How one kitten-loving artist came to specialize in crafting couture hats out of dead raccoons and roosters.
As I wind the steps of a warehouse in Kensington, I’m wondering where the dog is, and if it’s already been cut into parts, which of those parts I might end up seeing, and the answer to the question taxidermist Beth Beverly posed to me before I agreed to come to watch her work: Do you get queasy at all?
I step inside and take a look around. There’s a mannequin displaying necklaces made of gnarled rooster talons clutching polished silver chains; the husk of what was once a goat’s head dangling from a wall shelf; platform shoes made of hooves; a desk littered with small metal tools and white fluffy fox tails half-sewn onto a pair of grey wool mittens.
But no dog.
“Oh, he’s behind you,” says Beverly, as she gets ready to work. Today, she’s making a mold to create a custom mannequin so she can mount the dog’s head. She has to make her own mold, since body mannequins for dogs or cats are not generally available in traditional taxidermy catalogs alongside the plastic deer heads, bears and foxes.
Beverly hunkers down and pours silicone into a bucket. A black Rosie-the-Riveter style kerchief holds her blond hair back. She sports her workman’s clothes—meaning tights and black boots.
“I just started getting into carcass casting,” she says, pouring the mix. “I had to do it for a kitten.”
I turn around to find the dog’s hide draped over a painter’s ladder. The body has been sliced down the belly and up each leg to the edge of the paws, where the skin curls slightly inward. Beverly spent eight hours “skimming” him, which means scraping the layers of fat and muscle away from the skin by hand.
The teeth and eyes are gone. The face is flat, the honey-brown fur wet.
“He just got out of the pickle,” Beverly says. The hide is soaked in an acid and salt mixture, she explains, to lock the fur into the skin and keep it from breaking down.
The dog had been a beloved pet of a client who found Beverly through an online search. He had to be put to sleep, and his owner wanted him preserved. Beverly told her to come over and talk.
“I think a byproduct of this job is grief counseling, a little bit,” says Beverly. Having set the mold for the head, she stands among the many animals and birds she has gutted, stuffed and sewn over the years. “It’s strange to meet people at that time when they’re so vulnerable and upset.”
Back to work. She grabs a cloth, carefully picks up one of the dog’s hind legs and begins very gingerly squeezing water out of the fur. As she chats, she scans his body, leaning in to inspect some areas more intensely than others, grooming as she goes. “I consider myself a sensitive person,” she says. “And it’s an honor to work with the animals.”
That sensitivity is also apparent in her ethics regarding “sourcing” animals, meaning she only uses animals that died for other reasons—like farm animals that will be eaten, mice killed by house cats or roadkill.
As a leader of a new breed of preservers called “rogue taxidermists,” Beverly has been making a big name for herself. She’s the only well-known rogue taxidermist in Philadelphia, and, after winning several national contests and being featured in The New York Times, one of the most famous in the country.
Now, she and her creations are about to go mainstream: Beverly is one of the stars of Immortalized, AMC’s new taxidermy competition reality show, which premieres Thursday at 10 p.m.
Though we can’t reveal spoilers, we can tell you that from the time she saunters out onto stage in the first episode to face off against an insect taxidermist, it’s obvious that Beverly knows her way around both a carcass and a camera. “Is this the lamb,” she drolls, nodding toward her challenger, “you brought me to slaughter?”
The show, like Beverly’s career, thrives in part on the dichotomy—some say beef—between traditional and rogue taxidermy.
While traditional taxidermists generally try to make a dead animal look as realistic as possible, rogue taxidermists use the same skills and materials to transform them into art. Beverly was formally trained—she graduated from a legit taxidermy school in the Poconos in 2010—but she applies those traditional skills with her own unique twist. Though she does preserve pets and takes on other such old-school taxidermy jobs—like the Great Blue Heron stuffed in her freezer (“It’s like a dinosaur!”) that she’ll preserve for Bartram’s Garden—Beverly’s signature is her aggressively creative millinery skills.
Under her scalpel and thread, animal carcasses and bird parts metamorphose into beautiful, sculptural hats: Hats made of exotic birds and plain old roosters and ducks, long fine plumes of guinea hen feathers—even fox scrotum. They’re the kind of crowns a certain kind of lady will don at equestrian events while knocking back a Pimm’s Cup in broad daylight.
PW's Fall Guide 2014