Skinning Kittens and Other Wrong Turns in Life
Let’s leave children alone and whole as we work through our era’s culturally bound illnesses.
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My friend Corinna and I stopped by the Museum of Death in New Orleans last weekend. We were in town for the (absolutely lovely) Quillette social, and we found ourselves with some time to kill (no pun intended). It seemed like the thing to do, surrounded as we were by shops selling voodoo supplies, carved skulls, and Day of the Dead art.
I can’t say I’d go out of my way to recommend The Museum of Death, though it was a perfectly fine way to waste an hour. By way of review, it was small, and its selection of displays was utterly random, as might be unavoidable with a topic so broad and fascinating. Its main attraction, which probably went over much better before the Internet age, was a collection of printouts describing the lives and exploits of various serial killers. Filling the remaining spaces were implements used in autopsies and embalmings, items owned by murderers, skeletons, creepy things in jars, and a small number of rather ordinary mounted animals.
If the museum was interested in taxidermy, I told the front desk clerk, it had missed a chance for a much more macabre display. Last I checked, Walter Potter’s dioramas were for sale, and his estate couldn’t give them away.
Walter Potter was an... er... artist of the Victorian era who worked with cute dead animals, like kittens and bunnies. He dressed them en masse in ruffles and pearls and staged them enjoying tea at parties and weddings. In his time, the public flocked to see his “whimsical” creations, but soon tastes changed and charges of animal cruelty were brought to the fore. By the time of Potter’s death in 1918, his family couldn’t get a dime for his once highly prized collection.
Museum placards often claimed that the animals in Potter’s exhibitions died of natural causes. The public was all too happy to swallow that lie, at least for a while. But I grew up in farm country and I’ve known a thousand kittens; I can count on one hand those that died of “natural causes.” A case of distemper, a motherless stray. Certainly, a dozen matching ginger kittens are unlikely to drop dead all at once. But the Victorians were cool with living in denial, having just left the scientifically-advanced, education-loving Enlightenment for organ-squashing corsets, sexual repression and charges of female hysteria. Sounds familiar—I guess these things come in cycles.
When I come across something heinous or disturbing, I put myself in the shoes of its practitioners. Things were different in Potter’s time. There were no veterinarians; spaying and neutering was not a thing. It’s unlikely Potter killed those kittens himself. He probably got donations from farmers, who felt the need to practice a certain amount of feline population control. Potter probably got started with standard taxidermy, a practice that sometimes involved the preservation of clients’ beloved pets. He was a product of his time and his culture, desensitized to the gruesome nature of work that probably was, at least, an engaging outlet for his creativity. One could argue that if farm kittens had to die either way, his work wasn’t strictly unethical. Just icky.
I’d like to think that I, presented with such career option, would have taken a step back. I’d like to think I would have insisted on preserving my sensitivity for the beautiful and the good. I’d like to think I would have said, “I get that it’s ethically murky, and that everyone else is on board, and that I have plausible deniability, and you gotta do something for a living. But I, personally, will not skin kittens.”
If you wake up one day and find you’re skinning kittens for a living, your life may have taken a wrong turn.
Kind of like now. A young human being is even more valuable than a young cat. If you’re cavalier about children’s bodily integrity, turning a blind eye to, or applauding, or even rushing to strip them of their organs or sections of their skin, whatever your murky ethical justification, whatever the complex cultural cocktail in which you swim, your life may have taken a wrong turn.
Fish don’t know they’re wet, but people can learn they’re repeating history. Let’s leave children alone and whole as we work through our era’s culturally bound illnesses and culturally bound solutions, our gay eugenics, our witch hunts, our Medieval meowing, our bloodletting, our lobotomy, our Satanic panic.
Shannon Thrace is a creative nonfiction writer and IT professional who's passionate about philosophy, ethics, unplugging and seeing the world. Her memoir 18 Months, on the unraveling of her fifteen-year relationship when her husband came out as transgender, is now available on Amazon.