At the Morbid Anatomy class, the mice were distributed, thin white cylinders about the length of a candy bar and slightly thicker. Their presence spiked a buzz in the room, and Jeiven raised her voice to carry over the chatter.
"I want you to think about telling a story," she continued in the background. "When I go to the breeder, it's sad. It's a huge warehouse, no windows. Air is pumped in from outside. They're just bred there. And they have such tiny brains -- well, you'll see it. But here we can give them a little personality. It's really satisfying."
"When it's warm, it's just way gushier. It's easier when they're frozen."
The class ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s, but the majority were Gen Xers, falling somewhere in between. Although there were only six men alongside the 14 women, this group was unusually heavy on men, said Joanna Ebenstein, who curates Morbid Anatomy and organizes the class with Jeiven. It's usually over 80 percent women, though, she adds, "Our Valentine's Day class was mostly couples."
When Jeiven opened up for questions, the 30-somethings became third graders:
"Is it illegal to just go to a pet shop here and buy an animal and use it?" asked a Brazilian woman.
"Oh, no," Jeiven answered, nodding patiently. "I used to do it -- actually, I let my cat kill it because it enjoyed it. But I will say that it's way grosser, and a little tedious. When it's warm, it's just way...gushier. It's easier when they're frozen."
After the New York Post ran an article on her class in February of last year, Jeiven received "500-something" emails denouncing her use of the mice. In the days that followed, it turned into thousands. A group put together an online petition, and flooded her inbox. The experience turned Jeiven off from email more than it did from taxidermy. The mice, she insists, were raised to be food for carnivorous animals just as chickens are raised to be food for carnivorous humans. And the purpose they serve in her class is, more or less, the same.
The actual procedure of taxidermy varies from animal to animal, but it always starts the same: with a longitudinal incision down the animal's midline -- a great big cut from neck to nethers. If you can bring yourself to do that, you can do the rest, a series of concretely named processes that free skin from body: fleshing, de-braining, de-tailing. If done properly, you'll be left with a little sack of innards that feels much like a smooth, fine-grained bean bag, and the hide.
Once the skin is off, the art starts to creep in. The mouse must be rebuilt -- a new skeleton, 20-gauge wire limbs, a pipe cleaner to support the tail's worm-like husk. The frame is made out of self-hardening potter's clay. "You don't want to pack it too full," Jeiven warned. A lot do, and they can't stitch up the gash along the back, leaving a grisly clay scar in the fur.
The mice turn out oblong, cylindrical. Too flat in some spots, too round in others. All have the same tight-eyed stare. When the newly minted taxidermists try to seal up the backs, the skin tightens on the head, and the animal's black eyes look to bulge.
Next, the eyes themselves are replaced by dark, round-headed pins sunk behind the lids. The final steps are cosmetic: clear nail polish to harden the ears in place, a soft-bristled hairbrush to smooth the remaining fur.
"I can't wait to do a guinea pig when I get home to Brazil," the woman said to her table. "This is like the best thing I've done since I moved to America."
In Teddy Roosevelt's day, a dozen taxidermists worked out of Brooklyn alone. Roosevelt himself kept a taxidermy studio in his home during his time as New York Police Commissioner. Practitioners would get skins from exotic pets stores, even the Bronx Zoo.
Now, though, there are no commercial taxidermy shops anywhere in New York City. Traditional mounts have given way to "rogue taxidermy." the umbrella term given to the arty, sometimes surreal offshoots of the traditional practice. Robert Marbury, the Baltimore-based artist, heads the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists (MART), a group of alternative taxidermists who tend to produce more conceptual, abstract mounts. Marbury for instance, practices "vegan taxidermy." The big safari for his "Urban Beast" project? A sizable donation of stuffed animals.
"A lot of art is inherently wasteful," says Marbury. When he does work with an actual corpse, it's more often been killed by a car than a bullet. "There's been a big push in road kill," he says, "I just made a squirrel rug. A traditional taxidermist would discourage that." One MART member, an Oregon transplant living in East New York, works with discarded fur garments -- coats, hats, stoles. Others use insects or found bones. Plants, even. It's not for lack of skins: soon after Marbury first launched MART's website, he requested that "donors" stop mailing artists animals -- citing, amongst the generally questionable nature of the practice, legal and health issues.
In fact, legal penalties can be harsh. One reason taxidermy's popularity sank in the 20th century was the enactment of new conservation measures such as the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a deal to curb feather collection. Enrique Gomez De Molina, a rogue taxidermist and peer of Marbury's, has recently become a cautionary tale within the community. He creates surreal swirls of species, blending animals into irradiated mutations -- at once recognizable and frightfully alien. His pieces command high-end prices: at a sale in his native Miami, two were sold for a reported $100,000, combined.
His tastes, though, tend towards the exotic. De Molina imported animal parts and skins without obtaining permits, reportedly asking instead for the seller to wrap items in carbon paper, hiding the contents. Cobras, hornbills, birds of paradise. According to Marbury, he was caught for items bought last year on eBay that were eventually combined and sold to a buyer in Canada. De Molina was arrested last November, and pled guilty a month later to charges that amount to poaching, the illegal smuggling of protected species. On March 2, he was sentenced to ten months in federal prison and fined $10,000. Even with that, De Molina got off light: he faced a maximum of five years, and $250,000.
"We're really careful about the legal stuff," says Zohn. "Everything has to be way above board. You have to be so careful -- Fish and Wildlife doesn't mess around. It's worth knowing what you're dealing in."
Beyond the law, though, taxidermists -- particularly practitioners in urban areas -- continue to face a negative stigma. "We are taking dead animals and doing things with them," Marbury says. "Mice, people are O.K. with, but once you get to cats and dogs people get riled up. It's 'Survival of the Cutest': that's why we can eat sharks but save dolphins."
As Jeiven's class drew to a close, the finished products were posed and mounted and decorated with her collected ephemera: books stolen from Barbie, jewelry, clothes so well sized it's hard to imagine they had any other purpose in the minds of their makers. iPhones came out. Portraits were taken.
By 11:30 at night, the work was done, and students filed out past Jeiven. She chuckled proudly at the parade. There was the mouse up on its hind legs, leaning full bore into a boulder the size of an apricot like a miniature Sisyphus. There was the pole-dancing one, frozen mid-swing on the hollow shaft of a ballpoint pen. There was the graying and largely hairless carcass entombed in a palm-sized sarcophagus. It was peculiar to see a dead mouse transformed, after four hours, into another dead mouse.
As the students spilled through the alley and onto Nevins Street, their conversations lingered on the topic of the night. At least one man seemed inspired by Jeiven's example. "So next weekend we should get some rats," he said, trophy in hand. "We'll have ourselves a taxidermy party."