Allis Markham, Hollywood Taxidermy's Rising Star
Allis Markham has two dead cats in her freezer. There’s also a frozen peacock, an Arctic fox pup, four raccoons, four grapefruit-size bull scrotums, and several fluffy ducklings sealed in a Ziploc bag. “I’m looking to get a camel and an ostrich,” Markham says during an April visit to her studio in downtown Los Angeles. “I’ve been calling ostrich farms, petting zoos, camel ride places.” She adds, “It’s hard not to creep people out.”
Dead animals are Markham’s business. Three years ago, the now 31-year-old quit her job as the director for social media strategy at Disney to become a full-time taxidermist. Markham, who got her gamehead certificate in 2009, worked exclusively for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, skinning, tanning, and mounting everything from canaries to tigers. In March she cut back to 30 hours a week there to focus on her own company, Prey Taxidermy, which offers custom taxidermy for television, film, and photo shoots. For one recent job, she was paid $2,000 to mount four homing pigeons for an Annie Leibovitz shoot starring Taylor Swift as Rapunzel.
“There’s so much work I can hardly keep up,” Markham says. She pulls the gray tabby and orange tomcat out of the freezer. “When they were alive, these cats actually worked in movies and TV shows,” she says. “Seeing them like this makes me kind of sad, but they died of natural causes.” Once Markham finishes the cats, for a fee of about $4,000, they will likely get acting jobs again.
Taxidermy (in Greek, “movement of skin”) is the art of preserving furry and scaly vertebrates by mounting their skins over lifelike body forms. Naturalists, scientists, and hunters have practiced it for hundreds of years, but taxidermy is also a growing trade in Hollywood, where dead animals are thousands of dollars cheaper than live rentals. “If you have even one live mouse, you have to have a trainer present—it’s a PETA thing,” says Linette McCown, an L.A.-based set decorator, referring to the animal rights group. Living animals also require insurance, not to mention care and feeding.
Large, angry animals can be unpleasant in the workplace. “You’d never want to have a live ostrich on-set,” says Markham. “I love all animals, but ostriches are horrible—they’re the one animal I’m afraid of.” Strict animal welfare laws prevent film studios from putting critters in positions of discomfort or danger, she adds. “You can’t, say, drop a live rat on someone’s head, because the rat might get hurt,” Markham says. (Actors, apparently, are fair game.) “So you’d drop a taxidermy double, and then show the live rat scurrying away.”
Hollywood’s taxidermy industry is monopolized by one company, Bischoff’s Taxidermy & Animal Fx, whose two-story warehouse in Burbank contains roughly 600 specimens. Founded in 1922, Bischoff’s initially specialized in custom mounts for celebrities returning from safaris. In 1993 the current owner, Gary Robbins, decided to focus on creating and renting out showbiz creatures. Since then, Bischoff’s work has appeared in TV shows and films, including Lost, True Blood, and Pirates of the Caribbean. Bischoff’s crafted the crow that caps Johnny Depp’s headdress in The Lone Ranger, as well as a stand-in for Frank, the extraterrestrial pug in Men in Black. “Taxidermy will sit still for lighting … and helps relieve the animal actors,” says Robbins’s wife, Mary, who helps run the shop. “The other place our taxidermy will play a part is as a stunt double. If an animal gets thrown out of a window at any point, that would be our item.”
Bischoff’s rents out 75 to 100 creatures each month. Moose, bears, horses, and other large specimens cost about $650 a week; smaller animals such as chipmunks go for $65. The company completes roughly 20 custom fabrications a year, most of them specifically designed to be destroyed on the set. “We’re doing a lot more vampire movies,” Mary says. “So in the last five years, there’s been a lot more blood on our animals.”
