Taxidermist makes critters come alive SOUTHEAST Sykesville * Eldersburg * Gamber

REAL-LIFE MONSTERS

November 10, 1992|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,Staff Writer

Name your critter, and Rachael L. Riffee will make it for you.

She can produce the real thing or a fantasy.

Ms. Riffee, 22, a collector of skulls, bones and skins, specializes in bird and mammal taxidermy.

The walls of her studio, in the basement of her Berrett home, are lined with the mounted heads of foxes, deer and an occasional composite monster created from leftover parts.

With an artist's eye -- she will graduate from the Maryland Institute College of Art next month -- she uses her training to

re-create a realistic animal or to conjure up hair-raising creatures.

Among her favorites is "robo-coon," a snarling puppet made with a fur-covered, modified animal skull. The operator can move the puppet's glowing eyes and pointed ears and bare its ferocious teeth.

"My monsters are one-of-a-kind; each skull is different," she said. "I would like to try monster mass production and get the price down to below $100. Then, maybe I could sell them."

All this creativity takes place behind doors decorated with pictures of her favorite movie monsters. Her mother calls the room "A Little Shop of Horrors."

"My mother calls this room a horror," Ms. Riffee said. "I call it 'cluttered but clean.' It might have cobwebs, but I made them myself."

Although no man-eating plant lives in this little shop, monsters glower in the combination studio and "black-light palace."

The "Supremes," 3-foot-high black ceramic panthers and dogs decked out in wigs, pearls and bows, share the floor with a severed papier-mache head. Hundreds of candles and odd fixtures shed light on eerie paintings and jars of animal preserves. A skeletal mobile hangs over the work table.

Everywhere there are stuffed animals -- but not the cute, cuddly toys a child takes to bed. Many of these animals lived and breathed in forests. They now glare menacingly through glass eyes. All that is missing is sounds from their gaping mouths.

"It's a crime to mount big, strong animals with their mouths closed," she said. "I keep their mouths open like they are about to attack their prey."

Lifelike tongues, which she carves from clay and coats in liquid latex, push through the fangs and frothy saliva.

"I have always been interested in animal form and function as it relates to other species," she said. "Give me a tooth and I can tell which animal it came from -- especially if it's a carnivore."

A sparrow seems to take wing on a gossamer curtain that separates the studio from the palace. The bird was one of Ms. Riffee's first projects, when she became interested in taxidermy about four years ago. Birds are the easiest animals for beginners in the craft, she said.

She often watched and sketched as neighboring hunters skinned game. Her sketchbook is filled with drawings of the animals' bodies and muscles. She said she is horrified at the sight of a dead bird but is fascinated by what makes up the animal. She began to teach herself taxidermy with dead animals found along the roads.

"I never shot anything in my life; I don't think I could," she said. "But I am not bothered by hunting, as long as it's humane and the animal is not an endangered species."

To earn a taxidermy license from the state Department of Natural Resources, she had to pass a 25-question exam and submit a mount.

"I passed with flying colors, and now I can go into business," she said.

Many of her mounts are on display at Piney Run's Nature Center, where she often volunteers.

"The park staff provides the animal and the materials, and lets me work at my own pace," she said. "I donate the work."

A flea market "junkie," she shops for old furs and remnants to use in her creations. Friendly hunters often give her small animals, and a "critter man" provides her with foxes.

"My cousin gave me this bear skull," she said, cradling the small head. "I plan to cover it with fur."

She also tans leather with natural dyes and makes unusual fur clothing.

Nothing could be warmer than her fox, badger, rabbit and coon vest, which folds over and clasps beneath a coyote head. She stitched a matching hat from badger and spotted streaks of a Geoffroy's cat fur. The hat's crowning touch is a bobcat head, which rests on the wearer's forehead.

She plans to continue her taxidermy work, although not full-time.

"Most taxidermists work at this part-time," she said. "You would have to be the Stephen King of taxidermy to make a living from it."

Her ambition is to make a horror film, maybe about a haunted house. She knows she could create fearsome and anatomically correct monsters.

"Some movie monsters look like fish out of water," she said, with disdain. "They could never move or even survive the way they are put together. Their teeth don't mesh, and they couldn't eat here or on any other planet."

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