Shannah Warwick stroked her cat, Goulash, around the neck and sighed.
"She was a diva in life, and I told her for years that I was going to stuff her," the fashion designer said of her beloved, now three and a half years passed.
"She feels most like herself around the jowls," she said, stroking Goulash who sat on a satin pillow with a paw poised on a crystal ball, an entry in the second annual Philadelphia alt-taxidermy contest.
Taxidermists, collectors and artists presented their specimens for judgment on expertise of preparation and creativity of self-expression. The event showcased pieces utilizing animals in ways beyond the typical wall trophy or natural representation.
Twelve participants took turns presenting the stories of their creations, which were arranged along the course of Keystone Mini Golf in Philly's Kensington neighborhood. Keystone owners Drew Ferry and William Cannon said, from behind the counter, the the event stood out from the engagement and birthday parties the 3-month-old business has held to date.
A sharply dressed audience of about a hundred regulars in the alt-taxidermy community gathered to admire the skill of artists from New York to Indiana.
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Wilder Duncan, a Brooklyn designer and taxidermist, displayed a "squirttle;" a squirrel carcass outfitted in a turtle shell.
"I enjoy making monsters and have fantastic ideas about alternative universes and an interest in alternative evolution humor," he explained.
A mouse, brought to taxidermist Sammy Jane Blankley from the Philly streets, was a gift from her fiancé.
"He said he knew if he told me he saw it I'd ask him why he didn't bring it to me," said Blankly. "That's love."
The mouse appeared in the competition drinking from a Pabst Blue Ribbon can with a straw.
At the center of the event, licensed taxidermist Beth Beverly, owner of Kensington's Diamond Tooth Taxidermy, excitedly introduced and prodded participants during their presentations. "I'm looking for a good story," she said, "that's what wows me."
Beverly felt driven to organize the event for the first time last year, when she noticed there had been a drop-off in the events that used to take place in Brooklyn, and knew the community, although niche, would gather.
"It's these compassionate, darling human beings who inspire me." She's clear that while some might think what they do is disturbing, many of the animals used are vintage or have died of natural causes. No one in the competition condones killing for sport.
"These animals give me everything they have, so I try to portray them with reverence," said South Philly's Kristie Pagliaro Matt, who skinned, cleaned, stuffed and mounted two baby opossums. The babies were embellished with gold frames and wore crowns for the event, in a piece titled "American Royalty."
"It's dirty work and you have to have a strong stomach, but it's no grosser than what you do in the kitchen." She said anatomy, dissection and the intersection of art and science have always been her interests.
Nikki Virbitsky started working with animal paws when her father brought her a box of castoffs from a taxidermist nicknamed "the pig." She paired the mink, beaver and badger paws with beads from her grandmother's costume jewelry to create surprising pieces. "People'll come up and be like 'what a beautiful - oh, is that dead?!' and pull back," said Virbitsky. The pieces she presented honor her deceased father and grandmother.
Similarly, Karen Nemes, alt-taxidermist, mother of two, "crucified" a squirrel to demonstrate how much nature suffers for the sins of humanity. The piece simultaneously honored a friend dealing with issues of gender identity by including headlines about hate crimes on the piece.
She said the squirrel, mummified and wrapped in barbed wire, most certainly contains her own blood, too. Nemes said she's known as "the crazy roadkill lady" in her hometown of South Bend, Indiana, and wishes there was an app that would inform her of the dead animals lying around.
First-time judge, artist, and employee of Philadelphia's Mütter museum Evi Numen said that besides seamlessness of preparation, she and the two other judges were looking for innovation and strangeness. After all the presentations, third prize, a gift certificate to Creeper Gallery in New Hope, Pa., went to Virbitsky's wearable creations; second, $100 in taxidermy supplies, and voted crowd favorite, went to Pagliaro Matt's baby opossums. A scene of rabbits in a Victorian nursery by Laura Parker took first prize, $200 in supplies.