Bob Gnarly, as he is known, hangs on the wall behind Adam Rust's desk as evidence that the best-loved taxidermy is, much like a pet, in the eye of the beholder.
The giant moose head, several decades old, is missing an eye and its antlers, which were sloppily hacked off. Tufts of gray fur hang loose.
Rust, drawn to old Bob's neglect, wanted him because no one else did.
"We consider that we're rescuing the animals," said Rust, whose Chicago "antiques and oddities" shop Woolly Mammoth is filled with creatures long dead and mounted. "We'd rather rescue them than have them wind up in the dumpster."
As everything old world becomes cool again, vintage taxidermy is seeing a renaissance as hip decor. The trend began at least a decade ago among edgy hipsters in Brooklyn and Paris, but in recent years has caught on more broadly, said Rachel Poliquin, a scholar and author of "The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and Cultures of Longing" (Penn State Press), published last year.
"Part of the whole interest right now has to do with the romance of the vintage that's going on, the lord-of-the-manor aesthetic of bow ties, tweed, hunter boots," said Poliquin, who delved into taxidermy as part of her post-doctoral fellowship in the history department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also runs the blog Ravishing Beasts: Taxidermy (www.ravishingbeasts.com).
"And it can't be unrelated to our whole fascination with the undead that's going on with zombies and all that," she added.
Aside from hunters who display their trophies, not since the nature-loving Victorian era a century ago has there been such a mainstream interest in taxidermy, which can range from wildlife specimens to delicate birds posed under a glass dome, Poliquin said. Other styles include anthropomorphic tableaux (think mice in dresses drinking tea) or rogue taxidermy, where animal parts are combined to create mythical creatures (think the jackalope, a jack rabbit with an antelope's horns).
While some retailers have riffed on the revival with faux taxidermy, such as deer heads made of papier-mache, vintage taxidermy of real once-breathing animals is the "ultimate anti-modern object" — unique, intensely sensual and incapable of mass production, Poliquin said.
In home design, pairing the clean, modern lines of something like a Barcelona chair with a creature on the wall beside it can be striking, Poliquin said. Other people like it for the kitsch factor, akin to a velvet Elvis painting.
Different styles of taxidermy appeal to different tastes. At the Chicago shop Brimfield, mounted deer heads, slick trophy fish and hanging pheasants mingle with the shop's signature vintage plaid blankets and retro mid-century furnishings, an aesthetic customers find appealing because "it tends to remind them of their grandparents' house," said owner Julie Fernstrom.
Fernstrom, who estimates most of her taxidermy dates to the 1950s and '60s, said the animals usually are destined for "a cabin or a man cave." She finds most of the pieces at antiques malls and is selling some on consignment for a former furrier.
At Woolly Mammoth, you can get a deer hoof for $25, a rattlesnake skin for $90, a wild turkey for $250 or a full standing pronghorn for $1,800. A pink-eyed albino deer head, which had been part of the collection at the Wyobraska Wildlife Museum before Rust bought it at an auction this winter, goes for $485. The most expensive creature at the shop is an 80-year-old giraffe, preserved from the chest up, that goes by Sir Neckalaus and costs $8,000.
The fastest sellers, Rust said, are the "little cute things," like foxes, squirrels, bobcats, opossums, raccoons and minxes.
"Anything smaller than a breadbox sells," he said.
If this all sounds horribly gross and creepy, purveyors of vintage pieces remind you that these animals were already dead, either hunted down long ago, hit by cars or perished in zoos of natural causes. The knee-jerk reaction against taxidermy can seem hypocritical among those who wear leather shoes, Poliquin notes.
Because having an animal mounted costs much more than its resale value, people are not going out and killing animals for the taxidermy market, Rust said.
"A lot of my customers collect taxidermy because they hate hunting," Rust said. "They think it's cruel, and they take pity for the poor little creature that was hunted and want to adopt it."
Some artists are producing new taxidermy with salvage in mind.
Beth Beverly, who specializes in wearable pieces like hats made of a squirrel or charms made of chicken legs, started doing her own taxidermy after seeing too many birds crash into building windows in downtown Philadelphia, and it broke her heart to think they might just rot there.