Life after death
If you open Heather Davidson’s freezer, you might be in for a shock — it’s full of dead animals. A peek inside of her freezer would reveal a hobby she holds dear: taxidermy. Davidson, a communication studies instructor at Western, has always been a hands-on learner. She appreciates the act of creation and has a way with resourcefulness. Those skills have served her well in her pursuit of taxidermy.
“It’s an interesting hobby, it’s certainly novel,” Davidson said. “It gives me a way to work with my hands, which academics don’t usually do in their professions.”
Davidson has always been interested in the macabre. She said the hobby sprouted early on from a fascination in the decomposition and anatomy of animals. She began taking photographs of roadkill while she was a teenager, but her interest in taxidermy didn’t fully take shape until 2012.
After being invited to attend a taxidermy workshop in Seattle, she decided she would pick it up as a hobby, her first project being a small bunny. Davidson found it a pleasant experience and the project allowed her to fully immerse herself in taxidermy.
“I’m very comfortable with the cycle of life and death,” Davidson said, but the biggest challenge with her first taxidermy piece was clipping the ears off the bunny. “ It seemed like a punch in the gut because it was a really cute bunny,” she said.
Davidson makes it a priority to only obtain her projects in the most ethical way possible. All of her pieces have either been given to her, were found in their natural environments, or are taken from feeding centers, where frozen prey animals like mice, rats and chicks are sold as food to larger animals.
So far, she has completed 18 different projects, her favorite being a hummingbird that was gifted to her. She said that it was a rare find in any context, let alone for a taxidermy project. “And I have a freezer full of projects to come,” she said.
“Have you ever seen the movie Shrek? Do you remember where Fiona blows up the frog and gives it to Shrek like a balloon? It’s basically like that.”
On the first day of class every quarter, Davidson leads an activity where students draw a symbol on a trading card representing who they are.
“Every trading card I have ever drawn has had a taxidermied rabbit on it just as a way to break the ice and let them know they’re not sitting with a regular professor,” Davidson said.
Haley White, a friend and former student of Davidson’s, recalls Davidson being very forthcoming to her class about her unique hobby. Davidson admits she often shares stories about her current projects during class.
After developing a relationship with Davidson, White has referred people to her for her knowledge and passion for taxidermy on multiple occasions.
“She’s the first and only person I’ve ever known to do it,” White said. “The best part is that she’s found something that is funky, quirky and artistic and she has that creative outlet. It’s something that’s so different which is so Heather, she still creates something very beautiful.”
Through her hobby, Davidson has been able to connect with people outside the workplace. Karen Stout, director of the Karen W. Morse Institute for Leadership at Western, has had the chance to contribute to Davidson’s collection.
After coming home one day to find a thrush, a type of bird, had flown into her French doors and died on impact, Davidson was the first person Stout had in mind. Knowing Davidson’s hobby through posts on her Facebook, Stout contacted her to offer the bird.
After an excited “yes and thank you,” Stout brought the thrush to her the next day wrapped in a plethora of bags in a lunch cooler.
“It was quite a large bird, it was beautiful with brown and orange markings, brightly colored,” Stout said. “I appreciated the work that she does probably more than most folks because I understand the kind of work that goes into it.”
Davidson’s biggest upcoming taxidermy project is two adult coyotes she was gifted on her birthday last year. She will be trying, for the first time, a technique called air-skinning to streamline a bulk of the process.
“Have you ever seen the movie Shrek? Do you remember where Fiona blows up the frog and gives it to Shrek like a balloon? It’s basically like that,” Davidson said. “I hope I get to that before the end of the quarter.”
With her craft, Davidson strives to combine a respect for animals with the desire to create something unique and artistic.
“I’ve held dead animals, pets have died and things like that. But I’d never held one and looked at it as a piece of art.” She has a love for the things most find grim.
“I don’t recommend people without strong stomachs get into it because it’s not for everybody,” she said.
Davidson leads about two workshops a year out of her garage for various audiences. These workshops have included a birthday party and general knowledge courses on taxidermy for smaller groups interested in learning some of the basics. In the workshops, audiences learn how to properly skin, mold and stuff smaller animals such as rats or guinea pigs.
Davidson’s excited she’s been able to find other people who share an interest in taxidermy. Davidson can say with confidence a large freezer can do more than just store animals; it can aide in creating a unique community to preserve a niche art.