Taxidermy. The answer to that question is taxidermy. I have a totally new-found respect for taxidermists. It does not all “come together” at the end or something. You need to know what you’re doing. By the way, warning, some gross pics in this post. If you’re a squeamish person, maybe skip this one. Look at some nice charts.
I saw this article in Gothamist and it sounded interesting, so I asked Cricket if he was interested in going as a romantic 11-year anniversary present. He said yes so I signed us up. Cricket and I arrived outside the appointed place the class was being held. Neenernator (she of the glorious fishtank fame) joined us and we went into the first floor of a stunning brownstone apartment in Brooklyn Heights. Whoever lives there, I guess to supplement their income, lets people hold classes in their front two rooms. There were three lunch tables set up, covered with plastic tablecloths and ten place settings with tools, a paper plate and an oddly-shaped frozen chipmunk covered in salt.
The teacher, a lovely woman named Divya (watch this video about her!), knew a taxidermist who was moving and cleaning out his freezer and had these ten chipmunks so she offered to take them off his hands so he didn’t just throw the little guys out. They had been in sandwich bags and that’s why they were shaped like burritos. I guess if all your muscles go squishy you take on the shape of the vessel you are placed in. I grew very attached to my little guy. Look at him now. This is the best he’s going to look. After I’m done with him, he’s going to get very very unattractive.
After all ten students had arrived, Divya gave us gloves and had us warm up our chipmunks in our hands. I gently caressed my new friend until he unfroze a bit and we could finagle his arms and legs out so he was lying face-down splayed out. Like this. That expression I am rocking is the look of, “I… don’t know if I can do this.”
“Okay,” said Divya. “We’re going to make a dorsal cut, meaning down the spine from the base of the neck to the base of the tail. All the way down. Figure out how much pressure it takes to cut through the skin and use short strokes.” You may be wondering why we didn’t make a cut down the front of the chipmunk. That is because when you slice down the back, you bump into the spine and can’t cut too deep. If you slice down the front and you screw up, you open the sac that holds the internal organs and Satan’s demons are released in the form of smell and everyone has to leave. Speaking of smell, as our chipmunks thawed I noticed a distinct funk in the air. Chipmunks smell unbelievably gamey, like mutton or certain types of lamb. I mouth-breathed for five hours. I could smell that freaky stink on me for hours after I left. It only started to dissipate the next day. Stupid adorable stanky-ass chipmunk.
I made my dorsal cut like a brave soldier and then was told to use my fingers to slide the skin off of him “like taking off a jacket.” Lemme tell you, that jacket does not come off easy. There’s such a fine line between tugging the skin off and ripping it. We were told to pull the skin off up to the wrists and ankles and I accidentally ended up yanking off my chipmunk’s hand. This is a photo of me skinning my chipmunk. I made this face for the entire class, I couldn’t help it.
After we unskinned our friends, Divya had us cut the joints at the wrists and ankles so the hands and feet were still attached to the skin. “That’s the easy part,” she said. “Now comes the hard parts.” We had to pull the face-skin down to the end of the snout. I kinda ripped the eyelids. A part of my childhood died, never to return. “My chipmunk is bleeding from his butthole,” I said. “That’s not a problem,” said Divya. “He has limited blood flow, it’ll stop momentarily.” We were told to pick up our scalpels and cut right behind the skull to separate the head from the body. So many crunchy noises. Now we had to clean all the flesh off of and from within the skull. Getting the eyeballs and brain out was easy. As it said in the Gothamist article:
Using our sharp needle tool, we scooped out the cerebral matter. It came out in gobs roughly the color and consistency of raspberry sherbet.
Yep. Same for me. We had to clean out the cheek pouches of any seeds that might be in there, get the tongue out and pull all the cheek flesh off. It took forever. Seriously. It’s a tiny skull and those bits of flesh that hold that muscle on is tough. It required copious scoring with the X-Acto knife, then pick-pick-picking with the tweezers. When we were done, it looked like the chipmunk had thrown up so hard he had flipped inside out and barfed up his own skull.
