Fuzzy Fur and Fuzzier Ethics of Taxidermy: ‘Animus Animalis’, dir. Aistė Žegulytė, 2018 & ‘Stuffed,’ dir. Erin Derham, 2019

Two woman-made documentaries about people’s relationships with dead animals offer looks on the matter from various parts of the world and across the moral spectrum

Stuffed, Erin Derham, movie poster
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Animus Animalis, Aiste Zegulyte, movie poster

WHAT IT’S ABOUT: Everything in nature must die, but some things may be preserved for posterity. Humans, who claim to have mastered nature by their ability to heal and make whole, have had a relationship with decay for a long time. Still, none shows this relationship as eloquently as the art of taxidermy. The two films are centered around this peculiar art form, and roughly cover the same ground, only “Animus Animalis” focuses on Lithuania, and “Stuffed” takes a broader reach, observing some parts of the English-speaking world. In both films, you have taxidermists, both museum-employed and amateurs, create stunning works for personal perusal, for museum exhibits, and special interest competitions. In “Stuffed,” they discuss the complexities and nuances of their craft, while “Animus Animalis” lets their art speak for itself. “Animus Animalis” also forays into the areas where art is not a part of the human relationship with animal death, such as hunting and farming.

WHO MADE IT: An oral historian and filmmaker, “Stuffed” director Erin Derham made her feature premiere with “Buskin Blues,” a documentary about street musicians and has a bunch of shorts behind her belt, as well. “Stuffed,” her second feature, is a repeat collaboration with DoP Jan Balster, who also hails from North Carolina. The film’s composer Ben Lovett is a rising star in the industry.

“Animus Animalis” director Aistė Žegulytė has been making short films, both documentary and narrative, for the past decade. “Animus Animalis,” co-written with Titas Laučius, is her feature debut. The film’s producer, Giedrė Burokaitė, also worked on “Motherland,” one of Lithuania’s most significant film projects in the past years.

“Stuffed” features independent American taxidermists Allis Markham of LA’s Prey Taxidermy, Sarina Brewer, the rogue taxidermy pioneer from Minneapolis, Iowa’s Remington Hutton and Dakotah Rose, as well as Katie Innamorato of afterlife anatomy from New York State. The international taxidermy artists include Ferry van Tongeren and Jaap Sinke of Darwin, Sinke & Van Togeren, as well as Mandy Den Elzen, based in Netherlands, South African Travis C. de Villiers and Canadian Ken Walker. The institutional taxidermists in “Stuffed” include Wendy Christensen of Milwaukee Public Museum and Tim Bovard of The Natural History Museum of LA County. While he is an independent contractor, George Dante, the founder of Wildlife Preservations,is responsible for many of New York’s American Museum of Natural History exhibits.

“Animus Animalis” features Lithuanian award-winning taxidermists Kęstutis Bybartas and Narvydas Stankevicius. Vasilijus Vasiliauskas and his son Vygandas, Vaclovas Gedminas, Saulius Rumbutis and Kazimieras Martinaitis, who are in charge of the animal exhibits and taxidermy at the Tadas Ivanauskas Museum of Zoology in Kaunas, are depicted creating their complex works. The Vilnius hunting club Medžioklės ragas is also featured.

WHY DO WE CARE: Taxidermy is not a new art. In some form or other, it has existed since Ancient Egypt and enjoyed bouts of popularity during Renaissance and the Victorian era, while also continuously present in its less embellished but no less advanced forms in hunting-adjacent activities. The rise of visual online media has boosted interest in taxidermy, as the foray of objects of rogue taxidermy and bad taxidermy into meme territory brought new waves of appreciation for the more traditional creations. But as the aesthetic value of taxidermy stays in fashion, the ethical side of the matter remains obscure to the majority of the viewers, like the value that taxidermists attach to animal life. This is best shown in “Animus Animalis,” where gentle taxidermist Vasilijus Vasiliauskas is infuriated when he receives a phone call from a woman looking to stuff a live beaver that she can’t take with her while moving. The parallel between different approaches also becomes evident when Žegulytė juxtaposes hunters who celebrate the religious hunting holiday of St. Hubert’s with chasing and then butchering a deer with a deer farmer who tries to give one of his does an emergency life-saving surgery. “Stuffed” also touches upon the murky waters, when one of the taxidermists admits to also sharing a passion for hunting. But neither of the films pass judgment, choosing instead to let the viewer make their own assumptions about the way animal death stacks up against various everyday practices outside of the art sphere.

WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: Even though they share so much of the subject matter, the two films couldn’t be further removed from each other. “Stuffed” is an energetic, quirky introduction to some of the world’s finest taxidermy artists, anchored by the bubbly, inspiring presence of Allis Markham, a young woman who emerges as the main protagonist in uniting the film’s many storylines. Markham becomes the face of contemporary taxidermy in her quest to unite the craft,—which she scrupulously learns through an apprenticeship with the great museum taxidermist Tim Bovard,—with art,— as she embraces the aesthetic value of her pieces to be as important as the accuracy of the bodies she mounts. Without abandoning its preoccupation with the discerning principles of taxidermy as an art form, Derham’s film remains genuinely entertaining and enlightening, while also delivering the sheer visual pleasure of watching van Tongeren and Sinke shampoo fresh flamingo wings before mounting. 

“Animus Animalis” is a different species altogether: a dark, meditative view of life and death, it starts with a timelapse of a fox’s body decomposing in the forest, and ends with a real fox being released into the caverns of a zoological museum to see exhibits with those like her mounted for the future. Here, the contention is that art is already present in the process of dying, whether it is natural or by slaughter. Therefore, the only thing that humans can aspire to do is to embrace obliteration as an art-form, trying to find harmony in the decay and rhyme in chaos. Strikingly different, these two films, an upbeat, incandescent American hymn to the eccentrics and a somber, chilling elegy of extinction from Eastern Europe, come together to offer a comprehensive, complete view of the inextricable link between art and death.

Animus Animalis, 2018
Director: Aiste Zegulyte

Stuffed, 2019
Director: Erin Derham

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