Across the street from a cemetery in East Brooklyn, behind an old storefront window, the perfectly preserved bodies of a South African penguin, a blue shark, a brown bear, a macaw, a poodle, five whitetail deer, a giant striped bass, a spotted seal and a calico housecat keep each other company in the front office of Cypress Hills Taxidermy Studio, as they have for the past 53 years.
The studio’s owner John Youngaitis, 56, is the last commercial taxidermist in New York City and he is leaving his shop. The three-story home and office of Cypress Hills Taxidermy Studio, which Youngaitis inherited from his father in 2005, is on the market.
“I don’t want to sell, but that’s family business,” said Youngaitis about the building he co-owns with his sister. Youngaitis said he plans to reopen the studio in a new building, but the shop where he worked his entire life will go to the highest bidder.
Discussing plans to relocate the business, he leaned against a wooden countertop built by his father, Victor Youngaitis. He smiled, one tattooed arm holding his family scrapbook. Flipping through its pages, he stopped at a black-and-white photograph of himself as a child, crouching over a baby elephant.
Youngaitis explained that when he was a boy, he and his father would collect dead animals from an exotic pet dealer in Lower Manhattan. His childhood memories were filled with lions, tigers, zebras and polar bears. Victor Youngaitis would get a call from his pet dealer, as in the case of the baby elephant, that an animal had died. He would rush out, son in tow, to collect the body.
“I used to have the best show-and-tells,” John Youngaitis said, as he recalled his childhood. “They would send me around to all the other classrooms with the stuff I brought in.”
At the height of taxidermy’s popularity, during the Victorian era late in the 19th century, a dozen taxidermists worked in Brooklyn. Even Theodore Roosevelt, New York City’s police commissioner and later governor of New York and president of the United States, had a taxidermy studio in his home, in which he and his son would dissect lizards.
In 1919, a Dutch immigrant named Milton J. Hofmann opened a taxidermy studio at 989 Gates Ave. in Brooklyn. In 1937, he stuffed an elephant, which he kept in his storefront window and used as the M. J. Hofmann Company’s mascot in advertisements. By 1950, the company had a nationally distributed catalog. Using a yellow and blue form inside the front cover, any animal enthusiast could order skin from an African lioness for $7, a Catalina Island goat for $17, a white swan for $15 or an artificial hummingbird eye for four cents.
Youngaitis said that during the early 1940s, his father became so transfixed by the M. J. Hofmann Company window display that he dropped out of high school and started learning taxidermy. He went on to work for M. J. Hofmann, mounting a polar bear for the famous window display. He later opened up his own studio in 1958 at 964 Jamaica Ave. in Cypress Hills. Youngaitis was four years old.
Fifty-three years later, John Youngaitis has boarded up his father’s shop window to deter local residents from taking target practice at his merchandise. He said he had to constantly replace the glass because it was littered with bullet holes. When he meets people, he has to assure them that his profession is not illegal, a query he said he has grown to expect.
“I mean, these are people with nothing else to do,” Youngaitis said, laughing as he listened to his answering machine.
“I am calling because I need my girlfriend stuffed,” joked the voice of an adolescent boy. “She’s terrible.”
Youngaitis says most of his business these days comes from buck-hunters upstate. He charges a minimum of $350 per deer, mounting only the head. Even at the peak of hunting season, Youngaitis still has to work part-time as a plumber to make ends meet. He says he doesn’t remember his father ever having to work a second job, but the industry changed over the past 30 years into a niche market rather than a global fad. Maybe, Youngaitis says, it is because the public perception of taxidermy has changed.
Media portrayals like the character of Norman Bates, the amateur taxidermist in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” created an image of taxidermy that does not reflect the actual practice. In reality, it is a painstaking process that requires as much love for living animals as it does respect for the dead, said Melissa Milgrom, author of “Still Life: Adventures in Taxidermy.”
Youngaitis explained it takes him at least a day’s work to get an animal in the right position. First, the skin is removed and salted for preservation. Then it has to be sent to a tanner to be tanned. Only then is it ready to be fit to form. Originally, in the 19th century, each mold was made from wood and the animal’s original skeleton. Today, John Youngaitis has only to flip though the Van Dykes Taxidermy Supply catalog to order the forms he needs.
Even with technological advances, the trade still requires an acute attention to detail and the patience to work on a specimen for hours on end. The goal has remained the same since the early days of the craft–to flawlessly render a biological narrative–a window into the natural world. Sadly, even talented taxidermists like John Youngaitis, have had to work second jobs to make ends meet.
“It’s really a profession that’s anachronistic,” said Milgrom. “The public wants robotic dinosaurs and Imax theaters. Taxidermy is such a laborious process and there’s no way around it. Everything else in our culture is getting faster and faster. Taxidermy is the tactile opposite of a world that communicates in bits and bytes.”
Despite a modern desire for high-tech animatronics, taxidermy is making a comeback in small enclaves of Brooklyn. The Observatory in Gowanus offers mummification classes on Sunday afternoons in which each student crafts their own animal mummy. The same gallery hosted an anthropomorphic taxidermy class last Valentine’s Day which sold out. Nearly every bar in Williamsburg, or so it seems, has some form of taxidermy on its walls. Last December, Brooklyn’s Secret Science Club hosted its fifth annual taxidermy contest at the Bell House. Black Gold Records, which opened last year in Carroll Gardens has a record store, coffee shop and taxidermy museum.
Youngaitis says he’s been able to tap into a new taxidermy market for what he calls, “the yuppie types.” He offers restorations at a low cost for customers who want to preserve their antique taxidermy or perfect their homemade mummies.
Milgrom believes this resurgence of taxidermy is due to biological scarcity.
“The Victorians were fascinated by nature because it was exotic,” she said. “Now we have this mass extinction going on, animals have become exotic again. We are acting very much like Victorians only we aren’t totally aware of it yet.”
Youngaitis says people hire him because they want to retain memories. Signaling to a taxidermied pet poodle, he explained that some people build very strong relationships with animals. Taxidermy, he says, allows people to reminisce.
“It brings you back to the moment,” he said. “That’s the whole idea of it.”