The Chinese Taxidermy Diaries: The First Day

“Was he killed?” asked Xiao Li, as he was carefully slicing around the ear, trying to get at the tendon inside.

“No,” said Teacher Liu.  “He just died a few days ago.”

“Died of what?”

“I don’t know.  Don’t ask me.”

“He must have died of something.”

“He just died.  He was old.  Really old.”

“Was he a pet?”

“Yes.  But he’s a fairly large dog.  So probably a guard dog.”

The guard dog, who may have been a pet, was laid out in front of us.  The air was rancid.  My hands were disgusting.   We’d spent the morning flaying him.  We salted him before lunch.  And now, we were scraping the flesh from the skin.  Three of us students each worked on a paw.

I knew we’d have to stuff a dog the first day of Chinese taxidermy school.  I just knew it. 

Chop knew it, too.  She growled at me when I came back to the small room we’re staying in for the next few weeks.  I’m sure she smelled the flesh of the dog I’d been scraping all day.  I fed her from the table, to try to win her back, but when I felt her paw in my hand, I couldn’t help noticing the feeling of fat — fat I’d just scraped from the guard dog’s paw.

“Have you experienced eating dog?” joked Xiao Long.  The other students shook their heads, disgusted.

I admitted I had.  Then I elaborated: “Three times.”

The others looked horrified, and glanced at Woo for confirmation.  She admitted that she had, too.

“I don’t eat dog,” said Xiao Long, “but we kept the rest of the meat, if you want it.  It’s in the freezer.  You can eat it later.  I like hamburgers.  I once ate eight for one meal.”


“Yes, my friend paid for it.”

Xiao Li, who’d wanted to know how this dog died just in time for the class, was still trying to slice the cartilage from the ear.  It was frustrating him, but he wouldn’t give up.  He’s given up just using a scalpel, and was using a wooden tongue depressor, a pair of scissors, a metal dental pick, and a handful of other unrecognizable tools.  He was clearly making no progress.

“Let me do it,” said Xiao Long, who’s been apprenticing under our teacher for two years.  He was bored of the pile of goat heads he was scraping away at.  They were for a project for a famous artist, someone Woo’s a fan of, who’s been ordering them painted yellow and perched on wildly inflated bodies.

“I can do it myself,” Xiao Li insisted.  Xiao Li been working at a zoo in Harbin, far up north, for 11 years already.  He’d trained both tigers and bears, and he stuffed animals with a passion.  He hadn’t even taken off his brown imitation-leather jacket since sitting down this morning.  He wasn’t about to let a beginner show him up.

It was another half-hour before he finally gave in.

“Okay, you try,” he said, tossing down his scalpel.

Xiao Long sauntered over with a pair of plyers.  He made a few slices, shoved the plyers in, and wrenched the inch-long piece of cartilage in one go, and tossed it across the table.  He was the taxidermy shit.  He recognized it, then went back to his pile of goats heads.  Xiao Li sat down in his chair again, picked up his scalpel, and went to work on the other ear.

I wasn’t so adept at using the scalpel.  Xiao Han, who’s been stuffing for eight years as a taxidermist at Beijing’s Natural History Museum, gave Woo and I tips.  “Hold it like a pen,” he said.  But his slices were filled with years of confidence.  Our slices were hacks and saws, leaving holes riddled in the skin, fur poking in from the outside.

But at least I didn’t throw up, which was my main concern.  When I was ten, I fainted while we were dissecting frogs.  The teacher made me sit outside for the rest of class.

Woo, meanwhile, embraced it.  She yanked the finger bones out of the paws, far faster than I did.  She laughed maniacally when she realized the paw she was fleshing — the fifth paw — was actually the dog’s penis.  Later, she ducked under the table with a squeal.  “Oh look, another animal,” she cried, digging through a pile of plastic bags excitedly.

I wanted to take a picture, but my hands were too covered in salt and grease and gross.  Plus, I was bleeding.  I didn’t realize how sharp those scalpels are.

You probably don’t want
to click to enlarge this pic.
But this one of Xiao Li and a dried caribou is kinda cute.

The Taxidermy Diaries / , ,

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