The first step in taxidermying a rat, you learn, is to warm its cold little body with your hands. It arrives frozen, and the combination of textures and temperatures — the silken fur, the firm sack of rapidly thawing innards below, is deeply unfamiliar to a taxidermy novice.
The way the animal's hide separates neatly from its body is as satisfying as peeling off a stubborn price tag label in one go. The degloving of the tail, not unlike pulling a shrimp clean out of its shell.
But before these little revelations can emerge, your subject has to thaw.
And so, a dozen or so eager students sit in a curtained-off section on first floor of the Atlanta Convention Center, dead rats carefully cradled between their gloved palms.
Around us, the Oddities and Curiosities Expo carries on. It's a traveling circus of bones and piercings; bloated animal corpses floating in formaldehyde, butterflies pinned to velvet cushions under elegant cloches and stuffed beavers perched jauntily in tiny canoes.
Flyers for the event promise tattoo booths and live human suspension demonstrations, but the real stars of the afternoon aren't human, and they definitely aren't living.
There is an unquestionable sense of whimsy that permeates the world of modern taxidermy art. Readymade taxidermy pieces abound on Etsy, where dessicated toads and mice dressed as popes can be yours for a reasonable price, plus shipping.
In popular culture, taxidermy is leveraged as a symbol of the strange, the grieving, the uncommon and the unorthodox. In the acclaimed 2019 bestseller "Mostly Dead Things" by Kristin Arnett, a woman processes the death of her father through the art. In 2010's "Dinner for Schmucks," Steve Carell's character builds dioramas out of dead mice, signaling in equal measure his oddness and his sensitivity.
For those who desire a more hands-on approach, taxidermy classes are fairly easy to find and not prohibitively expensive, for what you get. The Oddities and Curiosities class was $100, all tools (and rats) provided.
Taxidermy art today is an ever-escalating quest to create something new, something innovative, something no one's ever seen before. But the aim isn't just to amuse or scandalize. It's about changing our perception of death - something that's a universal part of life.
"There's something fascinating about us putting dead animals in clothes and teacups, and I just really think it started with storytelling," the Oddities class instructor Nina Lopez says. "We have all of these stories and fables of animals speaking our language and acting like people, and anthropomorphic taxidermy brings those stories to life."
Lopez is the owner of The Taxidermy Academy in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She's a member of a creative, risk-taking, passionate generation of taxidermy artists who use the genre to peel back the mystery of death and explore the possibilities underneath.
It may surprise you to know Lopez started her career as a butcher. Or, it may make total sense.
"I was eventually desensitized to the process of skinning and deboning and processing meat." she tells CNN. "I didn't think I would ever get used to it. I had really bad feelings about processing meat."
As an animal lover and a former vegan, Lopez decided that, rather than pulling animals apart, maybe her skills were better suited to putting them back together again.
With help from her mother, an art teacher, Lopez began learning more about the art and science of taxidermy. She now travels full-time with the Oddities and Curiosities Expo and offers other roving classes where students cobble together jackalopes, rabbits and, like the Atlanta class, little white rats.
The rats she's supplied— ethically sourced from trusted pet stores — typically travel with Lopez from place to place, packed in dry ice. She explains that as the rat becomes warm again, the natural process of decay starts back up. Things can get juicy very quickly.
That's one of the reasons you bury your now-pliant rat in a heap of Borax. The old school cleaner is a desiccant; it dries things out. Things like rat skin and any wet parts underneath.
Lopez encourages you to Borax your rat generously during the process. Roll it around, she says, "Like you're breading a chicken nugget."
Since the aim is to display the rat upright (a nearby table full of fabric, ribbons, small baubles and other decorations offers endless promise for the final product), the first cut is an inconspicuous dorsal cut, from right behind the nape of the rat's neck to the base of its tail.
Taxidermy is a surprisingly versatile discipline. Animals have long been preserved as hunting trophies, as objects of scientific research, or as personal talismans.