Markham is trying to compete with Bischoff’s by offering museum-grade taxidermy and partnering with live animal rental services, such as Good Dog Animals, which represents stars like Beatrice, the French bulldog on Modern Family. Good Dog’s co-founder, Guin Dill, who says that much of Bischoff’s inventory is pricey and beat up, heard about Markham through word of mouth. This spring, she hired her to preserve several recently deceased actors, including a fox, a chameleon, an opossum, and the two cats in Prey’s freezer. “There’s a big demand for this stuff,” Dill says.
Markham is 5-foot-2, with 1940s Victory rolls in her jet-black hair; she looks more like a hipster actress than someone who regularly stops on the highway to pick up roadkill. (Which is illegal in California, unless, like Markham, you have a special permit.) “My mom’s side of the family is Native American, and growing up, it was like, ‘Hey, look what I killed for dinner,’ ” she says. While working for Disney, a job Markham “really kind of hated,” she and her now husband, David Iserson, a writer for Mad Men and SNL, started a dog-rescue operation out of their home. “The only thing I like better than dead animals are live ones,” she says.
Markham, who’s always loved sculpture, began collecting taxidermy almost a decade ago. In May 2009 she attended a workshop at the Advanced Taxidermy Training Center in Thompson Falls, Mont., where she completed a deer head and a raccoon. “Inserting the glass eyes for the first time is a trip,” she says. “When it starts to look back, that’s very strange. It develops a personality.”
She returned to L.A. and contacted the Natural History Museum’s taxidermist, Tim Bovard, and “just pestered him until he took me on as a volunteer.” She came in when she could, often from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., before going to Disney. The taxidermy room at the museum, tucked away on the fourth floor, is decorated with animal death masks, maps, and miniature dioramas. Chests of drawers store things such as a preserved orangutan face and hand, an elephant trunk, and hundreds of glass eyeballs in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Folded in a corner lies the skin of a 350-pound Siberian tiger that recently passed away at the zoo. It will need to steep in an acid pickling solution for about three months, then be tanned and oiled before it’s ready for mounting.
Next door is a walk-in freezer containing thousands of specimens, many dating to the 1960s. Nearby storage units contain leopards, panthers, and absurdities such as a stool made from an elephant’s foot. “Some of this was confiscated from drug dealers,” Markham says. “During busts, illegal taxidermy is often seized, and it goes to the museum.” Markham’s Natural History work doesn’t pay as well as commissions, but Prey is thriving. The day rate for a large piece is typically $1,500, she says, plus delivery costs and a $60-per-hour fee for set supervision.
In March, Markham began offering eight-person beginner taxidermy classes in Prey’s studio. The students, mostly women (and mostly tattooed), pay $265 for nine hours of instruction, during which they take a dead starling from frozen to mounted. “Starlings are big pests,” Markham tells a group of students in April, explaining that their specimens had been killed by a farmer in Wisconsin and mailed to her in a plastic English muffin bag. “They were introduced by a naturalist who thought it was a shame we didn’t have any of the birds Shakespeare wrote about, and now they’re among the most numerous birds in North America.”
Markham walks around the room checking on her students’ progress. First they gut the birds, remove their brains and eyeballs, and clean all the tissue away from the bones. Next they remove fat from the skin using a spinning metal brush called a fleshing wheel. After rolling the birds in Chinchilla dust to remove excess oil, they blow-dry the feathers, reinforce the skulls with clay, and stick in tiny glass eyeballs. “I’m going to call my bird Clarice, after Clarice Starling from Silence of the Lambs,” says one student with pink hair. So far, Prey’s 11 classes have all sold out.
Markham’s next project is to procure vintage taxidermy for an indie film. She’s so booked that she recently had to turn down jobs for Christian Louboutin—the shoe company wanted birds and butterflies for a press event—and I-D magazine, which asked for a “full-size ostrich in an upright position” for an editorial. After a long day, Markham’s happy to go home to her husband and her living foster dogs. “I come in smelling like heifer or tiger meat or whatever I’ve been working on, and the dogs go wild,” she says. “They must think I’m, like, the best hunter in the world.”