Life after death never looked so beautiful

WHEN YOU LIVE in a big city, sometimes nature comes at you secondhand—a photo from the apple farm upstate, eggs in the grocery store. But for Miami-born and Brooklyn-based Divya Anantharaman, the founder of Gotham Taxidermy, nature is hardly that binary. “Nature is the pigeon that’s on the sidewalk under the Gowanus Bridge,” they say. “It’s the squirrels you see at the park. It doesn’t exist in this pristine box separate from humanity.”

In their work, nothing is quite binary. In Anantharaman’s fantastical, ethereal creations, the beauty of life is captured after death. In many of the pieces, what you see isn’t strictly textbook science or purely creative. For a two-headed goat kid, the chances of surviving more than a week are one in 3 million according to the World Oddities Expo, which now owns this piece. But in Anantharaman’s work, the joy of being young and alive is frozen in time through anatomical specificity and an artful eye. 

gloved hands use syringe to inject small bird, trays of taxidermy tools

Nobody looks their best after death—including adorable little birds. Here, before skinning it, Anantharaman uses a syringe filled with water and a mild soap to inject a little life into the bird’s eyes and body. 

display of replica bats with roses and other flowers, berries, on wooden stand

In all of Anantharaman’s work there is a strong sense of kindness, something that isn’t always seen in the world of taxidermied creatures. Taxidermied bats, for example, are popular trinkets with a questionable ethical background. These lifelike Victorian bats are replicas—the gothic aesthetic with no loss of life. 

taxidermied magpie faces off with taxidermied mouse on branch

The predator-prey dynamic is more than a lion stalking a gazelle on Animal Planet. Small, unassuming creatures must also compete to survive in the life-giving, complex ritual. In a transfixed stare-down between a black-throated magpie and its potential rodent dinner, Anantharaman displays the hunter and the hunted with a sense of tenderness. 

gloved hands hold bird in order to remove its skin and skull; taxidermy tools sit on table and hang on wall

One of the biggest misconceptions about taxidermy, Anantharaman says, is that it’s just embalming. Taxidermy literally means “to move the skin,” they add. This process requires care and delicacy in removing the slightest bones and breakable skull so they can be re-created to reflect a living creature’s symmetry and movement.

Divya Anantharaman sits at desk, works on replica snowy owl mount, with other taxidermied animals and materials in background

Rarities draw us in—a lost antique, a precious gem. For some, that always-out-of-reach prize is a rare or endangered animal. But Anantharaman can still build the unattainable, such as by creating a snowy owl replica using the feathers of chickens and turkeys. With its menacing glower, you’d never know this Arctic predator is a fake.  

taxidermied fawn stands on grass and bends down toward flower and apple while butterflies alight on parts of its body

Like something out of a fairy tale, a curious fawn steps out into a soft field filled with fruits and flowers. But there is a darker secret to this project—the laminated butterfly wings that gently cover the young deer’s petite frame mirror the real-life attraction of the insects to dead bodies. 

flamingo with pins in its skin undergoes taxidermy process

This glowing Chilean flamingo is a work in progress, even if its dignified face would tell you otherwise. The tiny pins along its graceful neck are holding the skin and feathers of its deceased form in place as Anantharaman adds the finishing touches to its wacky, but realistic, final pose. 

cat skull mounted on platform and decorated with flowers

Many of the creatures in Anantharaman’s menagerie belonged to no one but themselves, but this cat skull is different. It was once part of an adored pet, whose owner requested this gorgeous, but often taboo, celebration of life. “With pets, you’re not just working on someone’s memories of their animal,” they say. “You’re working on the relationship they had to that animal.” 

bird heads and leg, plus other animal parts made from foam

In the process between death and rebirth, bits and pieces of an animal can shrink or change. In making a creature as dynamic after death as it was in life, even the finest taxidermists need a little help in the form of a head or leg when the real thing doesn’t do its subject justice. 

Divya Anantharaman holds up leopard skin, wall of taxidermy tools in background

The history of taxidermy can be painful, presenting often literal representations of brutality. But for those given the remains of a rare creature, honoring its memory for as long as possible can mean revitalizing what is left of the magnificent beast.

taxidermied budgie parakeet sits on branch

This budgie parakeet, another cherished pet, rests in peaceful slumber just as it did during its life—a bit fluffed out, with a sleepy head tucked under its wing. The beloved bird’s owner was fond of drawing the sweet creature in mystical settings, which Anantharaman re-created with a smattering of soft moss and dainty crystal raindrops. 

Divya Anantharaman touches up cassowary replica

Some taxidermy jobs start in the garbage, like this spectacular cassowary. When this mishap was found in a waste facility, not much could be salvaged. But with patience and a hand-sculpted, wrinkle-filled “dinosaur head,” Anantharaman was able to go beyond just restoring its former glory while preserving its traditional essence. 

white owl in progress with taxidermy tools

Owls have what’s called a facial disc, a cupped arrangement of feathers surrounding the eyes. In life, this unique feature helps owls collect sound waves, and the bird can adjust its shape to focus on prey shuffling under snow cover or hiding in plants. Placing the feathers requires patience, impeccable grooming, and a sense of humor. “It’s really funny to see it in this halfway state,” Anantharaman says. “It’s just a little owl in progress.”

two taxidermied songbirds with pins holding skin in place

In museums and scientific displays, the taxidermied creatures might look far different from the ones we encounter in our day-to-day lives. This project, which Anantharaman is building for a high school, features deceased local birds collected by an enthusiastic (and permitted, of course) teacher who hopes to bring an ecological diorama to the classroom. 

tidy peg wall holding varied tools used by taxidermist

Anantharaman’s workshop is no morgue, but it still requires saws, respirators, and other devices for the rough-and-tumble aspects of taxidermy. Keeping an impeccably organized wall of tools is also emotional for the artist—a celebration of the space they use to create their multidimensional work. 

featherless starling held in place by taxidermist's pins

When you think of an artist’s model, your brain may go to a scantily clad human muse. This starling is certainly nude, but it’s also an expert poser that Anantharaman can move however they like. Once this specimen is out of the freezer, Anantharaman has around 20 minutes to turn it into a dynamic fighter or a stately presence. 

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