Susan Mullins has a bobcat in her freezer.
She's had a bobcat in there before, so this isn't anything particularly new, but she won't have one again. So in a way, the bobcat denotes the end of an era. Mullins has decided that the way big animals are trapped just won't work for her.
"Now I know this isn’t important," she tells me on the phone from her home in Fort Campbell, Tennessee, "but they’re laying traps for the bigger animals and to me, they’re not merciful." She couches her opinions behind a bit of anxiety and a slight Southern accent as she tells me that trappers catch large animals by snagging a foot and then forcing them to wait until someone comes to find them struggling on the ground and puts a bullet in their head or snaps their neck. Susan Mullins does not like this, because it makes her feel sad.
But the squirrels, well, those are fine. Squirrels are a nuisance, anyway.
Mullins makes taxidermy art out of squirrels (and sometimes skunks and chipmunks). She poses them and dresses them up in clothing that she buys—sometimes from the American girl store, and sometimes from vintage stores, but never Barbie clothes because "Barbie is way too skinny for squirrels." She doesn't make the clothes herself because she's not crafty, and she doesn't sew. Instead, her art is one built on pure enjoyment.
"Some people call what I do taxidermy art, but some of 'em call it novelty or rogue," Mullins said. "A lot of people call it folk art, but I just call it my hobby."
For a hobby, though, Mullins creations are pretty involved. The skins of squirrels that she uses to make her art come from a man who lives in Georgia who eats squirrels. That man skins the squirrels and sends them to Mullins's friend in Missouri, who tans the skins so that Mullins can turn them into art. Sometimes the squirrels don't come from Georgia, though. Sometimes Mullins gets her skins from accidents. She got two chipmunk skins when they drowned in her neighbor's pool, and she has a squirrel skin from when one fell off a power line in front of her house and died when he hit the ground. One the dog caught, and one was hit by a car. All of those squirrels got tanned by her friend in Missouri so Mullins could use them.
Once she has the skins ready to go, Mullins uses store-bought taxidermy forms to create the base of her animal. Sometimes she has to adjust the forms, though. Squirrel forms don't just come positioned like Mae West or a quarterback, and that's the kind of art Mullins wants to make. So she'll chop off the arm of a form, and build a differently positioned one out of clay and wire. Once she has her base in the right position, she has to deal with all the details.
She adjusts the form around the mouth and eyes, adds wire to hold up the tail, and puts clay in the feet, and on the end of the nose. Then she works on the skin and gets everything pinned in place, stapling paper to the ears so they look good when dried. Then the skin has to be sewn up a the openings and blow dried.
If she finds an old taxidermy animal at a thrift store, that has a missing foot or a broken face or some other kind of problem, Mullins will take it home with her and try to give it a new life by giving it shoes, or sometimes a mustache to hide a messed-up mouth.
Mullins didn't watch a taxidermy DVD or video and she didn't take any classes. She just kind of taught herself.
Mullins grew up on a farm where she had "everything from tarantulas to horses." She lived her whole life out in the country. As an adult, Mullins owned a petting zoo in Texas and bred and showed dogs professionally for 30 years. "I thought I would be grooming dogs when I was 85," Mullins said. "I didn’t think I would be a has-been."
But a few years ago Mullins had a breakdown. "I got shaken so bad that I couldn’t even shave a poodles foot or fix a top knot anymore. I was diagnosed after dozens of doctors and combinations of medications with clinical depression, acute anxiety, and a panic disorder," she said.
Her tremors made it impossible for her to work, and her anxiety crippled her. For five years, she barely left her house. "I didn’t go to the grocery store, or at least I didn’t get out of the car in the parking lot when I got there. I spent like a year and half laying across the foot of my bed about 21 hours a day, couldn’t get up, couldn’t do anything. I just lost my mind there for a while."
Her medicines made things worse instead of better, and she stopped taking them. Her mind came back to her and even though she's "always been a real wired person anyway," she felt like she became herself again. She even tried to learn to use the computer from her son but she was "totally illiterate" so it was difficult. She did manage to end up on eBay and that's where she saw the bats.
"I thought “Oh! Wow! What if I took one of those bats and put it in a display?” and that’s what started this whole thing," Mullins said. "I’m never one to not go all the way."
When Mullins talks about her creations she uses pronouns. "She's a beautiful one," she tells me about my personal favorite of her creations: a squirrel dressed as Paris Hilton holding a tiny dog and a cd player. But for the rest of our conversation she doesn't use another adjective like "beautiful." Instead she says "silly," "hilarious," "hysterical." She knows that her taxidermy animals aren't serious, but they aren't meant to be.
She's not famous for her work, but she does have some fans. The man who sells her the forms was the first one to buy one of her creations. He put it in his store, and later bought another one. There's also one of her squirrels in a museum in Oklahoma City. "I don't know what it's doin' there," Mullins says. "But I said they could put it in the museum. It doesn't matter to me." Some man in London wanted to put one of her creations in a book and she said okay and sent him some pictures.
On eBay, where Mullins sells most of her creations, she has 100% positive feedback and 180 positive reviews. Most of them just say things like "•:*¨¨*:•GREAT BUYER•:*¨¨*:•FIVE STAR EBAYER•:*¨¨*:•HIGHLY RECOMMENDED•:*¨¨*:•" but some are more specific. A person who bought the squirrel that Mullins positioned like an alligator wrestler (after a man she saw on TV), wrote that they commissioned a second squirrel. Someone who bought a "busty-sultry" squirrel wrote that Susan is a blessing and so is her work.
The squirrels all cost between 75 and 250 dollars depending on how much money Mullins spent making them. “I try to price them so that if I used 100 dollars on supplies, I make 100 dollars on that squirrel so I can afford to do the next one.” she said.
But Susan's not trying to make this her career. She says she's just trying to have fun. Between her anxiety and her husband's medical problems, she only wants the squirrels to be a hobby. She sells about 5 or 6 a month—more during the holiday season—but it's hard for her to say goodbye to her creations. She and her husband like having them around the house.
"These animals," she tells me when I ask her why she spends her time making them, "they don’t get sick. You don’t have to feed them. You don’t have to clean up after them, and they’re still and quiet. After grooming dogs and wrestling them all my life, it’s nice to have a little animal there that you can just move around."
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.