Many a Madison Avenue ambler has now had the experience: You pass Greenberg bakery, and are still considering whether to double back for a black-and-white cookie, when your neck snaps like whiplash. Was that a wild boar? On top of a deer? Wearing a broach?
Yes, it was all that.
Alexis Bittar is a jewelry store between 82nd and 83rd whose window display features bizarre and bejeweled taxidermy. Shocked and astonished at first sight, I never got up the gumption to actually go in and ask about it. I took to simply walking by, thumbing my blackberry, increasingly jaded, thinking, “Oh, look, a mountain lion with cabochon earrings. I wonder what’s for dinner.”
Deep down, I also thought, “That can’t possibly be real.”
Given my new blog, I feel a heightened sense of responsibility. So I went in and investigated at the end of my evening dog walk.
The salesperson eyed Plato the Whippet suspiciously. I found this rude, as she herself was standing next to an eight-foot-tall Ostrich with bangle bracelets around his ankles.
Here were her answers:
Yes, the animals are real.
No, the owner doesn’t see a problem with it.
Yes, people ask about it all the time.
The point is art.
Researching further, I found the animals are made by a guy named Frank J. Zitz who runs an outfit called the Taxidermy Museum. And if you are the kind of person who likes to kill animals and preserve them as trophies to express your inner Sarah Palin, he’s just the fella for you. This guy won’t simply mount a deer head for your wall. He’ll give you a deer head with personality— a penetrating gaze, tilt of horns and crane of neck like it’s vamping for Richard Avedon. If you don’t fancy the creature you yourself have killed, Mr. Zitz will blend it with another one. Voila! The Zeldabeast! Mr. Zitz is not just taxidermy. He’s a taxidermy performance artist.
So much so that last November famous chef Daniel Boulud retained Mr. Zitz to provide waterfowl centerpieces for his annual Game Bird Gala for high rollers. They nestled in copses, strutted across heaths, and banked in faux flight.
Before any hunter types point out my fundamental hypocrisy here, allow me to beat them to the punch:
Yes. I am okay with whatever yummy thing, animal, vegetable or mineral, Chef Boulud wishes to serve me on a plate. I am not okay with the sibling of that yummy thing stuffed and mounted, no matter how artistically, next to my plate. Nor am I okay with the stuffed and mounted thing blinged out and displayed in a jewelry store window. Everyone’s got a line, and that’s where I’m drawing mine. I’ve accepted my carnivore status. But I have no need to take my top-of-the-food-chain football and spike it in the endzone.
If you are even mildly PETA-minded Cruising Mr. Zitz’s website is anywhere from creepy to profoundly disturbing. I did not know that it was legal to hunt elephants. But evidently you can. And you can bring them back to Mr. Zitz. And have them stuffed (which, to be precise, does not actually involve stuffing, but rather skinning, and then stretching the hide over a model made from a cast of the original beast). And then you can put your elephant in your diorama trophy room so he looks like he’s lounging under a tree next to elk, lion and warthog—all flayed and mounted in the same lifelike fashion.
At one time, I lived in Michigan, and dreaded November 15th, which, for the uninitiated, is “gun opener.” I had to drape my horse in an orange sheet for fear some drunken sportsman might come along, “Hey! Look at that big bay deer. Must weigh nine-hundred pounds!” My ex-spouse and I had countless arguments about the time, money and testosterone-laden culture surrounding the season. Needless to say, as I mulled the universe of topics I might get drawn into by launching this Upper East Side blog, the politics of hunting was not among them. What better proof could there be of the old aphorism, “What you resist, persists”?
I can imagine it’s hard for a jewelry designer to stand out. To—say—market her Crystal Encrusted Gunmetal Collar Necklace and distinguish it amongst the hordes of other crystal encrusted gunmetal collars. Yet when I saw that choker on a Zebra (Yes. You can hunt them too. Just Google it. African Sky Hunting will be happy to help you out.) those fetching stripes sure did set it off.
The shock-value-as-marketing approach reminds me a bit of Lady Gaga in her meat dress. The cultural statement of which I never understood, until maybe now.
The Gaga’s dress, by the way, is being preserved for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame through a process of— what else?—taxidermy.