"I can mount any squirrel in just about any position or style you would like," taxidermist Rick Nadeau promises on his website, Rick's Custom Squirrels.
This is no idle boast. Nadeau can mount a squirrel climbing a wall or cradling an acorn. He can mount a squirrel to fit under the wheel of a car like fresh road kill. He can mount a squirrel's butt sticking up from a Coors tallboy or a can of Planters peanuts.
But he has his limits. "There was this guy who saw my website and called me up. He'd had a squirrel come down his chimney. He put a match to some lighter fluid and torched the squirrel. He asked me, 'Can you mount that?' He wanted the mount to look like a fried squirrel. Why would I do that?"
Nadeau specializes in "characters": military squirrels in brightly colored felt berets clutching M16s with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips. There was Secret Squirrel who huddled in a trench coat and fedora, and a fiddler in railroad overalls. "That was the cutest one," says Nadeau's wife, Chris, who sewed the overalls. "I didn't want to let it go."
Nadeau won't use endangered species, such as the Franklin's ground squirrel. "The only thing I'll take is a legally harvested squirrel," he says. "They're considered varmints."
He also refuses to mess with chipmunks (too small) or skunks (possibly rabid). Squirrels are his only medium. When he first started practicing taxidermy in the mid-'80s, he'd mount deer heads, but now the skin is too thick for his arthritic hands. Squirrel skin is stretchy and easy to handle; it's almost as easy to sew as cloth.
Besides, says Chris Nadeau, "you can't do much with a deer head. You can't give it character."
Once, when Nadeau was still living in south St. Louis, a neighbor found out he did taxidermy. "She'd had a Persian cat in her freezer for twenty years," he remembers. "She wanted me to mount it like a beanbag so she could put it in different poses. The cat was all crystallized; it had crystals all over its face. I told her that once it's mounted, you can't put it in different poses. It kind of freaked me out a bit."
Nadeau has heard of other taxidermists who wouldn't hesitate to preserve a pet cat or take a dead squirrel and make it look like road kill. They have formed an international movement called Rogue taxidermy, and they've developed sophisticated theories about the appeal of, say, squirrels dressed like commandos.
"We anthropomorphize everything," says Robert Marbury, cofounder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. "It's part of being human. There's an instinct there: We need to relate to an object."
Traditional taxidermists tend to shun the Rogues, of which there are only 30 practitioners worldwide. Some of them also look down on Nadeau's work. "Professionals think they give taxidermy an unprofessional look," explains Pete Sweitzer, president of the Illinois Taxidermist Association and an early mentor of Nadeau's.
"Professionals consider themselves artists. A talented taxidermist will make a mount look so real that you can't tell it from a live animal. You can't recreate what God put on Earth, but you can get close."
The Rogues argue that the centuries-old craft has outlived its original purpose — to give people an idea of what wild animals really look like. "Any armchair art historian will tell you that art begins as representational, then evolves, or devolves, into the scattered and abstract," notes Scott Bibus, a Rogue taxidermist.
Nadeau prefers to stay away from these arguments. "I'll stick with doing my own characters," he says. "It's more sane, I guess."
For the longest time squirrels avoided the Nadeaus' front yard in Mitchell, Illinois, a small town north of Granite City, comprised largely of bars and cheap motels. "It's like they knew what I was doing," he laments. Chris Nadeau joins in: "They probably all told each other, 'The squirrel man lives there; don't go there.' It was kind of funny."
A good taxidermist, even one who dresses up a squirrel in a ballerina tutu, will closely study live animals in the hope of creating a more natural-looking pose. Nadeau has lured the neighborhood squirrels — "my little buddies," he calls them — back to his yard by scattering peanuts. These days, they come to visit around five-thirty each morning, just before Nadeau leaves for his day job at Fresh Warehousing in East St. Louis.
"They look at me like, 'What's he doing now? Who's he working on today?'" Nadeau says.
Nadeau is 51. He's tall and burly with bristly silver hair and a mustache. He has two faded blue tattoos, one on each arm, which he acquired during a hitch in the Army in the '70s. A hunter for most of his life, he began to mount his own animals 25 years ago, after his regular taxidermist passed away. In the beginning, Nadeau practiced on the road kill he found along Highway 44; he still has a coyote head from those days on his living-room wall.
Seven years ago he turned exclusively to squirrels when some of his hunting buddies started bringing him dead squirrels to skin. They took the meat, and Nadeau kept the skins. "I'm not big on squirrel," he says. "I like Buffalo squirrel, though, in hot sauce. It tastes like chicken."
Nadeau doesn't remember how he decided to start dressing the squirrels in military gear, but he does recall he was unemployed at the time and thought he could earn some extra money selling them on eBay.
