The living art of dead things at Denver’s Terrorium Shop

By Madison Lauterbach

May 24, 2021 | Features, Local Business | 0 comments

//Amber Hage-Ali, co-owner of the Terrorium Shop in Denver, stands by the register and gets ready for closing the shop for the day on April 6. Photo by Polina Saran | polinasarana@gmail.com

Taxidermy, a word that conjures images of museum caveman exhibits, moth-eaten heads mounted in dark antique shops, or secret society explorer clubs, is experiencing a resurgence thanks to a new generation of ethical practitioners. 

The artform of delicately preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of various vertebrates can be traced back to the Victorian era when many English adopted a fascination with death and memento mori. Mounted animals, particularly birds, became a popular part of interior decor during the time period, with Queen Victoria herself amassing an extensive collection. Taxidermy was also a way for bereaved owners of dead pets to memorialize them. 

“It’s another way for people to honor their animal in death and to have them close to them,” said Amber Hage-Ali, co-owner of The Terrorium Shop in Denver. 

Due to taxidermy’s association with hunting, the practice has traditionally been viewed as a way for wealthy men to preserve their sporting accomplishments. Now with a younger, more ethically-minded generation moving in to stake their claim on the industry, collecting taxidermied vertebrates, pinned insects and bones has become more popular with other groups, especially women. 

Hage-Ali and her partner in business and life, Ian Johnson, opened their brick-and-mortar shop in May 2019. The shop is a collaboration of their skills as a gardener and taxidermist, respectively. Every animal, insect and plant in the store has been ethically sourced by the Terrorium’s definition, meaning they get their animal parts and insects from butterfly farms, taxidermy studios, dead animals picked up by animal control and reptile shops or breeders. All animals and insects have died of natural causes and come mostly from local suppliers. 

As a child, Hage-Ali collected curiosities: vibrant flowers, dead insects and bone fragments. 

“When I first started, I didn’t really even know how to pin [insects],” Hage-Ali said. “I just taught myself that over time. I started just collecting things and when I got older, I would kind of assemble how I found them in their environments. It was just something I did for friends.”

For their first holiday together, Hage-Ali gifted Johnson one of her assembled terrariums that included several plants and a found skull. Johnson loved the concept so much he pushed her to share it with others. 

The couple combined their interest in preservation along with their distinct skill sets to create unique pieces that showcase the process of decay and rebirth. The shop name comes from a friend of the couple who suggested it, reflecting a more accurate depiction of the tiny, somewhat macabre worlds. Hage-Ali set to work, creating a lookbook of her products which led to pop-up shops in several local stores. From 2017-2018 they moved on to selling at craft markets while honing their skills. Everything Hage-Ali has learned about creating a lasting and quality product has been self-taught through a process of trial and error. The craft markets provided them valuable time to realize small, fixable flaws in their products. 

“We noticed that over time, because we would have them for a few months, you can see mold growing,” Hage-Ali said. “So that’s how we ended up drilling holes in all of our glass. A lot of it was just me experimenting with different things and seeing what worked over time and just really getting a method down that worked for me.”

Hage-Ali said this period of time was a little chaotic for the couple, who were both working two jobs in addition to the two to three craft markets a week. But they benefited in the long run from the dedication to their craft and in 2019 they were ready to take on the risk of opening a storefront. