Feature

Torah and Fauna

Is Taxidermy Too Weird for NYC?

After a five-year run in Brooklyn’s up-and-coming Borough Park, “New York’s Weirdest Museum” (as dubbed by the New York Post) announced last month that it may close its doors. Torah Animal World is a Biblical Taxidermy museum—yeah, you heard me—that houses a stuffed version of every animal mentioned in the Torah. The museum, in business since 2008, is currently running a deficit of nearly $1,000,000. There are two other Torah Animal Worlds—one in New Jersey and the other in Catskills, N.Y.—but each location has a different focus, according to museum director Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch. The Brooklyn museum focuses on the Bible, and carries $1.5 million worth of stuffed Biblical animals. You cannot simply walk into Torah Animal World and buy a ticket: Tours are by appointment only. When I called the museum to ask for an interview and tour, a woman kindly answered, “Sure, of course, Ji!” before adding, “This article isn’t going to be about animal rights, is it? Because we don’t kill animals here; we buy only if they become available through taxidermy.” I explained to her that animal rights are definitely not the focus of the feature and headed to the museum, expecting a tour by a natural history museum-esque curator. But when I reached the locked doors of 1605 41st St. and 16th Ave., Brooklyn, my expectations were shattered. Cordially greeted by a tall rabbi, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that he was the curator of Torah Animal World.While taxidermy is usually associated with creepy hunting lodges and dusty old houses, Torah Animal World is neither creepy nor dusty. From lions and exotic birds, to an elephant’s head and foot, the museum is full of stiff, glass-eyed animals. The best part is that these stuffed animals seem to be roaming freely rather than sitting statically behind glass panels. It feels more like a Toys R Us because you’re welcome to touch the figures, unlike the standard museum experience, where you’re continually afraid of stepping too close.

Rabbi Deutsch says he founded the museum in the hopes of giving visitors a hands-on learning experience. He explains why he believes the museum is so special: “If you go to the American Museum of Natural History, you can’t touch anything. Everything is behind glass and diagrams. But here, kids can walk over and actually touch a lion and feel what an actual lion feels like.” As he invited me to touch an African elephant’s foot, he says, “Let’s talk about an elephant for example. Elephants—you see them in zoos and they seem magnificent—but most people have never actually gone over and touched an actual elephant. You can go to the zoo 20, 30 times and never feel how hairy an elephant is. And if you go to the Bronx Zoo, you only see Asian elephants. You don’t see African elephants. You would be ashamed that an African elephant would not be on display in Brooklyn. But here, children can come and touch an African elephant. And that’s why we are trying to save this place.”

Most important for Rabbi Deutsch is the educational experience his museum offers. And Rachel Han, a Columbia College freshman and recent visitor to Torah Animal World, experienced this education first-hand. “I never knew that an elephant’s leg was that hairy,” she says. Rabbi Deutsch believes that interactive museums like this are crucial for everyone’s education. Every year about 35,000 people—Jewish, non-Jewish, school children, and adults—visit Torah Animal World.

“I’ve had kids that come here and say that they want to be veterinarians, zoologists—and to me, that’s what it’s all about. I got sick and tired of kids sitting in class, counting how many light bulbs there are around the classroom. When they can read about it and learn about it and then see and touch it, it just changes the way they learn, especially for city kids,” Rabbi Deutsch says.

Columbia Anthropology Professor Ralph Holloway agrees with Rabbi Deutsch’s assessment of taxidermy’s role in education. He says,“Taxidermy presents to the public as close to real-to-life three-dimensional image as possible of other animal species…and can add a great deal of drama.” While New Yorkers can always turn to the popular Natural History Museum for a taxidermy fix, they may have to leave the city for the Biblical animals of Torah Animal World if it closes.

Despite the museum’s financial predicament, Rabbi Deutsch still hopes to salvage it. He says, “If we can get multiple sponsors willing to let us keep this place and give us an extra budget, I want to expand this place. I want to add a floor to this building, and show people more animals they have never seen before. Animals that are unique and exotic in the world that people won’t get to see unless they come to this place. I’d love to do that.”

His ultimate goal is to construct an additional botanical garden (with not only plants that appear in biblical contexts, but other exotic ones as well), and to allow visitors to see, smell, and feel the plants.

But whether those plans are feasible is hard to say, considering that even the museum’s current modest location is too expensive, which is why it remains on the market.

Thanks to its impressive collection of animals and rising real estate prices, the museum has been in effect, priced out of existence.“There is a tremendous cost in running a museum, and New York City is very expensive, and to pay bills it’s very hard for small museums to keep track. Our goal is to serve the public; but when things get tough, it’s dollars and cents, and a lot of museum like ours are moving upstate because the land is cheaper,” Rabbi Deutsch says.

“It’s sad because I think that it is imperative for the culture of the city that they try to keep these institutions open,” he adds. Here lies the problem with cultivating New York’s taste for the bizarre: The world’s largest anything won’t fit into a cramped studio apartment, and if you’re in the possession of one of the most complete collections of Biblical memorabilia, you’re far better off taking your time and talents to somewhere along an interstate. 

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