NEWPORT, Maine — Dissecting animals in high school science classes probably dates back as far as high school science classes. Students who put dead animals back together again are much more unusual.
In fact, according to Nokomis Regional High School teacher Howard Whitten, his Museum Sciences-Taxidermy class is one of a kind in the United States. Whitten, who has been a member of numerous taxidermy-related boards and committees at the state and national levels, said he looks at taxidermy as one part art, one part meditation and one part sustenance.
“I’m trying to expose the kids to a good career, good art and good relaxation,” said Whitten, who started teaching the class 15 years ago after its successful stint as an after-school club. He never dreamed it would grow to the extent it has.
Dozens of student projects, mostly birds, crown the upper edge of the classroom. Some are tranquil on a branch; others are in full talon-bearing attack mode. Glass-fronted cabinets hold more animals, presumably because there’s no place to hang them. Most horizontal surfaces hold wire mesh, plywood, scalpels, saws, drills, foam animal models, leaves and grasses, paints and other taxidermy tools. Future projects in clear plastic bags, whole animals with their natural insides, fill two freezers.
Modern taxidermy uses only what’s visible of an animal. Organs, muscles and bones are replaced with foam models ordered from catalogs. Piles of those catalogs are everywhere, some opened to pages depicting dozens of osprey poses or white-tailed deer mounts.
But before noticing any of those things, a visitor to Whitten’s classroom will see the two muscle-bound lions in the center of the room — the female standing tall with her paws on the male’s back — and the gigantic-horned kudu.
The big animals are part of a 2004 donation by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., to Nokomis and College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor.
“One day I got a call from someone and they said, ‘If you can get a semi [truck] down here in four days, we’ll fill it up for you,’” said Whitten. “I don’t think they thought I could actually do it, but I did it.” There are two red stags, a caribou, a bighorn sheep, a grizzly bear, an ostrich, a hippopotamus, some elephant hides and numerous other artifacts. Most of them were mounted at least 40 years ago, so the students are fixing them up in hopes that they can go back on display where they belong.
Some of those animals crowd the second-floor boys restroom, which is a bit of a problem since the boys room is needed for, well, boys. It’s a temporary solution to what Whitten said is the program’s biggest challenge: a shortage of storage and display space.
What’s not lacking is enthusiasm from the students who take the class, some of them as part of their art requirement for graduation.
Local taxidermists Marc Godin and Dave Cote, who volunteered in Whitten’s class Tuesday, led an intricate bobcat project and the construction of a sturdy wooden base for the two lions.
Kayla DeRaps, a junior from St. Albans, said she enjoys the class so much she’s working on her own projects at home, including the tanning of a deer hide on her living room floor.
“Anything I can skin and is dead is kind of cool,” said DeRaps. “I’m the tomboy kind of girl. I love hunting and fishing.”
Ethan Curtis, a senior from Palmyra, said he doubts taxidermy will be his profession, but he expects it to become a hobby.
“This is interesting stuff,” said Curtis. “Taking this class is a very unique opportunity.”
Despite economic pressures and an ever dwindling number of hunters and fishermen, Whitten and his two guest taxidermists insist it’s a fine way to make a living. Dave Cote should know, having retired from the business almost two years ago.
“It’s going to take five or 10 years of putting out a good product, but you can make it,” he said. “You’re just going to have to work at it. I loved my job for all 33 years I did it.”
Nokomis Principal Mary Nadeau said she supports the program because of the unique experiences it has created for so many students.
“It’s been a lot of fun,” said Nadeau. “You never know what you’re going to find in that classroom. Or the boys bathroom.”