In honor of the publication of Arielle Zibrak’s Avidly Reads Guilty Pleasures, Avidly is running a series of essays on “Pleasure-y Guilts” — “The special frisson that comes from leaning in to the pleasures for which the world makes us feel guilty.” Enjoy! — Ed.
I have rearranged the taxidermy on the shelves behind me for each online class this year. Is the guinea pig showing his wonky eye? Does the squirrel’s paw cover up anything important? In my students’ backgrounds, I see toy stuffed animals and pets: in mine, they see a stuffed pet. Enjoying taxidermy means grappling with the ethics of it; the line between respect and exploitation is drawn in blood and lined with fur. I present here a sampling of taxidermy from my past and present, in all their complexity.
The Polar Bear Rug
My Great Uncle Paul was a foreman on the Alaskan Highway in the 1940s; on a hunting expedition, he shot a polar bear and had it made into a rug. My aunt remembers recovering from chicken pox on it, and later my brother had it on his bedroom floor. When I left for college it ended up in the garage rafters where it got colonized by mice, and my parents threw it out. I have never forgiven them for this.
- The Pleasure: The head was arranged into an open-mouthed snarl that simultaneously delighted and terrified me as a child, and it made a perfect pillow for reading. The fur was incredibly soft, strangely as cool in the summer as it was warm in the winter.
- The Guilt: Every time I see a National Geographic photo spread of starving polar bears on melting ice floes, I start to panic. So much guilt.
Fernando, the Hammerhead Shark
The email from my mother-in-law Diane read, “There’s a hammerhead shark at an estate sale–want to go?” What can I say, she truly gets me. He was eleven feet of sharky glory, and I instantly knew his name was Fernando. I even had a spot for him in our house–an empty wall at the top of the stairs, where I’d be eye-to-eye with him every time I opened my bedroom door. But I had no way to get him from Michigan to Minnesota.
- The Pleasure: None. I have only my regrets and a weird association with that Abba song now.
- The Guilt: I think about the sign underneath him that read “Make Offer” and the fact that we later heard somebody bought him for only fifty dollars. Oh, Fernando, I would have spent my life making offerings TO you, instead of for you. I’m sorry, old friend.
The Dead Rodent Skill Crane Game: Or, My Second-Best Cocktail Party Story
You know the game, in between the electronic deer-shoot and the pinball machine at the bowling alley? You pay your quarters, position a crane above the toy you hope to get, and then trust yourself to fate. But this one was at our favorite science museum, and instead of stuffed animals it was filled with LITERAL stuffed animals, crudely-stuffed rat pelts donated by the research lab. The kids’ delight turned to outrage as they realized it was, as the sign proclaimed, for display only. “Why would they do that, Mom? Why?!?” On our next visit it was gone, and when I asked a staff person about it they primly informed me that it was NOT respectful to the animals and had been removed.
- The Pleasure: I am in awe of the unknown intellect who saw lab rats and a busted arcade game and dared to imagine, “what if?”
- The Guilt: None. I refuse your shame, you disapproving staff member. You are clearly incapable of joy.
MacGyver the Squirrel Haunch
On a family road trip out West, we stopped to see my best friend Bryn in Seattle. She had an early birthday present for me, and I gasped as a squirrel haunch emerged from the tissue paper, like he was giving me a little rodent high-five. MacGyver became our trip mascot, narrating our experiences in social media posts. He wiped steam off bathroom mirrors, rage-tweeted about hotel coffee, and gave driving advice from my shoulder in the passenger seat. Since then he has joined us on every trip, most recently to the headwaters of the Mississippi river where we scattered my mother’s ashes. She would have loved him.
- The Pleasure: It’s as if we have a child who won’t age; he will always be the same as in the pictures we take, and he can’t refuse to be in them.
- The Guilt: Only a smidge for everyone else in my life who will never top this birthday gift.
Our guinea pig Professor James Moriarty died in the middle of a truly awful winter. Our cat had been brutally attacked by a dog and died, I was recovering from a serious illness, and my mother was in her final months of Alzheimer’s. In the middle of all that, our charming evil genius guinea pig died after a long life of scheming and eating hay. The ground was too hard to bury him, and as I pondered the next several months of making eye contact with him every time I opened the freezer, I remembered that I had a friend who was learning taxidermy. Would she like a nice pet to practice on instead of the usual roadkill? Yes, yes she would. And so, on Christmas morning, we sent the kids on a treasure hunt of clues around the house, leading them back to the Christmas tree to find the Professor stuck in the branches at eye level. Since then he has been a regular feature in all holiday decorations, and we bring him out at parties. “Would you like to hold the pig?” is a surprisingly nuanced personality test. He is our little wonky-eyed household god, presiding over our joys and sorrows, holding court by the front door where we can touch him for luck when we leave and greet him when we return.
- The Pleasure: Immeasurable.
- The Guilt: Nonexistent.
Ann M. Tandy teaches British Literature and Death Studies courses at the University of Minnesota. She recently acquired a Victorian fainting couch, upon which she eases her fluttering nerves. In her spare time, she arranges fake skeletons in home-remodeling projects for the delight of future homeowners.