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Stilled Life Morgan Mavis at the Contemporary Zoological Conservatory.   Photograph by Daniel Ehrenworth.

Stilled Life

The morbid craft of taxidermy still exerts a powerful lure.

Morgan Mavis lives among the glass-eyed dead. In her menagerie, nearly a hundred preserved animals form a silent crowd, although her animated pink-haired countenance grants the room an unexpected levity. “I love an experiential space,” she tells me over homemade iced tea. As the director of the Contemporary Zoological Conservatory, that’s precisely what she’s made.

The CZC is one room in her apartment in Toronto’s west end. Two full-sized black bears, a small coterie of raccoons, an impala, a cabinet of songbirds from the late 1800s, an imposing Cape buffalo head with a wet-looking nose and a toad the size of a man’s fist are just some of the specimens arranged around the perimetre of the parlour. Two ornate vintage sofas offer vantages into Mavis’ cheery kitchen, which seems almost like an unreachable planet, far away from the austerity of her room of the dead.

“I’ve always been interested in taxidermy and how it’s this visceral sort of palpable wonder. And awe,” says Mavis. “Visceral” is the exact word for capturing the particular confrontation with death that these animals-cum-objects embody. They live beyond their corporeal lives, as artifacts of culture, and there is a strange intimacy to their variously preserved ends. The physical and cognitive space taken up by the skins in the room provokes a queasy, bodily feeling.

I take in the room, which has no smell and feels at once brilliant and colourless. The sun-faded browns and blacks of the animals don’t register. My senses are stunned into stillness. Though I came specifically to speak with Mavis, she graciously gives me a moment to get my bearings. Then she tells me a story.

In her ongoing work with the collection, Mavis keeps an extensive catalogue of her creatures, complete with notices of provenance. Sometimes she gets lucky, and a piece will come to her weighted down with other people’s memories.

A black bear stands fully erect between two large windows. He has a peacock perched on his arm, and the hide on one of his lower legs is ruptured; you can see the wooden form beneath his skin. The bear stands exactly as tall as Mavis and I do—I’m 5’5” on a good day—and she says she has a soft spot for him because of their similar size. We stand in front of him, looking into his artificial eyes.

Mavis got the bear from an antique dealer; he had facilitated CZC acquisitions in the past, and brokered a log-cabin sale in such a way that the bear would end up with Mavis. She tells me the whole story. Sometime in 2008, the bear was purchased as a décor item from an old furrier in Peterborough, Ontario, where it had stood outside the business for over twenty years.

Though Mavis refuses to name artifacts in her collection, residents knew this particular bear as Smokey. He guarded the front door of Wm. Lech and Sons Furriers until the 147-year-old operation finally closed.

Before he became part of the CZC, Smokey was at the centre of a local curiosity case: “There was a girl who no one knew in town, who came every day and insisted that she was going to pray at the bear’s feet until it came alive,” Mavis tells me, “and eventually the owners took the bear inside and the police came. After that, the store never had a bear out front.”

When he stood outdoors, Smokey was a frequent victim of vandals. His artificial tongue had been ripped out of his mouth twice. Now, his fans are less destructive. Mavis contacted the Peterborough Examiner and arranged to have a story written about Smokey’s new home. “I got a lot of feedback,” she says. People wrote to her with their memories of Smokey, and since moving to Mavis’ apartment the bear has been in music videos and appeared in national news stories. “It’s just interesting,” she says, “how this animal, after its life, has this sort of cultural afterlife, and how it’s affected people.”

Both in the wild and in the museum, a beast’s body reminds us of our alienation from the animal kingdom, even as we ourselves belong nowhere else. In her new book The Breathless Zoo, scholar Rachel Poliquin posits that all taxidermied animals have a charisma and a magnetism—that we look at them with a sense of longing. Poliquin’s history of the morbid craft outlines several motives that, over time, have shaped the way that human beings present and relate to nature. Wonder is the first of these on her list, and is also a word that fills my mind, sitting with Mavis beneath a mounted deer head.

Wonder is not always a clear joy. It is a double-sided thing. To feel wonder requires a humbling of the person who feels it; it is the expression of the desire to know and so carries with it the admission of ignorance. Wonder spouts from naiveté, or reveals the softness of one’s mind. While desire—or, to use Poliquin’s formulation, longing—is an emotional end in its own right, the way that we gaze upon these animals speaks to the ultimate isolation of our human arrogance.