Even though Nadeau got into the squirrel business for practical reasons, the idea took off. "You can relate to squirrels," offers Marbury. "They live among us. They work well with anthropomorphic stuff. It's like creating a miniature version of yourself in a tiny squirrel."
A frozen squirrel skin, properly wrapped, can last up to two years. Nadeau keeps his in the kitchen freezer, wrapped in plastic and towels, all with neat labels like "Nice Butts."
Chris Nadeau says she doesn't mind having dead animals around. Her husband is grateful. "I don't know too many women who would let me get away with what I do at the kitchen table."
The Nadeaus' small house is immaculate. It does not smell of dead animals, but of scented candles and fresh-brewed coffee, which Nadeau drinks constantly.
Usually there are two or three newly mounted squirrels sitting on towels on the large rectangular kitchen table, along with an assortment of taxidermy equipment: brushes, a roll of Scotch tape, a box of straight pins, a mound of modeling clay, a spool of wax thread, a pair of pliers, a jar of petroleum jelly and razor blades in various sizes. There's also a scattering of glass eyeballs and Styrofoam squirrel-head mannequins lined up in neat rows.
Before the 1960s, taxidermists would build their own mannequins, usually by boiling the dead animal down to the skeleton, but sometimes by letting loose a swarm of flesh-eating beetle larvae on the carcass. Then they would arrange the skeleton into the desired pose and build the body back up again with clay, cotton or wood wool held together with string.
Finally, they'd stretch the skin back over the whole contraption. (In its very early days, the craft was quite similar to upholstery, hence the term "stuffed." Latter-day taxidermists prefer the word "mount.")
About 40 years ago, though, taxidermy suppliers introduced premade mannequins, usually carved from Styrofoam. They were lighter and easier to work with, and most taxidermists immediately adopted them. "It's a very time-consuming process to make a body out of spun wood wool," Nadeau explains.
The only forms Nadeau makes himself are for the squirrel butts, which are balls of wood wool held together by masking tape. The rest he buys from a pastor in Andalusia, Alabama, who, like Nadeau, does taxidermy as a hobby.
Nadeau doesn't consider himself an artist. "The stuff Ron Dee makes is art," he says, referring to a Florida sculptor of moonshine jugs, whom he greatly admires. "A lot of imagination goes into his pieces. They're all created from clay. The stuff Ron makes comes from raw materials. All my materials are premade."
On a Sunday afternoon in late July, Nadeau sits at his kitchen table staring at a tall squirrel form he's planning to turn into a ballerina. He has a few pictures of ballerinas printed from the Internet to use as models. Chris has already bought several pink satiny doll dresses to cut down to squirrel-size as soon as her husband decides on the pose.
"I have to envision how I want it to look before I carve the form," he says. "This one cost me sixteen bucks. I'm going to try not to screw it up." He looks at it critically. "It almost looks like a big-ass prairie dog." He thinks he'll probably cut off the arms and turn them around so they curve upward gracefully.
Mounting a squirrel is easy, Nadeau deadpans, "once you've done a couple thousand." When he first started, it would take him more than an hour to skin a squirrel. Now it takes him three minutes.
He starts at the anus and slices up the chest cavity with an X-Acto knife. With his thumb, he separates the skin from the sinew and peels it past the hindquarters and then clips off the feet with small cutting shears. "It's like peeling a tomato," he says.
He strips the front half of the squirrel the same way. "The head is the trickiest part. You have to stay as close to the skull as possible. You need to go real deep into the eye cavity. If you go straight across, you lose the eyelids and detail."
A fully skinned squirrel is red and bloody and looks, in Nadeau's words, "like that muscle-body show they had in St. Louis." He soaks the skin four to six hours in dishwashing soap to clean off the blood and grease.
"Sometimes you'll have ticks and fleas. In the summer, you get a squirrel so full of fleas he's eaten away through his skin." This is why Nadeau prefers the skins of fall and winter squirrels. But eighteen hours in tanning solution is usually enough to kill most pests.
The tanned skin is like leather, and Nadeau slides it on the mannequin, back end first, like he's putting on a glove. It takes between 180 and 200 stitches to sew a squirrel back together, on the belly and inner legs, where they'll be less conspicuous. Nadeau reinforces the tail with mechanical wire wrapped in floral tape. He fills in the toes with clay and uses straight pins to hold the lips together and keep the ears in position. Once the squirrel dries, he'll make teeth out of clay.
It can take as long as two weeks for a squirrel to dry. "I have to do prep work all the time," Nadeau says. "I'm always prepping ears. I get up early to go to work, and I'm drinking coffee and prepping ears. Same with the tails. I've burned out two of my wife's hair dryers fanning out the tails."