Then came fleshing. You lay the skin furry side down, take a dull curved blade and scrape all the remaining fat and muscle off the inside of skin. Moisture is the enemy of taxidermy, so you need to get everything that isn’t skin and bone out of there. Fleshing is hard and time-consuming, especially on something so small. You have to go everywhere – in the armpits, where the tail attaches, etc. Then, finally, we gave all our tools to Divya and went to wash our chipmunk skin n’ skull thoroughly in the sink with soap and water. We didn’t throw out our leftover pink chipmunk bodies because we were going to use them as guides to measure the internal forms we would be making.
Divya said that since we were done with the gross bits and we had scrubbed our chipmunks, we could take our gloves off and work with bare hands from that point on, which we all did. BUT WAIT, it gets more disturbing! It had been many hours by then, so one of the other guys in the class went out for a smoke and came back with cookies for all of us, so we put our skins down and had cookie-time. With our naked hands! This happened! The plate in front of me has Neenernator’s and my chipmunk interiors. The runny red stuff around the edges is brain. The black blob is an eyeball. Seriously, it is astonishing how quickly you become immune to this level of gross. If you had shown me this picture the day before, I would have dry-heaved in the backyard for twenty minutes. All I’m thinking in that picture is how I’m going to get that skin over that wood-wool and twine form sitting in front of me.
The first step after washing is patting dry (remember, moisture = rot = fail), sprinkling some kind of preserving / drying powder all up in them, then putting air-drying clay all over the skull to replicate the fullness of the cheeks and to hold the glass eyeballs in place. I used tiger-eye beads that gave his expression a jaunty shimmer. Neenernator’s chipmunk was turning out quite good, as opposed to Cricket’s and mine, which looked like extras from the set of The Walking Dead. Here’s Neenerator’s with the wood-wool form and eyeballs in and additional clay for bulk.
Using thick florist’s wire, we slid them down the back from inside the skull down to the tail so we could position our chipmunks how we wanted them and then sew them up. I cannot express this enough, taxidermy is not easy. No matter how much wire I used or how I mushed the clay in the face, this thing looked terrible. Just horrible. The arm stump and jacked-up eyelids did him no favors, but he looked pretty darn bad all over.
Cricket’s didn’t look much better.
See Neenernator’s chipmunk in the background there? Aside from having an exceptionally long neck, I thought it was a great job especially since this was her first time. She took to this like a dead duck to water.
Once Cricket and I had gotten our sad mangy friends into the position we wanted, Divya came over with a syringe filled with non-toxic embalming fluid. Non-toxic isn’t the right thing to call it, it would be very much toxic if you ate it, but it had no fumes and if you got it on your skin you could wash it off without it burning you or anything. She injected this embalming fluid in the hands, feet and snout since they still had meat in them. Then we had to put stick pins in the chipmunk so when the skin dried and tightened, it would tighten in the shape we wanted. For example, if you don’t card the ears they will shrivel up. Same with the hands. Divya pinned our atrocities against nature the best she could. Then the final step, blow-drying and brushing. It helps get the fur to lay straight, or so they say. Our fur was beyond repair. Cricket tried, bless his heart, but to no avail. Because apparently I hadn’t insulted my chipmunk enough, during the brushing process a chunk of his tail fur came off, leaving a substantial bald spot.
He put both our guys on a piece of balsa wood, propped up on an empty seltzer can, wrapped them in wire and we said thank you so much and left.
Divya could not have been nicer or more helpful. Right now our rodent horrors are drying in Cricket’s garage (not in the house, because that stink is powerful) and maybe the taxidermy fairies will visit in the night and magically fix all of our sucky work with a swish of their wands (made from the femurs of mice). I hope. Neenernator ordered a small Luke Skywalker doll and she plans to take the outfit off of him and put it on her chipmunk. Chip Skywalker, she calls him. “These are not the seeds you are looking for.” If I can get pictures of that when it’s done, I will put it up here.