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A Florida taxidermist takes clients nobody else will: grieving pet owners

Goodbyes are hard. That’s where Allison Doty comes in.
 
Published Jan. 18, 2023|Updated Jan. 23, 2023

INVERNESS — Allison Doty has washed her cat, Cakes, twice.

Once, during her life, scrubbing Cakes in the bathtub when she was too dirty to clean herself.

The other time was after her death.

Doty stood in front of the sink of her dimly lit kitchen, pale light streaming in from the window as she lathered Dawn dish soap into the white fur. She moved quietly, and quickly.

Cakes had died about a year and a half ago. She had been waiting in Doty’s freezer since then.

“She was a really sweet cat,” Doty said. “My kids have been begging me to mount her.”

Doty, who bills herself as Florida’s only professional pet taxidermist, is used to helping others grieve. She’s there at all hours when her customers drop off beloved hamsters, Chihuahuas and once, a 6-foot monitor lizard. She cries with them.

She knows it can be controversial, cutting up and stuffing man’s best friend. And she knows she cannot bring animals back to life. But what Doty can do is craft a convincing illusion. She can erase that final image of death and swap it out for something happier: pets looking healthy and whole again.

This is the part Doty was excited for. Soon, Cakes would be back home.

Introducing MorgueMade

Doty, 31, spent most of her life in Florida, fascinated by bugs and animals, but never hunting or fishing. When an old boyfriend mounted a deer that he killed, she wondered, “Why is that on the wall?”

A few years ago, she embarked on a side hustle, crafting jewelry with resin and insects. A barber friend asked her if she’d ever done taxidermy. He wanted a scene: two stuffed rats, one giving the other a haircut, inside a little barbershop modeled after his own. She tried it.

“Anatomically, they were not good,” she said. “But I had a lot of fun.”

Allison Doty's first taxidermy endeavor: two rats in a barbershop scene, made for her barber friend.
Allison Doty's first taxidermy endeavor: two rats in a barbershop scene, made for her barber friend. [ Courtesy of Allison Doty ]

Around that time, Doty and her husband had decided to quit their jobs at the bar where they worked together. Raising four kids, Doty wanted the flexibility to pick them up from school. She wanted to leave a legacy for them, something more meaningful than pouring drinks.

Inspired by the barbershop rats, she enrolled in Pensacola’s Taxidermy Tech in early 2020. She pushed through queasiness during the first cut into a bobcat, then enrolled in a deer class. Her classmates were mostly older men who hunted.

Doty is a metalhead covered in horror movie tattoos — a grimacing Jack Torrance on her arm, Pennywise peeking out of her armpit. She collects vintage clown decor and stores DVDs inside the coffin in her living room.

She didn’t need to fit in with the hunters.

After founding her company, MorgueMade, she turned squirrels from the side of the road into koozies (aka “squoozies,” $40) and added long bangs and circles of eyeliner to feeder rodents to create “emo rats” ($50). On her mantle, she displays a skunk in a handstand, its belly stuffed with an air freshener that spritzes out puffs of apple cinnamon. She takes preorders for $400.

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Allison Doty transforms roadkill into art. Her raccoon piece was displayed at Dysfunctional Grace in Tampa in November.
Allison Doty transforms roadkill into art. Her raccoon piece was displayed at Dysfunctional Grace in Tampa in November. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

But mounting hunted animals and making creations out of roadkill to sell at oddities conventions, she found, is not as taboo as pet taxidermy. Everyone she met in the industry, from her instructors to her peers, told her not to take on grieving owners as clients.

Teaching illusions

One Saturday in November, Doty arrived early to Dysfunctional Grace, the Ybor City shop where she teaches monthly classes. She toted a cooler with materials for the day’s lesson: eight little ball pythons, dead, on ice.

Her students — five that day, all repeat customers but one — would be skinning, fleshing and completing a mount of their own. They’d each paid $250 for the class. Participants don’t need tools, an animal or experience of any kind, Doty said. A strong stomach helps.

Tamara Braz, 36, of Orlando, takes a snake taxidermy class at Dysfunctional Grace on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Tampa.
Tamara Braz, 36, of Orlando, takes a snake taxidermy class at Dysfunctional Grace on Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Tampa. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

On a folding table wedged in the back corner of the shop, each seat had its own butter knife, scalpel and X-Acto knife. To catch all the nasty bits, Doty blanketed the surface in puppy pee pads.

First she showed students how to snip up the length of the snake, then tug the skin off. She worked fast — time, moisture and heat are her enemies — and set the skin aside to tan, or chemically preserve, later. Red innards poked out of a white tube of muscle and bone. She’d demonstrate how to re-create a body with clay, then wrap the tanned skin around it and sew it shut.

“Is there not a concern with the poison?” one man asked.

“I’m not concerned,” Doty said.

The shop was quiet, but for the click of the hand shears and the rustle of gloves against scales.