That we manipulate our intimate encounters with the natural world, that we think we can stop time and still life in the name of instruction and spectacle—these are the things that separate us from what we call “nature.” Mavis’ CZC is an experiment in the denaturalization of our compulsion to fix the wild, to set it down as if we can document the world without simultaneously changing it. She cites the example of nineteenth-century British nobility who held formal showings of their home miscellanies of exotic creatures. Mavis knows her space enables certain conversations—that the collection orchestrates engagement in accord with a certain set of historically modified conventions. The collection enables her to have private showings, and for her to invite all kinds of people into her home, framing these encounters by controlling the context. It is the opposite of what feels natural today.

Despite the collection’s dual ties to history—the animals are antique or vintage, and both the collection and its display mirror a colonial practice—Mavis is wary of applying the term “nostalgia” to her project. “I’m far from an aristocrat,” she says, adding that “nostalgia can be really embedded with negative connotations. It’s definitely a contemporary twist, y’know, because the space is a small apartment.” It’s true—the room is not a large one. It derives all of its grandeur from its inhabitants. Perhaps, in remixing the practices of rich men standing on the edge of what they considered a new world, Mavis can build her own synthetic sense of wonder. Perhaps she can layer more meaning onto these discarded bodies and save them from kitsch, from being trapped in the past.

The impulse to fix time—to funnel it into a single saturated point, to trap a moment under glass or in a photograph—is an impulse that acts against death even as it mirrors its effects. Time, of course, marches on, and even the best-preserved moments are carried forward into a future marked by their own decay. The fact is that all taxidermied artifacts will deteriorate. One can slow life down until it seems as still as death, but the earth keeps turning and everything must return to it.

Where Mavis has ninety-three pieces, the Royal Ontario Museum boasts 1,200. If the CZC is an exercise in unnatural history—or, more accurately, the cultural and narrative experience of taxidermy—the ROM takes a much more conventional and thoroughly didactic tack. The animal bodies on display are meant primarily for the edification of the museum-goer, though on my recent trip I noticed as much titillation as education. Even standing beneath a towering dinosaur skeleton, a group of schoolchildren were so enraptured by a small taxidermied Arctic fox—or perhaps by the stuffed lemming in the fox’s mouth—that they barely even bothered to look up at the behemoth.

Strolling among the various preserved species was discomfiting. There were legions of mismatched birds poised in eternal flight: a flamingo stretched out behind a double-crested cormorant, while the jewel-toned treasures of South America perched in perpetuity next to humble brown finches. Hundreds of birds were united in a single, if diverse, flock. There was a horror in their simulated flight, and yet I couldn’t help but stand with the crowd and marvel. Even under glass and subdued by death, they were the glittering charms of this world. Then the light shifted, or a toddler started to fuss, and the birds were a smattering of creepy, dusty relics in a case.

When I asked a few questions of a woman working in the children’s activity centre, she told me something shocking. “Take this whooping crane,” she said. “It’s actually been re-constructed over the years. If you look closely, you can even see the slight colour difference in the wings.” How horrible, I thought, feeling a little sick. A few of these terrifying Frankenstein’s monsters, she told me (though not in those words), were scattered throughout the museum. The disregard for the bodily integrity of the animal, its empty skin arranged to approximate the opposite of rest, unsettled me. I felt my skin itch at the thought of an appendage being lost post-mortem, a strange one stitched on in its place.

That’s what it took for me to cross over from queasy wonder to intimate empathy. The crane was made of more than itself, the individual animal eradicated through the intervention of humans, of culture and hands and formaldehyde. The horror was complete; I’d come through this close encounter with nature, and it was revealed as artifice. The mirror had broken, and the adulterated crane body was simply evidence of yet more humanity, barely animal at all. This, as the saying goes, is why we can’t have nice things: our very touch is ruinous.

“There’s nothing natural about taxidermy,” Mavis says. She asks me why I became interested in the subject, what drew me to her. Did I have any taxidermy in my childhood home? And I tell her that my first lover’s mother collected trophies. Her living-room walls were decorated with the skins of things she’d killed. A former possum had the tread marks of her vintage Harley imprinted in its fur. Leaving Mavis’ apartment, walking in the bright sunshine, another memory surfaces. I’m eight, and I’m with my Grandpa. He’s doing some work for an old woman in her house. She’s an anthropologist, a kind of doctor, she tells me. My grandfather works in the next room, and she sets me up on her tiger-skin rug, with a stack of National Geographics and a bowl of stale graham crackers. As soon as she leaves me there, I put my hand in the dead thing’s mouth.