Tonja Grung’s taxidermy workshop is Londons most macabre night out

The mouse stunk.

It was lying on a sheet of newspaper, and I was going to stuff it. If all went well, it would be posed in a whimsical position with a miniature top hat, but right now it was just a piece of rotting meat. Imagine leaving a raw chicken breast out for a few hours on a hot summer’s day, and then marinating it in urine.

I flicked a poo nugget out of its fur. Apparently my mouse had taken its last breaths a la Elvis, i.e. mid-way through a colossal dump.

Carla and I had signed up to a taxidermy workshop for Part III of my mission to uncover my inner bad-ass with Jeep for its #RenegadesWanted campaign, which is also running a competition with some heart-pumpin’ prizes, like cage diving with sharks and riding the UK’s longest zip line. (Get yourself entered here!) It’s all about cheating on fear, and although there’s no adrenaline involved in stuffing a dead mouse, it’s still pretty hardcore. Especially when you’re the kind of raging pussy who was once sick over a lung in GCSE biology class.

Also, Carla had just recently become a vegetarian and I was interested in testing her limits…

Taxidermy workshop Last Tuesday Society Tonja

That said, I’m not entirely sure myself how I feel about taxidermy. Tonja, illustrious master taxidermist and our instructor for the evening, told us that nobody really kills animals to stuff them any more – most of her specimens come to her as snake food or roadkill – but it was still a real-life dead mouse I was slicing up. (White mice bred as snake food are gassed and sold to pet shops. I suppose the snakes have to eat something, and gassing is a less sticky end than, say, being torn apart by a ravenous owl in the dead of night, but still. Ew.)

Taxidermy, we discovered, is actually really fucking complicated, even for a mouse. You start by slitting it open down the middle, then carefully prising its body away from its skin. Then you have to turn its legs inside out and cut its thighs, so the feet are still attached to the skin, and do the same to the hands. The tailbone is the real bitch – you have to eke it out of its sheath millimeter by millimeter – but the head is the most gruesome. You have to be careful with its ears and eyelids, as they will ultimately affect the character of your mouse’s face, and then snip through the skull halfway through the snout. It’s grisly but oddly absorbing work.

“Oh, yours is pregnant,” said Tonja, as she swept around the room critiquing everyone’s belly slits. This lent a whole new horror to the possibility of accidentally cutting over its gut sack – not only would I have to deal with a cascade of rotting giblets, but potentially a whole army of foetal zombie rodents.

Proud first-time taxidermist Carla Juniper with her stuffed mouse.
Proud first-time taxidermist Carla Juniper with her stuffed mouse.

It’s remarkable how soon you get used to the gore though. I have a bunch of photographs that at the time didn’t seem so bad, but now make me recoil in horror. A skinned mouse is a uniquely grim thing, and everyone I’ve shown them to has told me I’m a monster. (If you really want to see what it looks like, you sick fuck, there’s a picture here. NSFW.)

Once the body and the skin have successfully parted company, the latter is washed, scraped of its fatty membrane, dunked in all sorts of chemicals and dried off – rather unceremoniously – with a hairdryer. The scraping takes quite a long time, especially if your mouse is on the chubby side or eating for ten, like mine. (It’s put me right off lipo though, I’ll say that.)

When the skin is back to its natural(ish) fluffy state, the stuffing begins.  You make a sort of straw body and a clay head, which ends up looking a bit like a prawn. (And also a bit like one of Ursula’s ‘poor unfortunate souls‘ from The Little Mermaid, no?)

Taxidermy workshop Last Tuesday Society Tonja Grung review

Unfortunately mine looked a little too like a prawn, which meant my mouse’s mortal husk ended up looking like a shrimp on its way to a fancy dress party. I looked sadly at it while I stitched it up, hoping that its timid soul would forgive me for making a laughing stock of its frail body.

Taxidermy workshop Last Tuesday Society Tonja Grung review
Left: my own monstrosity. Right: One of Tonja’s creations.

I’ve called her Shrimpy. She currently lives in a wine glass, a bit like a prawn cocktail. James 1 and 2 greeted our new flatmate with a mixture of horror and amusement, and our poor cleaning lady nearly shit her pants when she saw it (…so I guess it can’t be that unrealistic!?)

Mouse and rat taxidermy classes are available with Tonja on the reg, or if you fancy something more advanced she also does squirrels, foxes, goats, snakes, crabs…you can check out what’s on here. Prices vary, but our class cost £50pp. It is not for the fainthearted or anyone with a freakishly well-tuned sense of smell, but it is completely different to anything else I’ve ever done. Why not stuff it and see?

Taxidermy with the Last Tuesday Society, Islington Arts Factory, 2 Parkhurst Rd, London N7 0SF

Author: Emily Gibson

Emily is an urban adventurer, blogger and glutton foodie on an epic quest to uncover the best things to eat, drink and do in London. She lives in East London and loves ceviche, cycling and magic shows. Lifelong nemeses include beetroot, beards and wine served in tumblers.