I Quit My Job At Disney To Become A Full-Time Taxidermist

Photo: Elyssa Goodman.
There is a black mink defrosting on a wooden bench inside Acme Studio in Brooklyn. It is small, furry, and curled into a donut. Allis Markham has just lifted it out of a cooler to thaw for tonight's lecture, a DIY taxidermy class she’s teaching that evening. Her right wrist, tattooed with a bright-blue magnolia, jerks quickly as her hands stretch the creature open with a few quick pulls. "It got into a farmer's chicken coop," she says of the mink. "And now it's here with me!"

Markham, 32, is an award-winning taxidermist from Los Angeles who spent a week on the East Coast teaching classes on the art of skinning and mounting animals. I tagged along on one such lecture recently to see what’s up with this most unusual line of work.

Today Markham will be teaching her Birds 101 class, where students of all stripes — older women wearing floaty, asymmetrical dresses, men in black T-shirts printed with obscure band names, women with pink hair and sleeves of tattoos — will be taught how to mount European starlings. Two to four trays in hot-pink, orange, or bright-blue plastic are set up at each table, one for each student. The bright colors make cutting open an animal feel more like an art-class activity and less like an autopsy. The two-day course will run five to six hours each day and costs $300 per person.

Class begins, and Markham rattles off animal breeds and their characteristics — for taxidermists, it's never just "a bird," it's "an Indian Ringneck Parrot" or a "White-Faced Scops Owl"; it's never "a squirrel," it's a "Black Squirrel" or a "Ground Squirrel."

She won two blue ribbons at the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships (basically the World Cup of mounting animals)."

Photo: Elyssa Goodman.
With jet-black hair, porcelain skin, and a dab of red lipstick, Markham is a far cry from the balding, paunchy dudes with whom taxidermy has been associated for so long; in fact, more and more women have been entering the competitions in recent years, diversifying the field. "Lately, we've gotten a big upsurge of lady participants," says Wesley Skidmore, the judging chairman of the taxidermy championships. "[They] are winning awards because they're paying attention to detail and they're studying their subjects."

And Markham is winning. This year, she entered her first competition, the 2015 World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships, basically the World Cup of mounting animals, and won first for two bird entries, a Plush-Crested Jay and a Western Scrub Jay, in the professional division. (Competitors don’t work in real time; they just bring in a work they completed themselves for judging.) She also got second-place ribbons for another two entries, a Western Scrub Jay and a green Honeycreeper, and an all-around, fourth-place Competitor's Award ribbon in the professional division.

Six years ago, a blue ribbon in a pro-taxidermy competition would have seemed an unlikely future for Markham. In 2009, she was working at Disney in marketing, but the bureaucracy and politics of office life were making her miserable. Luckily, she says, she got to a point in her career where she had enough vacation days and enough savings to think about leaving the company and making a career change. A big one.

Markham had long been fascinated with taxidermy, appreciating not just its aesthetic value, but the way it honors an animal's life. She saw her grandfather process deer on his 500-acre farm in Madison, Indiana, where she grew up, using every part of the animal, tanning his own leather. It was an artistic atmosphere, too, where she says everyone was very crafty and had pottery or painting studios “because you have 500 acres and you might as well,” she jokes. This artistic, working-with-your-hands environment was something she missed in her marketing career.

I was crying, saying, 'You're going to think this is really dumb but I want to be a taxidermist.'

The unhappier she became at work, the more she ended up spending time looking at taxidermy schools online. "I remember having this conversation with my husband. I was so embarrassed at the time to say the words out loud, but I was crying and he was like, 'Well, what do you want to do?' And I was like, 'You're going to think this is really dumb, but I want to be a taxidermist!' And he was like, 'Well, you got vacation time saved up, you don't like your job, just take all your vacation time and go to one of those schools you've been looking up every day on the computer.'" And in 2009, she did exactly that, heading to the Advanced Taxidermy Training Center of Northwest Montana in the city of Thompson Falls to take a two-week course in taxidermy. ATTC, as it's known, is a commercial school, teaching students the techniques they need to have a taxidermy studio. Markham completed her coursework and came back to L.A. But how would she find specimens to work on?

