I wasn’t surprised when I looked under the side table and found that Elke had died. At age 14, my dear Rat Terrier had been failing for some time. However it was terribly inconvenient; I was home alone with the children and we were going to take her to the park for a holiday photo shoot. The children looked fabulous – and now this.
I adopted Elke while working for the ASPCA in New York. When we met in the shelter she was resting on all fours with her front legs crossed, full of manic sass. Her black-and-white coloring matched my other dog, Wallis, an older, edgy Terrier mix. Elke moved in and promptly ate my favorite purse.
I soon formed a trio of neurotic rescue dogs, adding a Chihuahua puppy from East Harlem, Mercedes. Each had their niche: Elke, the leggy supermodel; Mercedes, the silly baby with a coprophagia issue, and Wallis, my world-weary canine soul mate. Together we went through peaks and valleys: terrible bosses, 9/11 and a move from the Upper East Side to pre-gentrification Hell’s Kitchen. I still cherish those morning walks on 43rd Street, exchanging pleasantries with the giant transvestite hookers outside of Edelweiss.
Like Destiny’s Child, the trio eventually broke up. Wallis and Elke moved to Philadelphia and Mercedes relocated to California. Then Wallis died – only Elke remained. And now, after a messy, two-month illness she was dead, too. Just me, the children, and dead Elke on a Saturday, vet office closed.
Thank God for gay urban chicken farmers, because they know what to do in these situations. His dead hens are left via the trash or are entrusted to his rogue taxidermist friend, Beth Beverly, a 32-year-old artist who works at Diamond Tooth Taxidermy in Philly. He happily connected us through Facebook. “Just know that Elke could end up as a hat or a tree topper,” he said.
I worked in fashion, she’d be a great hat, I thought. So I bagged her, iced her, and put her on the deck.
Beth came for Elke the next morning. When I opened the door I knew I’d made the correct choice as she is super stylish and beautiful. I knew she would “get” Elke. As she left, Beth mentioned that she might use her in an upcoming competition.
After winning “best in show” for Elke at Carnivorous Nights taxidermy contest in New York City – an event that was covered in The New York Times (the story features photos of Elke as “queen for a day”) and The Wall Street Journal – I sat down with Beth and discussed the experience. Here’s what she had to say to those of us city dwellers who may be wrestling with the loss of a pet.
Based on our mutual friends, and your empathetic, kind nature, I had complete trust in Elke going home with you. How does your process differ in emotion when you are working on a loved domestic creature versus a wild creature?
I love animals and I’m always sorry when they pass. That said, I have a deep appreciation for the cycle of life and am very thankful for the opportunity to work on such treasured creatures. Throughout the process, I am cognizant of all the love that has been poured into this being and I put the same amount of love into the project. Each project I start is an extremely personal experience for me, but a pet is essentially a family member and these particular projects are very delicate. I approach them with a great amount of sensitivity.
Your designs balance beauty with humor and a slight edge, a touch of the macabre. I think Isabella Blow would’ve been a big fan. Are there any particular fashion designers from whom you draw inspiration? Or on whose runways you envision your creations?
Wow, if Isabella Blow would’ve worn one of my pieces that would be an enormous check mark in the life’s accomplishments column. I find her to have been nothing short of amazing and, if I may be so bold, quite relatable. While I am certainly inspired by fashion, I’m also inspired by individuals, films, images and all sorts of special ephemeral things that I happen to run across. Funny you should mention Isabella Blow; I’ve often found the headgear on Alexander McQueen’s runway to be quite amazing.
Your husband, also an artist, is supportive and accepting. Does having a strong base at home and in the world (friends happy to oblige you with a newly-deceased chicken or rat terrier) embolden you as an artist, especially as a woman in the predominately male world of taxidermy?
My husband’s support for my artistic career is unparalleled. Adding to that, he is great for critiques. I’ll always run a piece by him while in the crucial stages of development; he’s given me the cold, hard truth and advice many times and never steered me wrong. I seemed to have struck gold with my circle of friends as well. They’re all so accepting that it often slips my mind just how clouded and misunderstood the practice of taxidermy can be.
Pets have assumed such a prominent role in society and your services seem like a natural extension. How can taxidermy help one cope with the eventual loss of a cherished pet?
Preserving pets is more common in the U.K., as hunters have long honored cherished bloodhounds by having them mounted. I suppose having a treasured pet mounted is a way to hold on to those memories. While recreating the exact animal isn’t difficult technically, capturing the pet’s inner spirit through subtle sculptural effects (i.e., his facial expression) is a much harder undertaking. In my work, I prefer to add a bit of fantasy and whimsy to each creature, perhaps hinting at whatever magical life it may be carrying on in beloved pet heaven, as well as adding a bit of the pet’s personality traits through tangible embellishments.
I feel like a pageant mom, but I’m so proud that you entered Elke into a recent national competition, The Carniverous Nights taxidermy contest, where you – and Elke – took Best in Show. You were also given the title of Grand Master.
The competition took place on December 7th at the Bellhouse in Brooklyn. The element of showmanship is very important, and that is one facet of the competition that I was very excited about. I competed with one other piece – a Polish Hen bedecked in pearls and veils on a cream silk pillow– but mostly, I very much looked forward to unveiling and presenting Elke 2.0 to the panel of judges and spectators (all of whom are industry leaders and respected within the taxidermy community). I thought this competition fitting, as it shows how honored I am to have been the recipient of such a monumental project as your darling Elke.
Jennifer Lea Cohan is professionally shallow, a lifestyle publicist focused on food and hospitality, design and events. She comes to Philadelphia by way of California (self-declared nuclear-free zone Santa Cruz) and New York, and resides in Center City with her husband and two children.