ST. PETERSBURG — Before the students started carving, before the taxidermy teacher broke her "party trick" record and everything got flipped inside out, Mickey Alice Kwapis talked about the rats.
"You're not going to hurt them," she reminded her class, "because they're already dead."
Kwapis travels the world, from Iceland to Toronto, teaching people the outs and ins of taxidermy. She's Internet famous for her patter and artsy, if quirky, displays of the animals afterward: Think bunnies decorated with pink bows or mice lounging in recliners, knitting and sipping tea, or arranged in a Victorian diorama.
And she was in St. Petersburg for the weekend passing on her craft.
The nine students sitting around Kwapis' teaching table were amateurs, new to creating taxidermy, if not collecting it, except the owners of Dysfunctional Grace on Sixth Street N, who offered their art gallery as class space.
Before them, lots of rats.
Ten inches long, snow white and kind of cute, the rodents lay zipped in plastic bags. They'd been alive once, before a company in Indiana froze their bodies and mailed them to Florida. Now they were thawed, soon to be gutted, then eternally stuffed.
Kwapis, 24, has been a licensed taxidermist for three years and spends most of her time on the road. She'll soon open a lab in Chicago, where she is based, and has been interviewed on NPR and in the New York Times. On Instagram, she culls a following that's 11,000 strong.
As her latest students snapped on blue rubber gloves and hesitantly began slicing Sunday morning, the taxidermist circled the room and began her instructions.
Cut the skin deep enough to see what looks like chicken breast, she said, then slide your thumbs underneath, as if the rat were wearing jeans and you're putting them in his back pockets. Massage, like you're stuffing turkey skin with butter, she said.
"If anyone cuts their finger off, I call dibs," she sings.
With the work comes plenty of, um, sounds.
"Sexy," someone said.
Grimacing, wincing, nose-wrinkling.
• • •
In Kwapis' words, "it started with a dead squirrel and a bottle of wine." She was 21, pre-law at the University of Michigan and hoping to one day be mayor of Detroit. A co-worker at an H&M women's clothing store asked if she'd like to help with a science project that turned out to be stuffing a squirrel.
Kwapis liked it.
She posted on Instagram, told her friends and gathered a following. She was asked to teach a class in Cleveland, then Chicago, Atlanta and Seattle.
"After that," she said, "it just exploded."
Over the next nine months, Kwapis is scheduled to teach 44 classes in 22 cities across five countries. Her mentor is meme sensation Chuck Testa, a career taxidermist in California whose business commercial went viral when it got posted to the social media site Reddit in 2011.
The industry is large and varied, she said, but most of her students are women who draw from the "Etsy crowd," the online site for arts and crafts.
"There are occasional people who have done a hack job at home, and then thought, maybe I should get some guidance on this," she said.
DIY taxidermy is a bad idea, Kwapis said, as bad an idea as an at-home tattoo, and could result in the kind of mountings you'll find on crappytaxidermy.com. To be respectful of the animal and art, she believes it's important to be trained first by a professional and to obtain the animals from a sustainable source. The rats she uses, for example, are from a company in Indiana called Rodent Pro, which sells the rats to zoos as feed. Kwapis said she doesn't believe in killing animals just for the sake of art.
Her classes range in price, but average $200. She teaches beginners with mostly rabbits or rats.
She said the profession is full of stereotypes, like mountain men stuffing bears for your hairy uncle's hunting cabin. For her, taxidermy has been a way to be creative and get weird. Her goal is to one day taxidermy a whale.
"I couldn't imagine doing anything else with my life right now," she said.
• • •
The amateurs cut away their rats' pelts and even started naming them. Student KC Newman was pondering the title Fat Bastard for her male rat.
Someone joked about calling his rodent "Peyerat," (as in pirate) because he'd lost an eye, and student Seth Stolz, who got the class as a Christmas present, kept calling his rat "lil' buddy."
Before she transformed the table from an anatomy lab to a craft-store aisle, Kwapis awed the class with her party trick: skinning a rat in under five minutes. They gathered and recorded, oohing and ahhing as she accomplished in 2 minutes, 33 seconds what took them nearly two hours.
Then out came the needles, the black beads for eyes and bags of cotton balls and pipe cleaners. Slowly, the empty pelts inflated, puffing into slightly deformed but mostly realistic little creatures.
"These are so cute, oh my gosh," Kwapis praised. "Do you guys mind doing a group photo outside?"
"Bring your rats!"
Contact Katie Mettler at [email protected] or (727) 893-8913. Follow her @kemettler.
Editors note: This story has been amended to reflect Kwapis' correct university. She attended the University of Michigan.