Can I borrow your rat comb?

May 7, 2014 at 11:40 pm (Uncategorized) (, )

‘So you make the first incision just above the rat’s womb – did I mention this one’s a female?’

The man next to me sucked in his breath as he listened.

‘After we’ve skinned it, we’ll remove the organs for analysis. The fur’s come off in places because we froze her, but no problem, folks: she’ll be a fine looking wrap once we’ve finished with her.’

The enormous screen in front of us showed a close up of the scalpel, digging into the rat’s belly. The man next to me audibly groaned. I’d lost my friends as soon as we walked in, but nothing could tear me away. By the time the Senior Museum Advisor popped her little rat tail from its sheath – ‘just like peeling off a sock!’ – I was leaning forward, my wine glass clutched to my chest and my eyes huge.

I’m fascinated by taxidermy. Did I mention that?

Julia Deville

Julia Deville


And so, it seems, is just about a third of Melbourne. On a freezing night, the queue stretched out in front of the museum surprised me. They’d better not get in between me and a snake, I scowled. I’m quite a scowler too, but you probably already know that. After a few swigs of spiced Czech liqueur to warm us up we were in the door, and heading straight for the seminar.

Yes, true words: a taxidermy information night at the Melbourne Museum, one of many reasons I love this quirky and unpredictable city. And it was packed. There was music and wine too: had they thrown in a cowboy or Bessie Smith blues number, it would have been a night custom made for me.

There were trestle tables with plump birds, an ebony bat and even a coiled snake, all ready for stroking. For the less faint at heart, you could watch an actual procedure right in front of you, with, I have to say, the coolest rock and roll taxidermists I’ve ever seen, right down to peacock tattoos and rockabilly fringes. I was mesmerised…the wine glass barely left my chest all night.

My interest in taxidermy is relatively new, typically obsessive, and utterly reasonable – the main character in my novel is responsible for acquiring and maintaining it in the Cabinet of Curiosities where she works. I do tend to throw myself into the research stage of stories (you don’t want to know what I got up to in Kaartinkaupunki in Finland, for example) so it didn’t take long for me to start delving into the art of skinning and stuffing creatures.

This in no way clashes with my love of animals; in fact, it enhances it. After twenty years of vegetarianism and sharing my life with an assortment of fangs and fur, I see it as a way to honour the animals. The days of showing off the spoils of the hunt are long gone, and most taxidermy these days comes in the form of beloved pets. The rat being prepared in the seminar was part of a previously undiscovered species in Sulawesi, and the museum scientists were keen to learn more.

Julia Deville

Julia Deville

And lord, were they proud of their work. When he’d finished with the rat, the scientist put his tools down and held her up for the camera, beaming. He placed her back on the tray and then picked up a small brush and slowly, tenderly, began to stroke the sawdust from her fur.

‘Grooming is the key to a smart looking rat’, he told us proudly.

Good to know, I nodded, reaching for my pen.

Good to know.

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