Her husband suggested emailing the taxidermist at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in L.A., Tim Bovard, whom she says she bugged until he let her volunteer. She would work with Bovard from 6 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. on weekdays before heading to Disney. Eventually, she quit Disney and began volunteering full time, which led to her hire in 2011. Markham was there for three years on staff and then decided to open her own studio, Prey Taxidermy, in downtown Los Angeles, in 2014. She is there seven days a week, teaching often sold-out classes on the weekends, but continues to volunteer at NHM and now also at the Moore Lab of Zoology at Occidental College. At Prey, Markham does commissions (but no pets!) and is starting to get into renting out her work for film, television, and photo shoots.

In her personal work, Markham tends to focus on birds because, she says, she is both a patient and an impatient person. "Birds you can do frozen to finish in one sitting, right? That speaks to how impatient I am," she says. "I can do three birds in a day if I really have to crank them out. But the patience comes in along with my OCD in that I sit there and arrange each individual feather with a pair of tweezers."

I can do three birds in a day if I really have to crank them out.

In class in Brooklyn, Markham and her assistants begin preparing the Birds 101 specimens for the day. The European starlings on the block were contributed by a farmer from Wisconsin, where they’re so numerous they're pests, destroying crops. Had they not been sent to Markham, they would have simply been thrown out. This way, though, the striped and spotted black birds get to live a new life. This is one part of taxidermy that Markham loves in particular, but that some people don't understand.

"I’m an animal-rights activist," she says. "I mean, I rescue dogs. I love animals. And that’s why I do this, which might seem really odd to some people, but it’s like, a landscape artist doesn’t hate the outdoors." She has a pet dog named Bacon and a pet chicken named Fifi (a.k.a. Eggs, she jokes), and also has a host of foster dogs coming in and out of her home. At the same time, she says, "You can’t simply remove yourself from the food chain. I’ve just embraced that I’m an apex predator. I think that for me, eating meat is the right thing to do, but there’s a way that we can do it that is better than others, that’s a bit more cruelty-free."

For this reason, Markham practices what she calls "ethical taxidermy." For her, that means nothing should die just to be a piece of taxidermy, and she doesn't waste anything. Often, she'll eat the meat of the animals, if it's possible, or feed it to her dogs. Taxidermy has gotten a bad reputation for being unethical in the past, but according to Markham, "Nine times out of ten at the World Championships, every piece I see, I’m like, someone ate that pheasant, someone ate that deer." She remembers a competitor's jaguar and people wondering how it got into his hands. But his family owned a zoo, she says, and when the creature died, he revived it through taxidermy. "Everything dies," Markham points out. "So I think taxidermy in general gets a bad rap. But people should know there are realities behind it that they’re not aware of. And generally speaking, they would probably agree with those realities if they knew."

Throughout the day, students are instructed how to wash, then skin, then remove the innards (including the brain from the skull of the animal), then clean the skin of fat and muscle (called fleshing). Markham and her assistants demonstrate each act with precision and nonchalance — while they say things like, "Allis, you've already gotten guts on the nice new whiteboard!" or "And now you just disconnect the flesh!" or "Can I borrow someone's brain scoop?"

Assistants shout things like "Allis, you got guts on the nice new whiteboard!" and "Can I borrow someone's brain scoop?"

Taxidermy actually has taught Markham more about life than it has about death. "I think that once you take the skin off of an animal, gosh, we’re just all the same. We are all the same machine; it’s just put together in a little bit different of a way, and it is remarkable, the different ways we’ve evolved to do specific things," she says. "I do get sad sometimes when I see this amazing thing and it died. I’m respectful to the specimens I’ve worked on, but I guess I’m not quite afraid of death."

At her lecture later in the evening, Markham will skin the black mink for an intimate crowd. In a vintage-style cotton dress printed with red roses, her hair curled in soft waves and a smear of Jungle Red on her lips, she will ask with a chuckle, "Does anyone have music to skin minks by?" and an assistant will cue up soft electronic tunes as she takes a scalpel to the now-defrosted specimen. A waft of a musky, greasy smell will fill the air, watering eyelids and forcing hands over noses. "That's why they call it a mustelid!" she chirps, shaking it off. After she digs into the mink for a while, her scalpel blade needs changing and she asks a fellow taxidermist close by to open the blade for her.

Markham wears no gloves, and her hands are greasy, but this doesn't stop her from brushing her hair out of her face with a mink-grease-covered hand. She is unfazed by guts, unfazed by death. For her, it's just another day, another part of her job. "There's something visceral in human beings, where we know how to do this," she says of taxidermy to the crowd. "Nothing's precious, nothing's sacred. Time is fleeting."

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