The Internet loves awful taxidermy. The people behind the Tumblr Crappy Taxidermy, established as a blog in 2009 and featuring a deep archive of torturous photographs, have a book deal. An unrelated Facebook account, Crap Taxidermy, has 105,000 likes. The new kid on the block, @CrapTaxidermy on Twitter, already has 85,000 followers, despite having tweeted only 107 times.
Depending on your sensibilities, you might think of all taxidermy as objectionable, even something as impressive as the master Carl Akeley’s “Fighting African Elephants,” installed at the Field Museum in Chicago in 1905 and still on display. In order to laugh at crap taxidermy, you’ll have to set aside any such delicate feelings. But even if you can visit the American Museum of Natural History and look at Akeley’s mountain gorillas without the slightest hint of guilt or sickness of stomach, you may find that crap taxidermy makes you sad.
The crap taxidermy phenomenon is tailor-made for the Internet, which is particularly good at aggregating many examples of phenomena that used to be far-flung, and at visual jokes and juxtapositions.
“Crappy taxidermy” comes in two flavors. Some bad taxidermy you’ll see on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter is kitschy—anthropomorphized squirrels made to sit at dinner tables, hybrid jackalopes, and other unnatural arrangements. The spiritual grandfather of this school of taxidermy has to be the Victorian taxidermist Walter Potter, who had his own museum full of monkeys riding goats, rabbits going to school, and kittens getting married.
Perhaps more disturbing is the “crappy taxidermy” that’s just poorly executed. The lesson of viewing a ton of bad taxidermy photos is that it’s really, really hard to make animals look natural in death. That human failure is part of the joke: Behind every terrifying otter and rigid fox is some chump who tried, and failed, to accomplish a goal. (The tagline of the Crap Taxidermy Facebook page is “Taxidermy—You’re doing it wrong.”) Some of the animals on the Crappy Taxidermy Tumblr aren’t even recognizable.
Not everyone loves this repurposing of failure. Nish, from the United Kingdom, who runs @CrapTaxidermy, told me over email: “The comments I receive [about the account] are mainly positive, with the odd person calling me a c**t.” When I asked why, Nish said “They seem to think that I endorse animal cruelty, when I am far from it.” Recently, he issued a clarifying tweet: “This feed in no way endorses animal cruelty. I love animals, the joke is the shoddy workmanship. Now lighten up or piss off.” To judge by a long, much-commented-upon discussion on the Crap Taxidermy Facebook page, there are haters of that overwhelmingly popular page as well.
I laugh at all of the @CrapTaxidermy tweets that show up in my timeline, but the feeling is unavoidable: There’s something sad about it. Rachel Polinquin, a taxidermist and historian whose book The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing came out in 2012, wrote about the emotion of viewing failed taxidermy:
Even truly terrible taxidermied animals, with fossilized ears, maladjusted eyes, and shrunken limbs sprouting straw, still convey an authenticity, a realization that these things on display maintain their integrity as animals. Poor craftsmanship does not eradicate an animal’s organicism any more than a shrunken head or a mummified body stops being a human. Bad taxidermy might even be said to render the beast’s loss of life more abrasively visible.
There’s a sinking feeling I have upon seeing crappy taxidermy—“Oh man, that animal died for nothing.” And the fact that some taxidermied animals died natural deaths is small consolation—as is the case with many photos on the Internet, these images are utterly devoid of context, so that we have no idea what the history of the particular animal is, or where it can now be found, in all of its crappy glory.
This, to be sure, is irrational, as an animal facing death would not be consoled by the prospect of an Akeley on the other end, tools at the ready, backed up by a museum to receive its body as a work of art. Why should an animal care whether a viewer laughs or marvels at its dead husk?
Still, I can’t help but feel like they deserve more than they get. I’ll keep on laughing at the Crap Taxidermy tweets that pop up in my feed. But I do have a little bit of sympathy for the haters.