The Chinese Taxidermy Diaries: Days Four to Six

Mr Zhou’s a generous man. He loves to hand out smokes. As Michelle and I were working on our sheep heads, he shoved pre-lit cigarettes in our mouths. “Smoke,” he insisted, in his thick northern accent, then pounded from the room. There we were: fags in mouths, scalpels in hands, like real professionals.

Later, I came across this incredible photo from the 1960s manual, “Home Book of Taxidermy and Tanning.”

Mr Zhou clearly knew what he was talking about. He’s an army general as well as a cook and a hard-drinking taxidermist, it turns out. I should have trusted him.

While we kept at our sheep heads, the professional students spent most of the fourth day, and the fifth day, carving down a foam mannequin of a cougar.

“Measure from the tip of the nose to the closest corner of the eye,” Teacher Liu said, “and also from the nose to the base of the tail. You need to make sure the mannequin is the right size.” It wasn’t.

So they carved the mannequin’s neck, and the legs, and the head. They added a new stomach made of polyurethane foam, to stretch it out. A photo of a stuffed cougar sat on the table, and they kept referencing it as they carved. Sometimes they’d pull out a laptop, and surf the internet more real cougar photos to check muscles. These really were professionals, armed with saw bits and wood files and pocket knives.

After lunch, we pulled the dog skin out of the brine bath, and all took a break to communally scrape fat again. Xiao Han kept scraping like a master, but he admitted he’d done a lot of it. “I’ve skinned maybe 500 animals,” he said, looking up but not pausing at his task. “My first animal was also a dog.”

“Do you stuff pets?” I asked Teacher Liu. Secretly, I couldn’t help wondering what Chop would look like, stuffed. (Sorry, Michelle!)

“No, I never do pets,” he said. “It pays very little money, and the customer is never happy with the way it looks. It’s like a family member, you know.”

“Do you get asked to?”

“Oh yeah, lots. All the time. But I won’t do it.”

We learned to tan hides, as we rubbed chemicals into our baby dog skins. We hung them to dry in sight of their mother, but she didn’t seem to notice them anymore. We mounted the caribou’s eyes, and then the hide. I molded a cougar ear out of bondo — the auto-body repair paste — and it looked clumsy, like it was done by a child. The one that Mr Zhou did was fantastic.

And today, we started to stuff and sew up our baby dogs. Finally! Xiao Long shoved round-head pins in their faces, for makeshift eyes, and I sewed up the mouth and started on the body. They smell like new leather car seats, and look like drowned rats. I’m actually quite proud.

On the topic of dog, when Mr Zhou heard there was a dog in the freezer, he grabbed a pan and cooked it up for dinner. Most everyone refused to eat dog, though, so he and I shared the bulk of it. He’s only 5’5″, but probably weighs 210lbs. He eats and drinks a lot.

As we ate, I couldn’t help but asking, “Is this the same dog that we’re stuffing out there?”

I’d just finished chewing another big cut of dog, dipped lightly in a bowl of sugar and white pepper.

“Yes, of course,” laughed Teacher Liu, who’d also refused to eat any. “大傻.”

“Dasha? Huh?” I wasn’t sure what that meant. “What does that mean… was that his name?”

“Yes.” This dog had a name? I was horrified. “It means ‘stupid,’ likeable and stupid, but he was smart, really. Whenever a nice car like a BMW would drive up to his farm, he would be very polite. But when a poor car, like a… you know what is a 小面包车?” It’s a small bus that’s shaped like a loaf of bread. “When one of those came, he would bark angrily. He was really very smart. He was a good dog.”

So not only did the dog have a name, but the dog had stories, too. Cute stories. Sweet stories.

“Eat, eat!” shouted Mr Zhou, using his chopsticks to lift two large pieces of Dasha, joined by a string of fat, and dropped them on my plate. I looked down at the dog chunks, sighed and picked up my chopsticks again. At least we’re using all of Dasha. And he tastes pretty damn good, too.

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