It’s strange walking through the halls of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, knowing that in a few minutes, I will soon be embalming a rat. The animals enclosed in their glass cases look different from past visits. Maybe it’s the heightened awareness that they were once alive, and that pretty soon, I’ll be doing the thing that got them to where they are today.
The museum's Rat Embalming Workshop is set up with six tables of four, toolkits laid out in front of each seat. Fluorescent lights beat down from the ceiling. It’s just like a high school classroom on lab day.
The leader of the workshop, taxidermist Mickey Alice Kwapis, walks into the room as the class is about to start. She wears chunky-buckled black boots and a black dress, matching her black hair, cut in a choppy bob. One arm is covered in a sleeve of tattoos: a peacock, an insect, a hand holding a scalpel with little spurts of blood along the tip.
“There was a huge line in the lobby, and I called out, ‘Who is here for embalming?’” she says with an almost mischievous smile. “Everyone just looked at me like…” She turns her head towards us, eyes wide in mock shock and surprise.
Kwapis takes us through a history of the craft, explaining that the first- ever embalming solution was made from a mixture of clotting pig’s blood. I feel queasy as she explains to us that in a few minutes, we’ll be stabbing our “specimen” all over its body, pumping it full of fluid, which will eventually “mix with blood and guts and leach out.”
Earlier that week, I received an email from my editors asking if anyone would be interested in attending a rat embalming workshop. It took me less than a minute to reply saying that yes, I most definitely would.
I’m kind of obsessed with rodents. My Instagram explore page is filled with videos of guinea pigs trotting to the tune of “Pretty Girls Walk” and capybaras lounging around a public park in Curitiba, Brazil.
There was part of me that just wanted to tell my friends I was taxidermying a rat and see their horrified reactions. Taxidermy is not exactly a thing that is done or spoken much of in polite society.
When I told my boyfriend about my rodential weekend plans, he looked alarmed.
“Why would you ever want to embalm a rat?” he asked.
I found that I couldn’t provide an answer. It was the first time since signing up that I considered what embalming a rat would actually mean. The rat wouldn’t be like one of the rodents in my videos, with their silly motions and squeaks. This rat would just be dead, motionless in a jar.
The rat lies on the green and white absorbent pad Kwapis gives us, so we don’t accidentally spill non formalin preservative fluid on ourselves. His hair is wet, and the way it’s brushed around his ears makes him look like a child, calm and sleepy after a shower.
That is until I pick him up in my plastic gloved hands, puncture his belly with my syringe, and push, watching his belly distend as he fills up with fluid. Gross. I’m timid at first, but then it becomes easy. I start to chat with the others at my table, asking what brought them to this rat embalming workshop.
Katherine D. Flaherty has a mouse skeleton dressed in a grim-reaper hood peeking out of her handbag. I learn it's her Christmas tree topper and one of many skeletal specimens in her collection, most of which came from what she calls her “skull of the month” club subscription.
I ask how she found out about the class.
“My mom — who finally understands me! — sent me a link,” she says. “She was like, ‘this looks up your alley.’ Yes. Yes it is.”
Ian, who sits across from me, says he’s fascinated by weird museums, like the Cushing Brain Collection in New Haven or the Philadelphia Mütter Museum’s collection of preserved fetuses.
My tablemates, Kwapis, and I discuss whether my rat is sufficiently fluid-filled. I decide to give it one more go, sticking the syringe in the rat’s neck, compressing the plunger. Blood springs from my rat’s face. I scream.
The whole class turns to look at me.
“She’s okay,” Kwapis says. “It’s just— blood came out of the mouth.”
Everyone has a good laugh.
It’s now time to submerge our rats into our jars full of non formalin preservative. Kwapis suggests we put them head up. “It feels a little more respectful to me,” she says.
I dunk my rat, watching him float and bob in the jar. Lara, who's sitting next to me, says he looks relaxed, like he’s in a sauna. I’m not sure I agree. A few minutes pass, and we listen to Kwapis’s instructions for maintaining our embalmed rats once we take them home.
“Look, it’s dripping down like drool,” Lara says, pointing at my jar.
I look. The rat has a little trail of blood leaking from its mouth, leaving a cartoonish-trail.
Later that night, I inform my roommate that the embalmed rat has made its way back to our room. We are currently in the presence of a dead rat, kept in a glass jar inside a cardboard box under my bed.
“Sage, no,” she says. “Just like— why? Why would you tell me this?”
I have to admit — even I was a bit creeped out. My rat was once a living creature, and now his fate was to just be a dead guy in a jar living under a dorm room bed.
But wasn’t my compunction for the rat a little nonsensical? I see dead animals all the time as meat. I eat dead animals hardly thinking twice about it. But seeing the rat felt different. He looked like he’d just been alive, with his tiny curled up paws and faintly blood-stained nose. He might as well have been sleeping.
On a Zoom call with Kwapis a couple days after the workshop, I ask her the question I’d been unable to answer earlier in this week, one to which I still couldn’t quite grasp the answer: Why would anyone embalm a rat?
For one, she explains, for taxidermists, a rat specimen is often the most logical and convenient choice.
“I had a whole bunch of them in my freezer,” Kwapis says. “I do really want to utilize specimens that are available to me without seeking out new specimens elsewhere.”
Though the rats Kwapis bought for our class were raised and euthanized to be used as reptile food, she now prefers to source animals that have already died, either from natural causes or by pest control professionals.
She says she wants to “just utilize the resources that are available to me, instead of essentially becoming a squirrel hit-woman.”
I then ask her something else I’ve been wondering: why are so many people unsettled by taxidermy?
She partially blames it on Norman Bates in the movie “Psycho,” which created a stigma around the practice. But it goes beyond that.
“You're looking death in the eye,” she says. “The part that is unsettling to people is that they're facing mortality, and maybe grappling with their own mortality, or their pets' mortality when they look at taxidermy, without even knowing it.”
Kwapis calls her work “a labor of love.”
“You wouldn't spend your days elbows-deep in a dead animal if you didn't really love the work that you were doing and really want to honor those specimens,” she says.
She adds, “For me, the choice is simply to make the taxidermy and for other people, the choice might be to just throw something in a dumpster and be done with it. And for other people, the choice might be to bury an animal and have a little ritual. So it's just a matter of personal taste. It's a matter of what our own life experiences have been.”
I doubt this argument would hold up against my roommate if I were to take my embalmed rat out into the common room. But I’ll definitely be thinking of Kwapis’s words each time I shake my jar, allowing the rat’s stomach fluid to leach out.
— Magazine writer Sage S. Lattman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @sagelattman.