Walter Potter wasn't the first taxidermist to mount a squirrel sitting upright and quaffing a pint of beer. But he was undeniably the greatest.
"You look at Potter's work the way a child would," says Tia Resleure, a San Francisco artist and taxidermist. "It's so believable. The attention to detail is so brilliant. He was very good at getting attitudes. There's a lot of stuff out there that's really stiff."
Resleure's website, A Case of Curiosities, is perhaps the most complete repository of information about Potter. She also takes credit for inventing the term "anthropomorphic taxidermy" when she launched her site in 1998.
"Any animal or object that is humanized is anthropomorphized, but in taxidermy, that was referred to as 'humorous' or 'novelty' taxidermy," she explains. "I felt so close to it and loved it so much that I felt it deserved a better name. The problem with novelty squirrel football players is that they're so one-line, not complex at all."
Between 1854 and the early 1890s, Potter created a series of tableaux of animals engaging in human-like behavior: squirrels socializing in a gentlemen's club, rats brawling in a tavern, kittens at an elaborate Victorian wedding, guinea pigs playing cricket.
His 1888 piece The Rabbits' Village School depicts 48 young rabbits knitting socks, reading about the opening of the Westminster Bridge, playing with their penknives, cheating at arithmetic and crying over a spilled bottle of ink.
Resleure believes that Potter was inspired by Hermann Ploucquet, a German taxidermist who displayed his own tableaux at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851. "His work was really crude," she says, "but he did a lot of it."
It's unclear whether Potter viewed Ploucquet's work himself or only looked at newspaper illustrations. But by 1854 he'd started one of his most ambitious arrangements, The Original Death & Burial of Cock Robin, which would eventually contain 98 birds.
Like most of Potter's dioramas, it was displayed at his family's inn in Bramber, Sussex, England, which had evolved into a full-fledged museum by the time Potter died in 1918. The museum was later transferred to the Jamaica Inn in Cornwall, and then, when the Jamaica's owners needed money, sold off piecemeal at auction, an act Resleure considers a desecration. (The artist Damien Hirst at one point offered to buy the whole collection, but Resleure says the inn's owner turned him down.)
Potter's oeuvre was unusual for its time, but only because of its scope, not its content. Plenty of Victorians collected stuffed animals. Some were hunting trophies. Some were specimens brought back from scientific expeditions like Charles Darwin's voyage to the Galapagos Islands on the Beagle for further study.
Then there were the cabinets of curiosities. Collectors would hunt down the weirdest preserved creatures they could find, such as two-headed calves or especially odd birds, and display them in personal museums: The wealthier the collector, the stranger the specimens. In one of the first of these collections, Peter the Great of Russia kept a two-toed boy. He also displayed the heads of his wife's lover and his own mistress preserved in glass jars.
Rogue taxidermists try to re-create these curiosities: two-headed chicks, pickled piglets, three-eyed fish and carnivorous frogs. Some Rogues make their own versions of mythical animals like the jackalope, the Yeti and the Fiji mermaid. Sometimes they invent their own, like the Punk Marmot and the Nardog, which looks like a sheepdog with a single unicorn horn.
Rogue taxidermist Scott Bibus tries to explain the appeal of collecting these creatures. "People have a covetous relationship with dead animals," he says. "It's like being a serial killer: You want something perfect and still. Your only chance to check out an animal is when it's dead. And you're drawn to things you see less often. A cat is old hat."
A renewed interest in taxidermy has surfaced in recent years; the National Taxidermists Association, founded in 1972, now has 2,500 members. The prefab mannequins, not to mention instructional DVDs and online demonstrations, make the process much easier to learn. The New York Times recently profiled a group of young hipsters who decorate their Brooklyn lofts with mounted moose heads and hang out at bars and shop at stores that feature more of the same. In the SoHo neighborhood, a shop called Evolution has been in business since 1993, selling curiosities like beetles preserved in key chains, mink penis bones and human skulls.
In 2004 Bibus, Robert Marbury and Sarina Brewer, all Minneapolis artists, established the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. Since then, Bibus has moved to Clearwater, Florida, and Marbury to Brooklyn, but they still meet, usually in New York, to demonstrate their art. At one such "master class," which took place in a bar, they skinned and mounted a chicken and then served the meat to 100 students in a chicken gumbo. (They also offered a vegan option.)
The Rogues attribute their popularity to the same impulse that governs the rise of organic food and urban gardening. "With this increased dependence on technology," says Marbury, "we do a lot to remind ourselves we're still connected. We want to return to a mythological past when we were hunters and gatherers and moved around. When I worked at a farmers' market, the number-one thing people wanted to talk about was weather and farming. We have this amazing need to relate to the land.
