The Things They Leave Behind
(Cover story for Time Out Chicago, June 17, 2009)
Someone’s got to clean up after the city’s critters. From carcass artists to excrement experts, these Chicagoans work on the wild side.
By Christina Couch
Photographs by Jimmy Fishbein
Ted Nazarowski’s studio looks more like the aftermath of a natural-history museum explosion than an artist’s workshop. Visitors who step into the little-known Irving Park facility will be greeted by the glassy-eyed stares of hundreds of deceased animals, ranging from miniscule birds about to take flight to a life-size brown bear poised on two legs, claws out, frozen in time. While the thought of spending every day surrounded by lifeless flesh would be stomach-turning for many, for Nazarowski—the owner and sole taxidermist atArctic Circle Taxidermy (5637 W Irving Park Rd, 773-286-8000)—it’s pure excitement.
“Taxidermy is nothing more than art in the medium of fur, feathers, skin and scales…. Right now we’re doing a 12-foot boa constrictor for a private customer,” the former Art Institute sculpture student says, gesturing to a box that contains layer after layer of preserved black-and-white snake skin waiting to be mounted on a reproduction of the creature’s body. “We’re also doing restoration of a tiger skin that was originally bought in India in the 1950s and now it’s being mounted. It’s taken about three and a half years. It’s like putting together a jigsaw puzzle.”
In addition to snakes and half century–old tigers, any animal that once roamed the Earth can be given new life, Nazarowski says, provided it’s not a state or federally protected species, and the owner presents a valid hunting license for all fresh kills. From insects to fish to full-scale musk ox, species can be preserved by carefully slicing, removing and tanning the skin—a process that takes 30 to 90 days—and attaching it to a sculpted mold (typically made from foam). Nazarowski has the remaining bone, muscle and fat hauled off by an animal-rendering service that turns it into byproducts such as feed stock or, if it’s a pet, the remains are returned to the owners for burial.
While pulling skin off one body and slapping it on another sounds like a hack job from a B-grade horror flick, the process is highly complex. Taxidermists must know how to not only preserve, but artificially recreate, if necessary, everything from the most delicate grasshopper wing to the spines of a porcupine.
“In beginner taxidermy, they practice on things like squirrels,” Nazarowski explains. “A squirrel has a very thick skin so you can manipulate it. A rabbit is a thin-skinned animal. It’s hard because it’s like working with wet tissue paper. And parakeets are difficult because they explode. The feathers pop right off. You have to be careful doing it.”
While malleable flesh and combustible birds don’t freak out Nazarowski, the artist admits he does have his limitations. “The person across the street has a funeral home. That would gross me out. I don’t think I could work with human beings.”
Call her an activist. Call her the city’s feline guardian angel. Call her the biggest enemy to cat testicles since the invention of neutering. Just don’t call her a crazy cat lady (although, at first glance, she certainly qualifies). Leading a dynamic double life, Pilsen resident Yvette Piña spends her days working for the Environmental Protection Agency—and her off time on a vigilante crusade, ridding the city of as many feline reproductive organs as she can get her paws on.
A volunteer with Alley Cat Allies (alleycat.org), a Maryland-based nonprofit agency that specializes in the protection of feral cats, Piña is part of the group’s trap-neuter-release project, TNR for short. Determined to limit the area’s homeless-cat population (as well as the fighting and noxious urine smell that goes with them), TNR volunteers like Piña and her husband, Francisco, spend their nights lurking in the back alleys and abandoned houses of Chicago’s worst neighborhoods in an effort to sterilize vagrant cats before they can have freaky, unprotected cat sex.
“Feral cats really can’t be domesticated, so Alley Cat Allies advocates volunteers to not spend resources on that,” Piña explains, adding that Chicago alone has more than half a million feral cats. “We can prevent homeless-cat colonies from growing, though, so we’re trying to protect as many as we can.”
For Piña, that means dragging up to six cat-friendly cages out to neighborhoods like Pilsen, Little Village and Austin that are overrun with the city’s largest feline gangs. Once traps are baited with food, Piña and Francisco wait for a kitty to sniff out the grub. If a caught cat doesn’t have the signature earmark vets leave on neutered animals, it’s off to the Lurie Family Clinic, a Little Village–based facility that offers $20 spay and neuter surgery for feral animals. After a day or two of rehab in the Piñas’ home, the cats are fed, photographed for Piña’s TNR blog (blootails.blogspot.com), taken back to where they were found and set free. In terms of controlling the cat population, Piña stresses that neutering ferals is more effective than removing them from the street. “Cats choose their home for a reason, usually because there’s a steady food supply,” she notes. “If you trap and remove them, more cats are going to come and fill that spot because there’s food.”
Not only does Piña devote much of her free time to removing cats’ bits, she shells out a lot of cash, too. The cost of food, transportation, surgery, towels and microchipping—a procedure that prevents Animal Control from euthanizing the cat if it’s caught—runs about $40 per animal, most of which comes from her pocket. Multiplied by the 80 animals she neutered last year, as well as the 40 additional cats she rescued and “rehomed,” the Piñas’ annual cat tab runs well over $3,500, partly subsidized by donations through her blog.
