Still Life

Behind the scenes of Philadelphia’s taxidermy scene.

By Mariel Carr | October 31, 2016

A stuffed dog from John Whitenight’s vast taxidermy collection.

Courtesy John Whitenight/Photo by Alan Kolc

The moment I realized just how bizarre things had gotten, I was standing in the parlor of John Whitenight’s Victorian townhouse. I was relaying to Whitenight, a collector of 19th-century taxidermy and a protagonist in my latest film, the Transylvanian travels of my other leading character, the alternative (or rogue) taxidermist Beth Beverly.

“How exciting,” he mused.

In my memory, he fiddles with the bowtie of his velvet tuxedo or maybe the tiny jeweled paw pinned to his lapel. 

“I’m planning a trip too,” Whitenight said. ”An African safari.”

I guess it’s not all that surprising that in Philadelphia, which often feels like a big small town, members of an obscure subculture would know each other. But it still amazes me that each time I found a new thread and a new character in my film, everyone was already acquainted.

When I talked to Jennifer Sontchi, who oversees the stuffed animals on display at Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, it turned out she knew my new friend John Whitenight.

“Did he invite you to his house?” she asked. “You’ll never be the same afterwards.” And she offered some advice: “Do not leave without seeing the smoking monkey.”

I understood what Sontchi meant after my multi-hour tour of Whitenight’s five-story home, filled to the brim with Victorian taxidermy, furniture, and art. And, yes, a smoking monkey.

One of the greatest strengths of documentary film is the ability to take viewers into worlds they would otherwise never see. One of the most enjoyable parts of making documentaries is being the one who actually gets to go into these places.

Here are some highlights from the past eight months of what I get to call my job.

Seeing the smoking monkey

This is an automaton, not taxidermy, so it didn’t make it into the film. But it’s still one of the best things I’ve seen in my life.

A Monkey Smoking a Cigarette

Discovering what Beth Beverly keeps in her “specimen freezer”

This didn’t make it into the film either.

Inside Beth Beverly's Freezer

Meeting this hilarious woman at Beth’s taxidermy class at the University of the Arts

How a Vegetarian Becomes a Taxidermist

Taxidermists sometimes travel to far-off places to acquire their treasures. It turns out I didn’t have to travel very far at all to discover a strange new world.