"Taxidermy is a huge entrance into dealing with the land," he continues. "It's tactile. It requires you to deal with death. We've built our society around avoiding death. Taxidermy is a reminder that you're manipulating death."
In June, just in time for Father's Day, a number of media outlets, including the Chicago Tribune and Spike TV, discovered Rick's Custom Squirrels and touted Nadeau's work as the ideal gift for the dad who has everything, including a Big Mouth Billy Bass. Web hits for Nadeau's site skyrocketed.
"I just about fell out of my chair," he says.
"We spent a few days trying to figure out what happened," Chris Nadeau adds.
"Now it's back to normal," Rick Nadeau goes on, "about 40 or 50 hits a day, but it's still kind of tickling to get calls from overseas." He's gotten orders from as far away as Switzerland (for a gangster squirrel with a fedora and Tommy gun) and New Zealand (the fiddler squirrel).
Hallmark purchased a few of his squirrels, as did Humble, a New York-based video production company, and a few galleries in London and Buffalo, New York. He provided the main characters for Squirrel Tales, a series of YouTube shorts in which two squirrels, Glenn and Charles, discuss the existential dilemmas of squirrelhood. And he swears he saw one of his military mounts in the movie Four Christmases. He's still waiting for Anheuser-Busch to call.
"I have some ideas," he says, "but they might be too violent for the Super Bowl."
His fame has occasionally backfired. "A guy in Potosi was trying to compete with me," Nadeau recalls. "He lost his job at Chrysler. He started e-mailing me to trade ideas. He stole all my ideas and was competing on eBay. Right before Christmas, he got fifteen or twenty orders. He couldn't keep up. I ended up helping him."
Nadeau learned some of his techniques from other taxidermists he met on the Internet on sites like Taxidermy.net, a vast clearinghouse of taxidermy lore, which claims 20,000 members. He sometimes advertises for squirrel skins on Craigslist and buys most of his varmints' military paraphernalia from a website called Cotswold Collectibles that specializes in vintage G.I. Joe accessories. The berets are handmade by a woman in Minnesota whom Nadeau met on eBay.
"The Internet has created a new type of exploring and a cabinet of wonder," says Marbury. "You can collect images of other people's stuff, things that are peculiar."
The closest modern-day equivalent to Walter Potter's Victorian museum is an exhibit called The Dead Pals of Sam Sanfillippo, housed, quite appropriately, in the basement of Cress Funeral & Cremation Service in Madison, Wisconsin. Sanfillippo, a funeral director, had originally assembled the animals to entertain elderly mourners.
He didn't do the taxidermy himself; he left that to a professional named Vito Marchino. But he did design all the dioramas. He had a barracuda in a top hat and cutaway coat. He had a woodland fair, where chipmunks rode a merry-go-round, ate cotton candy and ogled the dancers at a topless bar. He had a squirrel riding a bucking bronco through a field of plastic dinosaurs.
"He was obsessed with albino squirrels," recounts Marbury. "He had a whole anthropomorphized squirrel bar with cancan dancers. It was all automated, run by a crank." Sanfillippo had an agreement with the town of Marionville, Missouri, which proclaims itself "Home of the White Squirrel": He would be the recipient of all albino squirrel road kill.
Sanfillippo has since retired, but his collection remains in the basement. "We don't promote it," says Andrew Johnson, the funeral home's current managing director. "You're welcome to see it, but we're a funeral home first. It can be interfering when we're dealing with families in their time of grief."
Marbury once made a pilgrimage to Madison to see the Sanfillippo collection only to be told a tour wasn't available that day. "I was devastated," he says. He had to content himself with the photos on the Roadside America website.
If taxidermists have a bogeyman, it's not the ghost of some long-dead animal. Taxidermists love animals. No, their bogeyman is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
"I've had PETA pick me one month as their person to hate," says Jeanie M, an artist in San Francisco who creates "mouseadermy," mice dressed as angels, brides and the Hindu god Shiva. "My mice are very cute," she says. "I couldn't make something gory if I wanted to. It's probably because of all the Hello Kitty I have in the house.
"I donate money to animal charities," she continues. "I love animals. I don't like to see them suffer. I just find stuff fascinating after it's alive. How often, when we're outside, do we get a glimpse of an owl or a coyote?"
Like Nadeau, Jeanie M acquires her skins after the animals are already dead, in her case, from a pet store that keeps the mice to feed to snakes.
