies,” she said. “There is a way to [hunt] responsibly and ethically, with conservation and respect or thanks to the animal in mind.
“I stopped eating meat until I first went hunting,” she continued, “because I felt that it was wrong to eat an animal if I could not properly and respectfully harvest one, and it doesn’t get more organic or free range than wild meat…I never understood hunting or eating meat until I saw that it could be done responsibly, and that it promoted wildlife stewardship.”
This code of obtaining animals has also given her an appreciation of life in all forms. While traditional taxidermists usually seek prime specimens — often the largest and most unique creatures — Anatharaman has no qualms about taking animals that are small or that have imperfect features, such as bald spots.
“I love all animals,” she said, “and due to the nature of my sourcing, the story behind the animal is usually more influential than the species. As much as I love harvesting meat, I am touched by the stories of animals that have passed and would otherwise by thrown away and forgotten. Why should that life be less valued than any other?”
Through these efforts to respect these specimens, she has learned not only the anatomy of various animals but also their diets, habitats and dispositions, information that is important to properly reconstruct their forms. Knowing that an ermine has a sack beneath its tail reminds her to exercise extra care when she works around its back.
Ethical hunting has also drawn her closer to the natural world. It educates her on humans’ relationships with animals, which she sees as becoming increasingly disconnected and of which some people might remain ignorant.
“It is incredibly surprising to me that people do not realize that meat and leather come from a dead animal,” she said. “As if to say, ‘I only eat chicken and fish’ somehow means those animals are not slaughtered to be eaten? There is a growing disconnection between the things we buy and use, and knowing what they come from, and how the animals were treated. Soap, lotion, and many other things have animal products in them, or require animal by products for their production, and people have no idea. It’s insane!”
While frustration emerges at those who lash out at her without knowing that she works with heavy respect and gratitude for the natural world, she remains patient with her critics. Within this controversy, she finds opportunity to educate those unfamiliar with her process. Once, she responded to negative emails she received after various publications wrote articles about her, sending people detailed descriptions of her sourcing methods.
“Every person wrote back with sincere apologies,” she said,” but even better, with the note that they had no idea that such animal parts were so readily available. It definitely felt good to educate others and turn judgmental accusations to an opportunity to exchange information.”
Anatharaman also uses her lessons as a platform to educate those hesitant about her craft, although she thinks that people’s curiosity towards taxidermy is increasing. Although she knows of only three full-time taxidermists in New York City — including herself — her classes are popular, often filling up quickly.
Mary Lopez of Brooklyn has been curious about taxidermy since she visited the American Museum of Natural History. She discovered Anatharaman’s classes after searching online, and has since been taking classes with her for a year.
“Divya is really nice, really enthusiastic, and she’s so excited about taxidermy,” Lopez said. “I’ve had a great experience with her. And she’s really knowledgeable about everything.”
To Anatharaman, hands-on learning is irreplaceable, giving people the opportunity to ask questions and receive answers through physical involvement instead of through speculation. She also finds that educating people on taxidermy provokes questions on death, which she finds has become a hushed subject especially in Western civilization, where the dead are seen as useless, disgusting or distanced. Her fantastic creations are a way of instilling new life into these forgotten creatures, but her approach has no religious basis. Instead, it concerns her fascination with death, which she sees as a valuable part of living. In a way, taxidermy is a celebration of life.
“We are so uncomfortable as a society in dealing with death,” she said, “that we jump to calling anyone or anything associated with it as morbid, when in fact, death is simply another transition. We should make peace with this transition, as it can only help us appreciate how precious life is.”