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The Taxidermy Diaries / , ,

The Chinese Taxidermy Diaries: The Last Few Days

The taxidermy school days ended as they began: just plain weird.

On day seven, Teacher Liu defrosted four squirrels, patchy black and white rodents frozen together in a block of ice.  They looked a little like they were caught spooning in an ice storm.  But as they defrosted, and we worked on them, their hair fell out in large patches.

“They’ve been frozen too long,” said apprentice Xiao Long. 

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The Taxidermy Diaries / , ,

The Chinese Taxidermy Diaries: Day Seven

I finished my first animal!!!

“Mommy, why can’t I go outside and play?”

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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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The Taxidermy Diaries / , ,

The Chinese Taxidermy Diaries: Day Three

Day One started with flaying a dog, and Day Two started with flaying a baby dog. So when day three started with Teacher Liu saying, over breakfast, “I think you’ll do a sheep’s head today,” I cheered with glee. I almost spilled my bowl of fresh soy milk & nescafe.

Little did I realize, though, how tough a sheep’s head could be. They’d already been peeled off the skulls, but there was sooo much fat and flesh to be carved off. I started with a fresh scalpel blade, but the skin was paper thin to me. Even touching the sheep’s lips with the blade seemed to cause a new tear.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. The cartilage was just terrible. I tore one of the ears in two trying to rip that section out. And the cartilage in the nose? Oh lord… never did I expect such frustration! Trying to scrape away the little hard bits of white cartilage was just incredible. I hacked, and I tore, and I cursed, and I swore, and I ripped so many new holes in the nostrils. And the poor sheep, giving away his face to such tyranny.

So I embraced any distractions that arrived.

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The Chinese Taxidermy Diaries: The Second Day

That first day was a trial. We’d flayed a dog’s legs, and worked the bones from the feet.  But that was nothing compared to the second.

“We’ve got two squirrels for you this morning,” Teacher Liu said at breakfast.  I was thrilled — a squirrel sounded like something I could do all of, myself.  But when Xiao Long pulled the animals out of the bag, they didn’t look anything like squirrels.

“No, they’re dogs,” he said. 

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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. 

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Off to Taxidermy School

Woo and I have long shared a love of stuffed animals, so it’s time to make it true. This morning, we’re driving off to Songzhuang Artists Village with two lads from Harbin for a 10-day taxidermist training workshop.

A couple of Woo’s preview snaps, from our visit last weekend. I just hope my stomach proves to have strengthened since my 7th grade biology class.

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Philadelphia CheeseSteak Ice Cream

“That’s possibly the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”

Michelle didn’t use these words lightly. She didn’t say this when I’d suggested we fly across the country to a park staffed by 108 dwarfs, or we hand-feed live animals to hungry tigers, or we train to become professional taxidermists.

But evidently Michelle has her limits, too.

She draws a line at Philadelphia Cheesesteak Ice Cream.

We were about to watch Rambocky X, the legendary double-feature pairing of Rocky VI and Rambo IV. (You know: “When a 60-something fighter comes out of retirement for one last bout, who knows how it’s going to end?!! Well tonight, It Ends Twice!!! That’s right: Rocky & Rambo each wage a sexagenarian battle that could be a fight to the DEATH!!!”)

To accompany this back-to-muscled-back 191 minutes of awesomeness, I’d made avocado ice cream, mango sorbet, and Thai rice ice cream. But those flavors only represented Rambo IV, Thailand and Burma. They left nothing for poor Rocky VI, Philadelphia’s favorite pug.

So I had to fix the situation. And the remedy seemed to be CheeseSteak Ice Cream.

“Why don’t you just make Rocky Road?” Michelle demanded.

“Because that’s not Philly. Philly is cheesesteaks! We need something Rocky would eat.”

I Googled, but Google insisted there was no such thing. There were no recipes, or precedents. This was uncharted territory. I was an explorer. I was a fighter. I felt like Rambocky himself!

{Cue training montage}

I sliced up blood-red chunks of tenderloin.

Sautee’d them in a splash of olive oil, then cooked them in a pool of Karo.

Shredded two-tone cheddar, and a few tablespoons of cream.

Minced candied & cooled tenderloin.

“This is going to be a disaster,” Michelle warned before she went to bed. Okay, she didn’t actually say those words, but I could feel them. Had she voiced her thought, she would have added, “A disaster of historic proportions.”

I nodded, furiously mixing and stirring. There was no way this was going wrong. It was too important.

And it went right. Oh how right it went.

Nuggets of sharp cheddar cheese mixed with crunches of sweet beef, all settled in a gorgeous Philly-style ice cream base. I took a bite, and gasped. “Spectacular,” I announced, even though Michelle had long since fallen asleep. I took another bite. “AMAZING!” She still didn’t wake up. Oh, well.

Granted, it was weird. But it was also something like the greatest weird taste sensation of all time. It was Americana. It was Sweet Jeez! It was glorious.

Except for a cheesesteak itself, I don’t think there could be anything better than this.

So here’s the recipe….

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About Dean

Dean Pickles in Keimolanportti, Finland - a gas station town

An award-winning product manager, photographer, filmmaker, blogger, novelist and videogame creator, Dean is currently at work on his third novel, Stormglass 3: [Redacted].

He recently served as the Managing Editor and Creative Director for the Chinese government’s largest English-language propaganda magazine, The World of Chinese. His fast-food activist feature Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead was celebrated as (almost) “perfect” by The New York Times, “terrific” by Entertainment Weekly, and was a critic’s pick in both New York Magazine and, while his autobiographical documentary Poultry in Motion: Truth is Stranger Than Chicken was hailed as “fearlessly honest” by MSN. His cult travel site has been featured in the pages of The Daily Mail, The Weekly World News, and The China Daily, among countless others; his writings on film have been included in a series of books by Focal Press; and his recipes have been subjects of mocking disbelief in Bon Appétit and The Village Voice.

I currently live in Beijing Bangalore San Francisco Los Angeles, where I’m writing espionage novels for kids.

Many of the photos on the site were taken by my girlfriend Woo, who comes up with half of our project ideas.

You can contact me by emailing “asiaobscura” at Google’s “” service.

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