Beth Johnson believes that every life has a story. Among the nails, pins, knives, and other tools scattered about her workbench lies the colorful, limp-necked carcass of a parrot. Johnson doesn’t know the bird’s name, but she knows that it was a beloved pet for 22 years, that it died of natural causes, and according to the hand-written and blood-smudged ticket, the bereaved owner wants Johnson to give the animal in death what it rarely took in life—flight. That’s Johnson’s job, as she sees it. To, in a way, honor the creature’s existence. She knows that some people think taxidermy is inhumane or at the very least revolting. With the former, Johnson respectfully disagrees; with the latter . . . well . . . she admits it’s not for the squeamish. Today, as her coworker cleans deer skins with a paring knife, giving the air a sweet, gamey tinge, Johnson slices open the bird’s bright yellow belly, inserts a foam-and-wire form, and stitches birdy back up, skillfully concealing the seam beneath the feathers, which she preens with large tweezers. She began learning the craft 26 years ago when, as a fed-up schoolteacher, she answered a “help wanted” sign in the Lithonia yard of what she later learned was a taxidermist. There she practiced skinning and stuffing what seemed like every creature that once walked, crawled, swam, or flew. She also learned to be a storyteller. “Anyone can hang a deer head on the wall,” she says. She prides herself on researching an animal’s habitat and staging wildlife scenes. Her showroom is a library of vignettes, including a timber wolf leaping over a barbed-wire fence and a bear cub pawing at a beehive, complete with insect exoskeletons dotting the mammal’s snout. Of course, she’ll mount antlers and hog heads for hunters who just want a trophy. She also does pet cremations. But some clients, like this parrot’s owner, want something more. And so Johnson lovingly fluffs the bright blue tail feathers and spreads its lifeless wings.
This article originally appeared in Atlanta magazine.
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