Then, one student accidentally snapped off the head of her snake.

Doty swooped in, a goth Bob Ross, to console her. She knows how to adapt, to staple shut tough skin, to dip a freezer-burned animal in Windex.

“We can fix anything — that’s my No. 1 rule,” she said. “Taxidermy is an illusion.”

Allison Doty helps a snake taxidermy class participant mount their finished animal through a skull at Dysfunctional Grace.
Allison Doty helps a snake taxidermy class participant mount their finished animal through a skull at Dysfunctional Grace. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Preserving pets

Late at night, Aliza Karoly’s emotional support Shih Tzu bichon, Whiskey, died suddenly during a trip in West Palm Beach. Her husband frantically started calling numbers he found online.

They put Whiskey on ice. Stuck far from their native Canada, burial was not an option. Doty was the first person to pick up, and she invited Karoly over.

“She sees us in our worst grief, after driving four hours with a frozen dog,” Karoly said. “I think she was touched by it too, because she didn’t realize how much she could help other people.”

Sometimes Doty has customers drop off animals at Dysfunctional Grace. Others ship their pets, or leave them in a freezer on her driveway. It’s big enough to hold a German shepherd, and always empty in between drop-offs.

“Pets die at all hours,” she said. “I’m usually the last resort. By the time people have found me, they are losing hope.”

(From left) Aliza Karoly’s emotional support Shih Tzu Bichon, Whiskey, and Pickle, a Chihuahua which remains in Allison Doty’s collection after its owner did not pick it up, pictured on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Inverness.
(From left) Aliza Karoly’s emotional support Shih Tzu Bichon, Whiskey, and Pickle, a Chihuahua which remains in Allison Doty’s collection after its owner did not pick it up, pictured on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Inverness. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Doty started slowly with pets, wanting to make sure she was ready before taking on something so sensitive. As word got around about her services, business picked up fast. Few people do this job.

She gives customers a six-month estimate, though she can often finish in four. Small dogs and cats are $1,000 each. She charges $10 an inch for snakes. (“People always exaggerate size until you charge them per inch.”)

Some clients ask for paw preservation or bone cleaning. Others request the heart or other organs suspended in fluid, saved as wet specimens.

Doty knows it is morbid to some. She hopes it won’t always be.

“It’s pretty common to get your pet cremated,” she said. “At first it was weird, but now it’s acceptable.”

Not everyone is a fan — Doty’s neighbor, for instance. She has called animal control and the health department, Doty said, reporting bones in the yard and bodies in the shed. It backfired. Not only was Doty following the rules — one of the inspectors ended up becoming a client.

She has a tag system and a log book. She reads up on the laws and regulations, and has her federal permit. She sits on the board of directors for the Florida State Taxidermists Association. Last year, she scored a first place and two second places at the state competition, plus best all-around taxidermist.

Doty understands the stigma. It can be hard to get expressions right, and seeing Fido frozen stiff can be unsettling. She poses most of her animals in a resting position, curled up with their eyes closed.

“When they see this beautiful sleeping animal, they’re just like, ‘Oh, that’s not weird.’ And it opens the door a little bit,” she said.

To mount or not to mount

Allison Doty holds her cat, Cakes.
Allison Doty holds her cat, Cakes. [ Courtesy of Allison Doty ]

Cakes died in August 2021, a month after the mom of Doty’s stepchildren passed. The grief was heavy in their house. She put Cakes in the freezer for half a year.

Months later, the boys asked: When are you going to mount her?

“In a selfish way, I was like, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t put my own cat together,’” she said. “After some time, I was like, I need to put my feelings aside because there are two little boys that she’s important to.”

It was hard finally pulling Cakes out of the freezer. A friend offered to do the skinning. Doty declined.

“I feel like I owed it to her, out of respect, to know that she was taken care of after death,” she said.

Scavenger hunting

On a gloomy day in December, Doty drove along a quiet two-lane road in Inverness, passing rolling golf courses and housing complexes. Her eyes scanned the side of the road.

She spotted clamshell takeout containers. Plastic bags.

“I made sure I had some freezer space, too, in case we found anything,” she said.

At any given moment, Doty is ready to pull over, armed with a Yeti cooler and WeatherTech floor mats. Though she once pulled this off in a little Lexus with carpeted floors (“Nasty,” she shuddered), she now cruises in a Subaru Crosstrek with a bumper sticker that proclaims: “I brake for roadkill.”

Allison Doty, a 31-year-old pet taxidermist, keeps an eye out for roadkill on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Inverness.
Allison Doty, a 31-year-old pet taxidermist, keeps an eye out for roadkill on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Inverness. [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

For most trips with her family, she prefers to be a passenger so she can focus on looking. The children like to get up early on the weekend to join the scavenger hunt.

But even when she’s behind the wheel alone, running errands, she’s peering for blobs sitting on top of the grass. Is that white chunk a piece of bone? Or just a plastic foam cup?

