BUCKTOWN — Mickey Alice Kwapis' job is the stuff of dreams.
One week after graduating from college, the 23-year-old taxidermy instructor launched a full-time career traveling the world teaching her passion to others.
"My favorite thing is taking something that no longer has life and giving it a new life," she said.
Based out of Cleveland, Kwapis stopped in Chicago over the weekend to teach three classes at Sideshow Gallery, 2219 N. Western Ave. in Bucktown.
Sunday, Kwapis taught 10 students how to cut, peel, stuff and mount tiny white rabbits for $200 a seat. The process wasn't for the squeamish.
"What we're going to be doing today, as I hope you're all aware, as this is what you signed up for, is mounting the rabbit on a plaque," Kwapis said at the start of the class. It was just minutes later that gloves were on and everyone was set to dig in with scalpels.
Kwapis is a fan of the mythical, antlered rabbit known as the jackalope, so she encourages her students to get creative with accessories. She's seen students replace rabbit legs with tentacles, and at Sunday's class, one student added a single horn for a narwhal-inspired look, while another gave her rabbit a bow tie.
Interest in taxidermy as a hobby is growing outside of hunting and museum circles, especially with the popularity of reality TV show "Immortalized" on AMC, Kwapis said.
But not everyone's on board.
Some animal activists aren't happy about Kwapis' livelihood, but she carefully chooses where her animals come from.
"It's really important that any animal that we're using in class didn't die just for the sake of taxidermy purposes," she said.
She buys her rabbit specimens from suppliers that kill small rodents humanely and freeze them for reptile food. For her own work outside of classes, which includes animals as big as kangaroos and horses, she receives donations of carcasses that died of natural causes.
And then there's the more adventurous method: Her first date with her boyfriend was searching for road kill along the highway.
And preserving the animals, Kwapis said, shows respect for them. Her art, though it seems morbid, stems from her love of animals, which isn't always apparent to people when they find out what she does for a living.
"It's not just that I'm obsessed with death, or that I'm so 'cool and gothy,' I love animals," Kwapis said. "I've never killed an animal, aside from when I was was 4 and held a toad for too long. ... And I still feel bad about that, and it was  years ago."
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