Behind the stuffed goat's penis lurks ambition

August 19, 2005

Taxidermy: Stuff the world
BBC Two, August 22, 9pm

A desire to examine the unsheathed tip of a goat's penis is probably best kept secret. But, as Morgan Matthews's quietly excellent film Taxidermy: Stuff the World shows, attitudes were very different at the 2005 World Championships of Taxidermy in the US. There, penis tips, orifices, eyes and wrinkles were inspected with enthusiasm and glee.

Animals and their parts were turned into objects of human craft and pleasure, and any possibility that the creatures on display might have had rights or even dignity never crossed the stuffers' minds.

Taxidermy is neither new nor secret. In the past it was carried out according to religion (for example, embalming humans) or science (for example, Victorian collections of stuffed birds). At the championships, it is a means to a kind of glorious end. These taxidermists compete to be the world's best and want to be celebrated by their peers. The glory even spills over into hubris with Canadian Ken. Disappointed that he cannot work with endangered species such as pandas, he instead assembles his own from the remains of a black bear and a polar bear. For the contest he reconstructs an extinct Irish elk because, he says, he wants to bring it back to life.

But you can stuff an animal only if it is dead. For the competitive American taxidermists, getting hold of dead animals is an easily resolved problem - you just go out and kill one. Roy is a latter-day big-game hunter who goes to South Africa to bag a leopard to stuff; he gets one but only after the disappointment of killing a lioness.

More chilling is cute nine-year-old Victoria who goes into the Missouri forests with her father to kill the deer that she will show at the championships. She is a crack shot who enjoys seeing Pa disembowel the body, although that is nothing compared with the sticky delight of poking a finger into a bloody ventricle. After all, lethal little Victoria opines, God put animals on Earth so that she might shoot them.

Only the Europeans express ethical doubts about the death of the animals.

The Anglo-Danish partnership stuffs a dead bird, but refuses to have it killed deliberately. Jack and Peter say thousands of birds die every day, so getting their hands on one isn't too hard.

Meanwhile, the Swiss German Mathias, who initially plays up (hopefully it is play-acting) to all of the stereotypes of the scary Germanic doctor, starts gazing into the eyes of the fish that he catches and makes a connection with his born-again Christianity. He decides not to enter the championships and gives up taxidermy. Humans, he says, ought to be compassionate to God's creatures.

This splendid film shows that behind the stuffed goat's penis lurks a pit of human self-glorification, ambition, power, doubt and even empathic suffering with fellow living creatures. People can behave in any way they want towards nature, and reasoned arguments can be given for whatever behaviour is preferred.

The interminable academic debate about animal rights is another sign of this. This goes on and on without chance of resolution because, as Victoria and Mathias show so well, the problem is really cultural and not philosophical. The only argument that animals themselves can make is the display of aggression from an about-to-be-killed elk towards Ken. But here, as in so many areas of life and death today, that cannot withstand high-velocity bullets from the likes of American Roy.

Keith Tester is professor of cultural sociology at Portsmouth University.

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