Written by Dotty Winters

Health

Get stuffed

After years spent avoiding museums and sprinting tearfully past antique shops, Dotty Winters explains how she learned to stop worrying and love* taxidermy.
(*tolerate)

A stuffed fox wearing sunglasses

Image by Linda Newnham.

Five years ago I was scheduled to speak at a big conference in Edinburgh. I was late: very, very late. I found the venue (some museum I’d never heard of) and ran into the reception area, where one of the organisers was waiting for me. She handed me a pack of papers, which I then attempted to leaf through while following her at high speed in clickety-clackety heels. Then, for the first time, I took a proper look around me. And froze. I was standing in the middle of what appeared to be a dead zoo. I was surrounded, completely surrounded, by taxidermy.

The next thing I properly remember was that the paramedic had terrible breath and a very kind smile. I did eventually deliver my talk that day, after a small amount of agenda re-jigging. In order to do this I entered the venue using the external fire escape and crawled along a lighting gantry carrying my high heels. I then had to sit for four hours in the auditorium, desperate for a wee, until leaving in the same fashion. And it was still better than walking through that moth-eaten menagerie.

I’ve had a terrible phobia of taxidermy for most of my life. Symptoms ranged from cold chills and a sick feeling, right through to full on hyperventilate-till-I-pass-out panic attacks. As phobias go, fear of dead stuffed things is at the more ridiculous end of a spectrum which, by definition, only includes irrational fears. It doesn’t sound like it should have too much impact on your life, but it does. It rules out un-researched trips to pubs, hotels, antique shops, museums, stately homes, hunting lodges (who doesn’t love a hunting lodge?) and, as it turns out, New Zealand. My trip to New Zealand was disastrous. It seems that hunting is a national sport there: they stick dead deer in the windows of sports shops in place of trainers and tennis balls. It’s not unusual to find gazelle heads in place of coat hooks. During my holiday I went white water rafting, black water rafting and cliff-top quad biking just to give my body a break from all the adrenaline.

While in Wellington, I visited Te Papa Tongarewa, the National Museum. I sent Mr W. in to check that the route to the information desk was safe, and had a lengthy conversation with a museum employee who helped me to plan a route through the building that would allow me to avoid the dead things. Sadly, despite his assurances and attention to detail, he had not been informed about a special exhibit on the top floor, a children’s exhibit about mystery stories. This consisted of several rooms in which you had to search for clues. It also had a stuffed, roaring polar bear that jumped out at you when you opened the door of a wardrobe. You can say what you like about the spacious, light-filled architecture of Te Papa, but the screams don’t half echo.

“Symptoms ranged from cold chills and a sick feeling, right through to full on hyperventilate-till-I-pass-out panic attacks.”

I have no idea where my phobia came from. My Dad swears blind he never threw any taxidermy as me (even though it sounds vaguely like the kind of thing a Dad might do), and I have no memory of a specific event that triggered all this. I do distinctly remember screaming my way round Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum aged about six, and having to be removed from the Jorvik Viking Centre because I was convinced the lifelike wax figures were taxidermy people.

Over the years the terror waxed and waned. On a good day I could run past the entrance to an antique shop at full pelt without crying. On a bad day I didn’t like actual living animals if they stood still too long (really).

These days, however, I’m fixed. I can now mooch around stately homes with gay abandon. Determined not to pass the ridiculousness on to my kids, I finally decided to seek out a decent phobia therapist.

The treatment combined cognitive behavioural therapy (which helped me to explore my responses), hypnotherapy (to relax me enough so I could talk about it) and relaxation techniques to help me cope better when I did bump into stuffed monstrosities. The relaxation techniques included something called EFT (Emotional Freedom Technique) which involves tapping on different parts of the body – you may have seen people do this in airports, or in situations that they find stressful. I’ll never be sure which part of the therapy made the difference: for all I know the simple act of handing over a big wedge of money to get cured might have done the job. But either way, within a few sessions my anxiety levels were improved, and within a few more I was able to cope in a much wider variety of situations.

I still don’t like taxidermy, and I’ve still never been able to watch Night at the Museum. But I’ve finally been able to accept that the probability of a long dead tiger coming back to life and savaging me is manageably low. It’s embarrassing to have been so affected by this for so long, and I’m glad I’m cured. People who have never had a phobia can find it incredibly hard to understand how you can be fully aware that a fear is irrational and yet still be terrified.

Interestingly, the therapist also accidentally fixed my relatively mild arachnophobia, which recently led to me being able to hold a tarantula at a zoo. That’s how I found out I have an unusually severe tarantula-hair allergy. The skin did eventually grow back, but I haven’t hugged any taxidermy yet. Just in case.

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Written by Dotty Winters

Nascent stand-up, fan of fancy words, purveyor of occasional wrongness, haphazard but enthusiastic parent, science-fan, apprentice-feminist.