“If I think I saw something I’ll definitely turn around,” she said. “Sometimes it’s tricky, though.”

Besides pet work, Doty gets skins from fellow taxidermists or legally registered hunters. Others are naturally deceased animals that she finds. She avoids picking up domestic cats and dogs, not wanting to scoop someone else’s pet. And if the vultures beat her to anything, she lets them have it.

“I let the circle of life happen,” she said.

Doty has stopped seeking out whole wild hogs, which are greasy and smelly. Coyotes, with “green belly” of stinky gut bacteria, are also a no-go. Most birds are protected under state or federal law, so if she sees a wing, she usually drives past.

“This being Citrus County, you don’t see a whole lot of deer, and that’s usually because people eat them,” she said.

After about an hour of driving, she couldn’t see anything “meaty.” She looped back to check on some hog bones crusted in the mud, which had been baking in the sun for weeks.

Doty pulled off onto the side of the road and headed for her trunk to grab a grocery bag and plastic gloves. Trucks hummed by as she hiked over to the remains, careful not to crunch anything. The flesh had been picked off, though some fragments were still hairy. Those would stay.

She bent down in the mud, scooping up pieces she could use. She always looks for big chunks: A skull. A scapula. Large leg bones. Vertebrae, which she can sell for $5 a pop.

“When I do oddities markets, I’ll have buckets of it,” she said.

Making Cakes

Back at home that afternoon, Doty crossed her backyard, dotted with her children’s toys, to her workshop. Her she-shed is a lot comfier than the kitchen table she first started on.

There’s no electricity or water inside, so Doty ran a long extension cord and plugged in an LED strip to illuminate her work bench. The paneled walls are lined with finished mounts and hanging skins, plus her awards and shelves of craft supplies. Inside a tackle box, she organized glass eyes for various animals, from alligators to pythons.

In the corner, a cluster of wet specimen jars waited, labeled with marker on masking tape: Minnie. Chewy. Doctor. Yeti.

A full black trash bag sat behind the door.

“Sorry, that’s Joe,” Doty said. An Australian shepherd. “I don’t always know the people’s name, but I like to call the animals by their name to be respectful.”

There’s a plastic kid’s chair and a few toys where her youngest son sometimes plays or paints bones as she works. Her 9- and 10-year-olds have already started to practice taxidermy themselves. But for the bloody parts, or more emotional days, she works by herself.

She’ll listen to classical music — Brahms, who her 5-year-old is named after — or, if she’s frustrated, Rob Zombie.

That afternoon, she just talked about Cakes.

Cakes, Allison Doty's beloved cat, loved hugs and Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Cakes, Allison Doty's beloved cat, loved hugs and Kentucky Fried Chicken. [ Courtesy of Allison Doty ]

Her cat was almost 10 when she died, living with the Doty family for a little over a year. Cakes never bit or scratched the family. She had a soft spot for Kentucky Fried Chicken. And if you picked her up, Doty remembered, she would wrap her paws around you in a hug.

After being skinned, Cakes had gone back into the freezer for a while. Doty’s task for that afternoon was to finally sculpt a foam and clay skull.

“I do have to take breaks. It’s hard on the soul,” she said. “Now that I’m seeing her come back to life, I’m getting really excited.”

Cakes had heterochromia — one green eye, the other blue. Doty had custom peepers made based off a picture. She pressed them into the foam skull and draped Cakes’ skin over the head, peeking at a reference photo to check the proportions.

Allison Doty mounts her pet cat Cakes, who died in 2021, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Inverness. “It took more time for me to mount her and I've had a couple breakdowns through it,” Doty said, “but now that I'm at the finishing points … I’m seeing her kind of start to come back to life.”
Allison Doty mounts her pet cat Cakes, who died in 2021, on Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, in Inverness. “It took more time for me to mount her and I've had a couple breakdowns through it,” Doty said, “but now that I'm at the finishing points … I’m seeing her kind of start to come back to life.” [ ANGELICA EDWARDS | Times ]

Maybe Cakes will join the taxidermy display the Dotys keep in their front room. She could sit underneath the mounted deer heads. Or next to the two porcelain dolls with rabbit heads, which Doty created for her wedding table.

“Who knows,” she said. “I might even get her a little bed.”

She wouldn’t finish that day. The clay needed to dry on the mold, getting tackier so it could keep its shape underneath skin. Then there would be making the body form. Painting Cakes’ nose and lips pink again.

But after a long wait, it was progress.

“Hey, she’s finally starting to look like a cat! We’re getting somewhere,” Doty smiled. “Little Cakes.”

More info

Allison Doty teaches classes regularly at Dysfunctional Grace in Ybor City and Rusted Jade Art Collective in Brooksville. To see an upcoming schedule or to inquire about a taxidermy project, visit morguemade.com.