"I've gotten death threats," claims Tia Resleure, the artist behind A Case of Curiosities, whose own work includes Kitten Princess of Winter and Esmeralda (Fortune-telling Chicken). Her day job is cleaning dogs' teeth. "People got so offended because I used fetal kittens. At the Walter Potter Museum, there was a placard that said, 'None of these animals were killed for the purposes of taxidermy.' It said that the white rats were Potter's pets who had turned vicious. I don't know if you've lived with rats, but they don't turn vicious.
"I'm fascinated by the different moral cutoff lines people make," Resleure goes on. "What's the difference between eating dog and eating cow or chicken? Because dogs give affection? I grew up with a chicken who sat in my lap and was very affectionate. I wonder why it's immoral to kill an animal just for taxidermy but OK to kill it to eat it or for leather."
"Mounting a dead animal on a wall is not respectful to animals," counters Andrew Page, senior director of the Wildlife Abuse and Fur-Free Campaigns for the Humane Society of the United States. "Taxidermists talk about being respectful to animals and nature, but respect doesn't involve chopping a head off and sticking it on the wall."
Surprisingly, some taxidermists agree, to a certain point.
"I absolutely think it's 100 percent wrong to kill an animal to get it mounted," says Pete Sweitzer of the Illinois Taxidermist Association. "I definitely don't promote killing animals to get a trophy. Our resources were not put on Earth to be wasted. Either eat it or don't hunt it." Until recently, Sweitzer kept a herd of white-tail deer in his back yard so he could study them and render more natural-looking mounts.
Jeanie M started anthropomorphic taxidermy as a form of conservation. "I was doing things with road kill," she remembers. "I was throwing together different parts and throwing clothes on. I kept thinking, 'What can I do to hide this flaw? This squirrel's leg is chewed up. It needs pants. Aladdin has pants! I'll make a flying carpet!'"
Nadeau started making his own butt mounts when he found himself with a surplus of squirrel rear ends. "None of the squirrel goes to waste," Chris Nadeau confirms.
Last January, for their anniversary, Scott Bibus presented his girlfriend with a mournful-looking squirrel, with its heart in its paw. The heart was still connected to the chest by blood and sinew. "She cried," he recalls. "She thought it was one of the most wonderful things I've done."
"The big controversy about stuff like this is the image it gives taxidermy," Sweitzer says. "The ones I've seen are very, very rough. They need to get a little more artistic. The ones I saw, their skulls and claws were glued on. It's not appealing, in my opinion."
Explains Marbury: "The idea in taxidermy proper is don't do anything disrespectful to the animal. There are ethics: Don't show death. Don't show the animal having sex."
Bibus, one of the few Rogues with formal training in taxidermy, says he experienced an epiphany during his first month at taxidermy school in northern Minnesota. "I was looking through a cataloge of foam mannequins and this thought came into my mind," he recalls. "I realized what taxidermy really is: It's steeped in death, but it does its best to hide it." Soon after that, Bibus made his first Rogue piece, a beaver gnawing on a bloody human finger.
"I can't help myself," he continues. "When I sit down to do a regular mount, I can't help thinking, 'This would be so much cooler if it were covered in blood.'"
For Resleure, taxidermy art is a way of recovering from a traumatic childhood. "I was very withdrawn," she remembers. "I spent a lot of time with animals. I wanted to think I could communicate with them. Thank God for the animals — at least I had something."
Unlike many taxidermists, Resleure has worked on her own pets. "It's weird when people have a relationship with something or a person and see it preserved like that," she admits. "I did my first dog, an Italian greyhound who had to be euthanized. The euthanasia went bad — she felt it. I felt awful. It was the toughest decision to make, like playing God. Because of that, I couldn't deal with her for three years. I kept her in the freezer. But working on her was very peaceful and calm."
Nadeau, meanwhile, says he's begun to get burned out on squirrels. "I work on them 4 or 5 hours a night, seven days a week, and that's on top of a 50-hour work week." He charges $125 for a chest mount, $155 for a full body and extra for accessories, but only earns a modest profit from each squirrel.
He's been in contact with a Chinese manufacturer who might be able to mass-produce plush versions of his squirrel characters. "I could sell the chest mounts in the Bass Pro Shop. I want to make a round disk that's broken with a squirrel butt mounted in the middle. You could stick it on your car window. It looks like a squirrel butt sticking out."
Recently, he bought a kiln and installed it in his garage workshop. In the fall, he plans to teach himself how to make pottery and, eventually, moonshine jugs like Ron Dee's. "You can never have too many hobbies," he says. But he won't give up taxidermy completely.
"My goal is to have a little log cabin on a lake, either here or in Missouri, wherever there's a lot of squirrels."