The ancient Egyptians populated their tombs with mummified pets, as companions, and other exotic animals, often as signifiers of wealth and status.
The kind of taxidermy art Lopez and other modern practitioners create traces its roots back to the late 19th century, when taxidermy reflected people's scientific curiosity and a growing awareness of the world around them. (If seeing a small mammal up close is a thrill for today's novices, imagine what the average Victorian would feel upon seeing a real, once-live elephant for the first time.)
Of course, people in the Victorian era were also known for their eccentric interconnections with death. With high child mortality rates and rampant disease, death was a constant guest in a Victorian household. The presence of a few artfully posed animals -- a height of fashion at the time -- was just another expression of this reality.
We don't have the same relationship with death anymore. It's uncomfortable to talk about and uncomfortable to be reminded of. Even the meat we eat, Lopez says, is conveniently obscured from the animal it once was.
"We don't cut things that have faces," she says.
Except, in taxidermy class, we do.
Next, it's the arms.
"Pretend your rat is wearing a onesie backwards," says Lopez. "And you are helping it out of its onesie." Again, there is no good vocabulary for the first time you flay an animal.
Gently, the rat's limbs slide out of its skin Snuggie. There's an elbow; the meaty part of a thigh, revealed to you in a way no anatomy textbook could replicate.
That's one of the reasons, Lopez says, why she thinks people are drawn to taxidermy. It's unusual, yes. Perhaps a little quirky. But it also satisfies a very human curiosity; to touch and know and see things for ourselves.
"When are you really able to go outside and pick up a squirrel?" she says. "You get to see all the tiny little pieces of their hands, their tails, the different textures of their fur. It's cool to see these things up close."
A few scissor snips, and the rat is relieved of its boney forelimbs.
Next, with a few expert flicks of her thumb and forefingers, Lopez demonstrates how to deglove the tail. The meat of it slides out, revealing a neat string of impossibly tiny bones encased in translucent muscle. It's fascinating. It's almost beautiful.
Lopez warns the class that the face can be the hardest part. It can be upsetting, she says.
The face is connected to the skull at three points: The ear canals, the eye sockets and the muzzle. The ear canals separate easily enough. The eye sockets, less so, and any pontification on the nature of death is shelved as you try to slice through the delicate membranes.
Finally, the face loosens, and the empty sockets separate from the two cloudy bits of beluga caviar below.
With one loud scissor snip, Lopez severs the skull at the animal's snout, leaving a perfect, silky rat pelt hanging off your finger.
The hard part is over. Now, the art begins.
The stuffing part -- not the skinning part -- is Lopez's favorite.
"I love the reanimation, when we push the wires back in and they start taking form. Something that started off so sad and wet and frozen becomes something else. It's like playing make believe."
She makes it sound so easy. In reality, threading the pelt with wire, stuffing it full of cotton balls and modeling clay and sewing it up is frustrating and inexact. First-time taxidermists are sloppy gods, and our reincarnated animals look a little bloated, a little lumpy, and a little bug-eyed despite the carefully-placed black sewing pins crammed into their heads.
But they also look... much happier.
"People sometimes think I hate animals or don't look at animals as living creatures, that I don't respect them," Lopez says. "But it's the total opposite. We're showing respect for these animals, and making them come alive again."
Surely, there are more ignominious ways to spend the afterlife than perched proudly on someone's bookshelf, holding a basket or a bouquet of flowers or a tiny replica of the MLB Commissioner's trophy.
"Our passion is animals. Its not the death part. The death is temporary," Lopez explains.
It takes a certain outlook on death to believe that. Perhaps it's the outlook shared by Victorians, who took photographs with deceased loved ones and wore locks of hair in mourning, and the ancient Egyptians, for whom burials were in fact beginnings: That death is a part of life, and not the end of it.
"We're told once it's dead, it won't come back to life," Lopez says. "But here we are. It's like magic."
Magic, and lots and lots of Borax.