Dead fascinating – the art of stuffing animals
If your Halloween was just the same old hat this year, why not ditch the traditional pumpkin-carving for something a little more macabre? Gutting a mouse will do the trick and could even turn into a hobby
For £50, Tonja Grung will teach you how to stuff a dead mouse, put it in position and dress it up nicely, whether you’d like it in a top hat at a tea party or as Father Christmas, complete with a little red hat and standing next to a reindeer.
While the 38-year-old South African has the phrase ‘Dead Girl’ tattooed across her fists, she seems much more life-affirming in person than her website, titled Made from the Dead, might suggest. Grung’s passion for taxidermy doesn’t come from an obsession with dead things, although the theme seems to be an unavoidable one.
“I’m very artistic and I’m very good with my hands anyway, so I did a mouse course and I just decided I’m gonna do this,” she says, leaning back in a chair in her tiny studio inside the Islington Arts Factory, a local events space right between City and Islington College and Holloway Prison. If you wanted to do “macabre anthropomorphic taxidermy”, there could hardly be a more fitting place than her North London studio: an old church with a prison right across the road. The walls are hung with drawings of owls and animal skulls are lined up on a wooden cabinet.
Ten minutes earlier, her Sunday class of three left with their own “taxidermied” mice, smiling and a bit self-conscious, given the dead rodents in their hands. “A lot of them are like, am I going to be able to cut the mouse up?” Grung says. “That’s usually the initial fear for people, you know, the gory, bloody part. I mean if you do cut into the intestines, yeah it gets a bit messy, but it’s not like this total macabre horror film of disaster!”
Grung also teaches classes on squirrels, rats, rabbits and birds, which are a bit more complicated. The process sounds easy enough: Skinning, fleshing to remove everything from the skin, then tanning which includes all the steps to make the skin durable – “to make sure you don’t get any infestations and the skin isn’t going to shrink too much,” Grung says – and finally building the body and mounting it.
Grung has only been doing taxidermy for roughly four years. She got into mounting birds and dressing squirrels after art school and working as a welder in South Africa for a year – “furniture design, building gates, spiral staircases, that kind of thing,” she says.
She didn’t have a studio at the time and was pursuing it as a hobby from home, while working in bars and hotels to pay the rent. Back then, she says finding a taxidermy course in London was sheer luck. “You would have to go to Scotland or some place – now Google taxidermy in London and see how many courses come up!”
The largest project Grung has ever realised was a zebra, on a recent trip back to South Africa where she briefly worked for a family-run taxidermy company specialising in trophy mounts. The animal, which was shot on a trophy-hunting safari (legal in South Africa), was prepared by ten people at once. The whole process took a week and a half. “I was happy to do that because you can’t really do that here. You work on whatever you can get,” she says.
A surge in popularity has created a taxidermy “scene” in London, although Grung is not sure how to pinpoint the sudden interest in her macabre craft. For the last three months, she has teamed up with Viktor Wynd, who owns the curiosities shop The Last Tuesday Society in Hackney and is opening a “museum of curiosities” this November.
“While I was running it on my own and advertised it in my circle of people, I got tattooists and mainly women – but I wouldn’t say that it’s just a women’s world,” she says. “Now, because [Wynd] is advertising in many different places, we get normal people, tattooed people, old people, young people – it’s very varied.”
Her own home is less of a curiosities museum. Grung says she only puts out selective pieces, as well as some favourites including human skulls. Her walls aren’t exactly full of dead animals, although her three-year-old son does like to play with them.
Starting next year, Grung will offer courses on foxes, snakes and deer heads as well – like some of her current ones, these are not anthropomorphic though.
Pressed on the more negative side effects of taxidermy’s popularity gain, Grung admits that she partly agrees with arguments raised by the likes of Polly Morgan, a British taxidermy artist who has said that increasing numbers of eager amateurs threaten to deteriorate the craft and even “glorify or sexualize” death.
“You do get a lot of amateur taxidermists out there, and the techniques, the process, the tanning, all that kind of stuff that you need to get a perfect specimen to last many years is not happening,” Grung says.
All of Grung’s specimens are ethically sourced and never killed for the purpose of taxidermy. She buys mice destined to be snake fodder from animal stores, and also shops markets and companies specialising in small game like rabbits and squirrels.
And even though she provides props like cowboy hats or guitars, Grung says she is careful not to impress her own artistic or aesthetic choices on her students.
She doesn’t actually dress her own animals up either: “I think animals are beautiful the way they are. I just want to make them look the best they can.”
You can book all of Grung’s taxidermy classes via The Last Tuesday Society, starting at £50 for an anthropomorphic mouse or rat (everything is provided).