Unicorns and Winged Rats: Look at the World's Weirdest Taxidermy

A purse made from a young goat made by Beth Beverly, who will be a judge at this year's competition. Artist: Beth Beverly / Diamond Tooth Taxidermy / http://www.diamondtoothtaxidermy.com/ Courtesy of Beth Beverly

Taxidermy has come a long way since people first started preserving animal carcasses for observation, memoir and art. The field of alternative taxidermy—creating nontraditional mounts—has become so popular it even has its own national competition.

On October 14, a menagerie of mystical and monstrous dead animals will congregate at The Ruba Club. There, their creators will compete in the fourth annual Philadelphia Alternative Taxidermy Competition, hosted by the Strange and Unusual.

Alternative taxidermists take an unconventional approach. They might dress up a taxidermied rat in clothes, articulate a skeleton like in a museum display, or add wings and a second head to a rabbit. You might even see a unicorn. It could be nearly anything that comes from animal remains—the only criterion for the sculpture seems to be that it's weird.

Nineteen taxidermists are registered at this year's competition, according to Kristie Matt, of Cloven Hoof Taxidermy, who will MC the event. "One contestant is entering a cat that is plastinated, like in Body Worlds," Matt tells Newsweek. "We're keeping it really open and broad in our definition of alternative taxidermy. It's about using the imagination." A taxidermist herself, Matt focuses on framed mounts of rats, from the shoulders up, wearing crowns.

A winged, "antlered" rat creatively mounted in alternative taxidermy. Artist: Kristie Matt / Cloven Hoof Taxidermy / https://www.instagram.com/clovenhoof_/ Courtesy of Kristie Matt

Alternative taxidermy, or rogue taxidermy, is important to the history of animal preservation. In the 1930s, a man selling rogue taxidermy mounts of jackrabbits with deer antlers popularized the legend of the jackalope. Anthropomorphic taxidermy, where animals artists dressed up preserved animals and put them in human situations, became popular in the late 1800s. Damien Hirst's art of animals suspended in liquid is a more modern famous example.

Some practitioners of taxidermy art think it's making a comeback. "Taxidermy is definitely gaining popularity, enjoying a renaissance of sorts," Matt says. "There's a renewed interest in all things Victorian." Matt says the internet and social media have helped bring people in this niche field together.

A mounted porcupine with added antlers took first place at last year's Alternative Taxidermy Competition. Artist: Karen Nemes / La Grotesquerie / https://www.lagrotesquerie.com/ Courtesy of Karen Nemes

Marcia Field, an alternative taxidermist who runs Exquisite Corpse Taxidermy, agrees. "People, young people especially love skulls, and they love nature and they want to combine nature with the urban world," she says. "They don't want to get a shotgun and go out and start [hunting] deer, but they are open to seeing beauty and elegance in that natural world. Whether it's claws or furs or skeletons, [people enjoy] combining it with other forms of art, and maybe that's why you're seeing women doing it."

Field, who has a ticket to the competition but may not attend due to health reasons, only uses second-hand animals that would have been thrown away otherwise. But ethical standards vary from person to person.

A squirrel running up the antique telephone in a piece called "Call to Faith." It opens to reveal an illuminated, velvet-tufted Catholic shrine with holy water and religious icons. Artist: Marcia Field, Madison Wisconsin / Exquisite Corpse, Surreal Taxidermy / www.exquisitecorpsetaxidermy.com Courtesy of Marcia Field.

There are a variety of places to source dead animals from, including hunting and collecting roadkill. "To each their own," says Matt. "We personally try to source everything as ethically as possible."

A Bird headdress is a functional example of alternative taxidermy. Artist: Beth Beverly / Diamond Tooth Taxidermy / http://www.diamondtoothtaxidermy.com/ Courtesy of Beth Beverly