One of the things that I have always tried to do, ever since I started doing artistic and spiritual things with animal parts in the 1990s, is to try and use secondhand ones as much as possible. Early on while still in the Midwest, I haunted antique shops for old mink fur coats, and one of my best finds ever was a very old bear skin rug for $50! Since then, I’ve found more sources for old fur garments, taxidermy, even old Davy Crockett hats with real raccoon tails stitched to fabric tops. And I still generally prefer secondhand over new.
However, there are different degrees of “secondhand”. There’s secondhand as in the antique bobcat rug that I turned into a dance costume. And then there are the tails I use in my art, which mostly come from furriers, who don’t generally use the heads, tails or feet of hides, so other people like me make stuff out of them. And that’s a different sort of re-use.
See, if something is left over from food or subsistence hunting/trapping or the garment industry and never had a specific post-death use before, it’s really just a discard. Whoever had it first (other than the animal who wore it) didn’t actually do anything with it other than toss it away, or offer it to be sold to craftspeople like me. That’s using every part of the animal, but saying it’s secondhand is like saying that the bags of dried corn husks left over from food-grade corn that are used for tamales or crafts are secondhand. Yes, it’s great that the processor of the corn can sell the husks instead of tossing them, but they’re still technically a new product. In the same ways, the bundles of fox and other tails that are left over when fur coats are made are new as well. Granted, they’re not being incinerated or tossed in a landfill, but I wouldn’t call them secondhand.
So what do I consider more properly secondhand?
–Old fur and leather coats that I cut up to make into other stuff
–Taxidermy bought from a taxidermist’s private customer, not the taxidermist directly
–Animal parts that were owned by another private individual as part of a collection, or destashed from art supplies
–Other random items that were previously owned by another private individual, ranging from real-feather feather dusters to novelty armadillo purses
Why is this important? Because some people feel very strongly for spiritual and/or ethical reasons that the animal parts they work with in their spirituality should be secondhand. Leftovers from the fur industry are great to be reused, and I am happy to incorporate them in my work, but they are still new, not secondhand. And for some people, that’s not far-enough removed for their comfort, which I can certainly understand.
I feel it is important to make the distinction between discard and secondhand for honesty’s sake. I have seen sellers of animal parts at various places on the internet claiming that the heads, tails and other new discards they get from the same sources I do are “secondhand”. And, caveat emptor, there are sellers who will even claim something is not only secondhand but vintage in order to try to seem more ethical. Not all sellers do this, of course, and there are some people who do offer genuine vintage and otherwise secondhand animal parts; additionally, honest misidentification can happen. However, I feel those who are deliberately misrepresenting things with dubious stories are doing a huge disservice to the customers who trust them as well as to the spirits of the animals they misrepresent.**
And that latter part, about the animal spirits, is especially important to me. My whole reason for starting this form of artwork over a decade ago was to give the skin spirits and their remains a better afterlife than being a trophy or status symbol, and that is still one of the central goals of my work. If I deliberately sell a farmed fox tail as wild–or for that matter, as a “natural death”***–or a new one as vintage, it dishonors the spirit, the customer, and my art. It is both a spiritual and ethical issue, one that I feel needs more discussion.
**It might be enough to make some go vegan!
***A postscript on that whole “natural death” thing and related topics: I occasionally will have people contact me and ask whether I have any animal remains from animals–such as wolves–that died naturally, either in the wild or a zoo or other facility, or at the very least were accidental roadkill, or were “nuisance kills”. If an animal dies in the wild, it will almost always become food immediately; the best you can hope for is to find bones and maybe a scrap of rotted hide, for the most part. Zoos and wildlife preserves generally don’t sell the remains of their deceased inmates; they are usually either cremated or donated to science (and here’s a great article about dead zoo animals for your reading pleasure!). Roadkill often is too beat up to do more than salvage some bones, and enough states have laws against picking up roadkill that it’s a legal risk anyway. As to nuisance kills? Well, sure, there may be some use to killing a coyote as part of population control, but hunters and trappers help keep the population down, too–“population control” is just another term for “officially enacted hunting and trapping”. Ethically, it’s really not much better than regular trophy or food hunting.
****Somewhat related, and continuing the discussion on ethically-sourced art supplies, is this great bit of research on Fire Mountain Gems’ suppliers. Since a lot of people buy jewelry supplies from them, to include stone and metal beads and findings, this is good info to have!