Howard Whitten makes dead animals speak. It’s what a good taxidermist does—or a good science teacher, for that matter. And Whitten is both at Nokomis Regional High School in Newport, Maine, using taxidermy to identify the inner workings of animals for his biology students and showing his taxidermy class how to remove them.
“I wanted a chance to work with the dead animals,” says Mallory McAvoy, a senior in the taxidermy class, one of only a few such courses in the nation. “It’s definitely something I think everyone should get to experience; it’s different and unique.” The students in the taxidermy class and after-school club spend part of their days preparing the animals, learning about their habitats, and then reconstructing them.
Whitten’s taxidermy students aren’t the only ones who benefit from the specimens he’s scraped off the highway or begged from hunters and game wardens over the years. His biology classes get to learn about animals from their actual preserved bodies, not simply from two-dimensional slides and textbooks. And with the help of Whitten’s honors research students, who take their knowledge into the community, the animals get a much wider audience. “Everything we mount here goes out to schools, museums, and nursing homes,” he says. When they donate preserved specimens to elementary school classrooms, Whitten’s honors taxidermy students teach the kids about each animal and let them help mount it.
He now has a lot more subjects to work with. This fall, the Smithsonian Institution donated more than 400 rare animal carcasses from all over the world, including mountain lions, a grizzly bear, and a bighorn sheep. When all the preserving, stuffing, and mounting are done, Whitten hopes to create an animal library, which will lend specimens for museum display, school instruction, and other educational purposes. Eventually he’d like to create a dedicated museum where the entire collection could be displayed. But for now, Whitten says, he’s just looking to pique people’s interest through taxidermy and science. “That’s what we’re supposed to do in education—get kids excited.”