Despite the cost, time expenditure, urine stench and occasional injury, Francisco says the hardest part of his wife’s mission is dealing with people who don’t care about animals enough to make a call for help when they see a suffering stray. “Cat poo, cat pee, cat vomit, all of that washes away,” he notes, “but you can’t wash away when an animal suffers and it could have been prevented.”
If it crawls, flies or scurries, Thaddeus Mazuchowski has probably slayed it. Mazuchowski, an exterminator for the past 20 years, and the seven other employees of Nevernest Extermination (3644 W Diversey Ave, 773-772-9172) have gotten up close and personal with rats on the Blue Line, cockroaches in drug houses and mosquito infestations in housing projects—and they keep coming back for more.
“It’s not a job; it’s an adventure,” Mazuchowski says during a rousing game of What’s That Smell?—one of the trickiest and most common questions exterminators must answer for clients. For the next half hour, crew member Brian Schelberger will root through a tight, dark attic crawl space in a client’s Hinsdale home, searching for the source of a foul stench that will turn out to be the rotting corpses of a squirrel family. After bagging the cadavers and patching the hole the critters gnawed to get in the house, Mazuchowski and Schelberger call this an easy day at the office. They’ve seen much worse.
“Probably the worst thing I’ve ever seen is a dead person,” recounts Schelberger. “We were doing maintenance on a building and the neighbors kept smelling something strange. They thought it was a cat or something, but when they opened the door to let us treat the unit, [the body] was just there. It happened in his sleep and no one knew he died.”
Aside from corpses, Nevernest workers have also encountered bat colonies, skunk holes, raccoon hideaways, rats as big as small cats and roach infestations so bad they could barely see the floor. The animals and the waste they create, Mazuchowski says, are expected. It’s the human filth that gets to him.
“I went into a building once in a drug-infested area and there was a woman with 15 kids,” Mazuchowski explains. “It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen. There were human feces on the floor.”
Minus the people poop, the fact that his job is barely palatable to clients is precisely what makes Mazuchowski and several others in the extermination business feel satisfied at the end of an extra creepy-crawly day.
“My customers know that this is not something that they’re going to deal with, and they respect the heck out of me for doing it,” Mazuchowski explains. “One time I went to a job and I saw some chick standing in a laundry basket in the middle of the room because there was a mouse in the apartment. She had a phobia, and I had to go in and talk her out of it. Her husband tipped me $50 for it. Apparently she was ready to move in with her mother. I’ve saved a lot of marriages.”
When people tell Kyle Breyne that his job is shitty, they mean it literally. A full-time “scooper” with Pooper Scoopers (877-K9 WASTE, thepooperscoopers.com)—an Oswego-based company that specializes in the removal and disposal of pet waste—Breyne and his sister, owner Kandra Witkowski, make their business picking up dog and cat…um…business.
“We find everything in poop,” reveals Breyne. “Socks, toilet paper, crayons, Barbie heads. At the holidays, we find tinsel, Easter grass, candy wrappers, G.I. Joe figures. We had one client that had a couch they were getting rid of and they left it in the back yard. The dogs chewed it down to the springs. There was stuffing in poop all over the backyard. There was more white than brown!”
Also known as turd herders, goop troopers, crap collectors, feces finders, excrement eliminators and doo-doo disposers, the five full-time professional pet-waste removal specialists of Pooper Scoopers collect approximately 473 gallons of poo per day spread across 135 yards in Chicago’s suburbs. Trolling each yard with a standard gardening spade and hinged dustpan, each scooper covers four to six yards per hour, collecting so much waste that it weighs down their vehicles.
“One of our drivers was carrying so much poop that he bottomed out at a railroad crossing,” recounts Witkowski. “Technically, if we were in a car accident, we may have to call hazmat because we’re carrying so much waste.”
Thankfully scoopers don’t have to carry waste for long. After a hard day of poo collections, scoopers dump their waste in a specialized Dumpster that’s disposed of by a pet-waste rendering service. Witkowski says her organization fills four industrial-size Dumpsters with poop each week.
As for the people who spend day in and day out collecting that waste, Breyne says they quickly get used to the smell, the gut revulsion, the phobia of going home covered in feces. After they get used to the unwritten rules—always wear waterproof shoes, hang on to your cell phone while scooping, leave poop shoes on the porch at home, never simultaneously eat chocolate and scoop—the mere fact that their work is shit stops being important. However, family and friends can’t always forget so easily.
“Nobody’s ever come up to me and said that I smell bad,” Breyne says, “but one guy’s girlfriend didn’t know what he did for a living and told him, ‘Oh my gosh, you smell like poop!’ This was after he had showered and all that stuff. I don’t know if he was sweating it out of his pores or what.”
Poop sweat is just one of several enemies scoopers encounter. In addition to the stench of excrement, the weather presents an array of obstacles ranging from soupy “poop juice”–covered yards that cause scoopers to slide through their work, to frozen feces that must literally be hacked from the ground. Despite the challenges, Witkowski says the scoopers work regardless of the weather.
“We go in because it’s a gross job and someone has to do it,” she says. “We go in because life without us would be crappy.”