The Taxidermy Chick’s Diary
Bethany Kivisalu Hickey, “The Taxidermy Chick,” is a former sex educator who now works as a licensed taxidermist. She specializes in domestic birds, one of the hardest of species to work with. Harder than teaching sex ed? Maybe not, but it’s certainly an unusual career shift.
Bethany is self-taught, though she had apprenticed with her father (who ran the business before passing away). It was only five years ago that Bethany officially became, ‘The Taxidermy Chick.” She now has the help of her husband, who does the skinning and dismembering of the birds–the gross part.
Bethany recently answered questions about her work and kept a diary during her “average” work week.
Are people surprised when they hear about your work–especially since there aren’t many female taxidermists?
Absolutely, they usually get a shocked look upon their faces, utter some statement of disbelief and then say they think it is “very cool…” When I went to the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, to take one of my taxidermy tests, I was sitting directly outside the warden’s office waiting for him to call me in. He could see me and I began to wonder why he was ignoring me for so long. Finally after he got up and walked right past me and then I realized he never imagined I was the person signed up to take the taxidermy test.
Do you think of taxidermy as a science?
I never officially studied taxidermy. Most of my methods and practices I learned from my father, watching him work and apprenticing under him. After his death I read and researched some on my own and while I still follow his basic methods I have developed my own style as well.
My father was a scientist and held a PhD in Wildlife Biology, specifically waterfowl, which greatly aided him in his taxidermy of birds. It was not until his death when I really began to undertake the task of doing the work–start to finish, that I realized how much of an artist he also was.
Where do you find the animals, and does PETA give you a hard time?
We buy our birds from bird fanciers who generally raise birds for show and recreation. I have continued to work with them since they know exactly the styles and breeds of birds I am looking for. I have not had any trouble with harassment from PETA. If people are grossed out, I usually ask them if they eat meat–if they do, I repeat what my father would often say: In Taxidermy we don’t waste any part of the animal. It’s ultimate recycling!
Are there any risks?
Being bit or clawed when working with live birds…being mindful to stay up on our tetanus shots since we work with razors and sharp wires and occasionally get cut and poked. The taxidermy method I use is an old method and it is the one I learned from my father. It is called the “dry method” of taxidermy. It does not include the use of any toxic chemicals and instead involves drying the skin of the bird with Borax (Sodium Borate, a natural occurring mineral and usually found in the form of laundry detergent) and plenty of time.
Most bizarre request?
Besides the funny requests, that I stuff people’s in-laws—intended as jokes, I imagine? Last year I had a man ask me to stuff a black cat to sit on the shoulder of an antique wax figure of a fortune teller that he had acquired. The original taxidermy cat had disintegrated and I refused this request but found it amusing.
How about a limit to what sort of animals you can use? Can you just freely choose from road-kill smorgasbord?
There are many protected birds, there are also many laws about migratory birds and special licenses and permits required.
There are many birds I cannot even pick up or have in my freezer….to name a few, owls, songbirds. Such birds can only be taxidermied with a special permit for educational purposes.
When did you decide that this was more than a hobby?
From the very beginning my father had a list of customers and orders waiting to be filled so I have never had the luxury of this work being a hobby. But for my father it was a long time hobby and interest that over time grew into a business.
Are you ever frightened of the work?
Yes! When an eyeball explodes in my face (which it did the first time my dad tried to each me when I was a teenager) or brains shoot out and get splattered on my skin it definitely grosses me out.
How about preserving your loved ones?
My sister and I would always joke during our single days about having a museum with mounts of boyfriends or bad-acting guys from our past on display. I actually said this once in the hearing of a few guys who were very interested in her and wish I could have captured the look of horror on their faces. It just proved such a practice would encourage sterling behavior in any future young men who expressed interest in either of us. But seriously…No, I would not want to be preserved. I would prefer organ donation to preservation.
Do you have a return policy?
Once birds are in your possession they cannot be returned or exchanged.
Week of February 14, 2010
Monday: While sitting at breakfast, my eyes fall on a common scene: two legs sticking out of a plastic bag on the living room floor. It is tonight’s work, and from my vantage point I try to figure out what kind of bird those legs and feet belong to. My guess is a large frizzle rooster, based on the rich orange color and thickness of the legs and spurs ,and also my recall of the inventory of frozen birds left in the large chest freezer in the basement. He should be thawed out by tonight and ready for skinning.
Tuesday: Spoke with my customers in the south today and the birds arrived safely. The Black Australian Swan and custom “Mantelpiece Peacock” are going to be picked up by private jet and flown out of the country to their final destination. Though these birds have humble beginning, most go on to live extremely affluent lives after their cosmetic transformation. I often feel like a proud parent sending them on their way, bidding them farewell from the front porch as they leave all neatly packaged with the Fed Ex driver.
Wednesday: On nights like tonight I always remind myself how Papa said, “Never stuff a goose. They are the most fatty and disgusting things.” Somehow I never learn! Once again one grossly obese goose is the reason the entire night was a complete disaster. Before the night was over there was goose fat covering half the basement floor making the cement as slippery as an ice rink, while the other half of the floor was covered with 5 gallons of filthy water I accidentally tipped over in an attempt to wash the stupid thing. I can still hear my husband Ross shouting out, “I’m just glad you don’t work for the bomb squad,” as I spent close to an hour cleaning up my mess. I still cannot dismiss the unfortunate event from my mind because the smell of goose fat seems permanently embedded in my nostrils even after a hot shower.
Thursday: Went to bed and dreamed of pools of goose fat! Got up and did my best to wash it out of Ross’s work clothes from last night. The basement still reeks. There is some pleasure in seeing the culprit all clean and sparkling white hanging up to dry from the rafters by his feet. But a big night awaits as reconstruction begins.
Friday: Mr. Goose is finally ready to begin the drying process. What a production! To make the night complete I also mounted a female Impeyan Pheasant. It is fascinating to think of these birds originating in the Himalayan Mountains and being the national bird of Nepal.
Saturday: Planning the peacock trip out west next month. Trying to empty both chest freezers to free up space for the big beautiful birds. Compared to the geese they are a sheer pleasure to work on and the results always stunning.
Sunday: Very proud of my most recent Lady Amherst Pheasant. He is a brilliant specimen and will bring someone great pleasure for many years to come. By far the longest tail I’ve ever seen on this breed. Usually they are stepped on and torn out by other birds or caught in the wire cages and shredded long before they get to me. But fortunately for me, this handsome guy must have lived a pretty protected existence.
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