Although I have achieved the somewhat advanced age of 94, I never thought I would live to see my intellectual specialization reduced to a mere bonsai in the majestic groves of academe. Alas, unlike the mighty oaks of the natural sciences or the supple but majestic willows of the humanities, my beloved field is no longer discussed with the same reverence one attaches to Vedic theology or canine psychology. Double alas, as I look back on a long career on the faculty of an Ivy League university with hallowed halls and a stirring anthem, I know that academic taxidermy has become but a lifeless imitation of its former vigorous self. In this sense, I believe it is not unlike Roger, the beautiful stuffed puma in my guest bathroom.
Perhaps as I prepare for retirement from the rigors of taxidermological inquiry, I can commiserate in the faculty club with the chair of the classics department or the coach of the luge team, but it is cold comfort to an old “taxer” such as myself. The sad fact is that the modern student has little interest in the grand tradition of “stuffing and plucking, nipping and tucking” as it was known to a young Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose first love was not philosophy or poetry, but late nights with a dead rabbit named Hermes, for whom he had no greater wish than what he called “a passable facsimile of vitality.” In such a mode, Emerson hoped he “might bring forth from his bestilled maw a final nibble of the cosmic carrot.”
Yet today’s student possesses only yowling ignorance when it comes to the rich history of the taxidermist’s art, an art that gives energy and grace to every flick of the taxer’s awl and cordless drill. From personal experience, I can report that today’s student knows nothing of the whimsical emu that greeted visitors to Montecello in the 1790s or the fuzzy brown bear that shared Lincoln’s bed when Mary Todd was away or sleeping very soundly.
Naturally, the problems besetting my field are not limited to the Ivy League. Even abroad, the situation is grim, with the Red Chinese using medical waste as stuffing and a painted candy known as a “gobstopper” for eyeballs—it can turn the grandeur of a polar bear into a miasma of pop-eyed indignity. But of course China is dozens of miles away, whereas every time I enter the classroom, my students are breathing fetid zephyrs of odium down my venerable neck. Sigh!
Not a class goes by without these thuggish brutes, not to mention their gum-chewing molls, revealing how little they appreciate the taxer’s time-honored toil. Yes, it is difficult to believe, but generally true nevertheless. Distracted by chrome-festooned motor-coaches, bulging wads of cannabis, and clattering bebop radios, today’s students think it is “small beans” to decide whether a charging grizzly requires two raised arms or just one. To think of the sleepless nights I have spent on this matter, hunched over my desk with calculations, bar graphs, and a box of Lorna Doones! Twenty-three skidoo, indeed!
Sadly, even when I have captured their interest, my students exhibit an inappropriately light-hearted approach to the serious art of wildlife restoration. For example, I was recently lecturing the students on the importance of professional equipment, explaining how the amateurs who grab mother’s garlic press are only making a mockery of a prized elephant foot, not to mention next week’s lasagna (the melon-baller has similar liabilities). To illustrate my point, I gestured to a finely wrought head of a Norwegian mountain goat and explained a simple fact: That with a good firm tool in hand, a taxidermist will always get the head he desires. Never have I heard such an outburst of inexplicable tittering!
Only one other occasion approaches it in sheer hee-hawing volume: When in lecture I mentioned that as a very young man, with my parents away for the weekend, I greatly enjoyed stuffing a beaver on the family dinner table. Although my mother gave me a stern lecture about the viscous emoluments I had left behind for the maid to discover, I still recall this youthful indiscretion with fondness. Yet the whole narrative soared like an angry flying squirrel over the heads of these pimple-faced peons. I can only suppose they find humor in some aspect of my person, but whether it was the lisp, the dandruff, or the consequences of middle-age porphyria, I doubt I shall ever know. Looking at these Ivy League empty-heads, I must attribute their meaningless mirth to reckless sniffing of frat house paint thinner—a far cry from the innocent absinthe evenings that my friends and I can almost recall some 75 years later.
Yes, as I take stock of my long career at a fine university, I am proud of my accomplishments. In the 1940s, I had the distinct pleasure of mounting the first panda (notoriously difficult to accomplish), Olivia de Haviland’s schnauzer, and even the first warden of Sing Sing Prison, a handsome fellow with lovely smooth skin and a vanity that surpassed the grave. Then, in the 1950s, I virtually invented the genre of artistic waterfowl mounts at a time when it was derided as nothing more than “goddamn birds on boards.” And finally in the 1960s, I did pioneering work in the field of “erotic taxidermy,” in which the fuzzy lovelies of the forest are brought back to life as festive outlets for human ingenuity. The ensuing controversy, I can assure you, did not extend to the true nature lovers in this country or in Sweden.
Despite these accomplishments for which I have garnered many awards, prizes, and anonymous etchings of a small naked man who appears preternaturally fertile, I feel I am leaving my much-loved field at its low ebb. Of course, the signs of decline have been peering like a great grey goose around the corner for some time. In 1978, my honors colloquium on squirrel tanning was removed from the catalogue after an unfortunate episode involving some stray chemicals and an asthmatic exchange student from Finland. And I have been well aware of the declining enrollments in my graduate seminar on “Taxidermological Anomalies.” Last spring it attracted only two students interested in stuffing a hyena with a wombat, which would then be put entirely inside of a tapir. Now I know how Einstein must have felt!
Perhaps I will not miss the waning enthusiasm of the younger generation, but I will always pine for the accoutrement of the taxidermological life. To understand my mind and heart, one need look no further than the contents of my warm, windowless office. A quick inventory reveals two deer foot lamps, 13 crates of fur scraps, my beloved leather muzzleloader ball bag, a rusty harmonica, a faded leopard scalp, sawdust, lutan, a vat of citric acid, an artichoke quiche that I hope to enjoy someday, fleshing knives, nonfleshing knives, and of course a very fine portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt which I inherited from my cousin Wilgemuth (dear old Wilgie!). I shall miss it all with every turn of the key that I am unable to make to enter an office that is no longer mine. Sadly, next month it shall be demolished to make way for a water slide connected to the student union.
At least I shall forever keep my fondest memories: From that first waft of acridity that tingles the nostrils of the neophyte eviscerator (I was but a pup!), to the moments of unintended comedy that lighten the burden of every serious scholar. Let one anecdote suffice: The untimely rupturing of a barrel of glass eyes that created havoc in the darkened hallway near our stairwell—havoc, at least, for one rather clumsy and litigious woman. It seems like it was only yesterday, when in fact it was almost a year ago. But all’s well that ends well, now that she can afford a wheelchair of solid gold! Oh, what times... What times, indeed.
This article is an excerpt from Dr. Heffington’s memoir, The Stuffer’s Life: My Happy Entrails on a Horse Called Taxidermy. It was written with assistance from the Rail’s man on the prairie, Randy Bob Lewis, who can be reached at [email protected]
ContributorP. Worty Heffington III
The author of The Stuffers Life: My Happy Entrails on a Horse Called Taxidermy.