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.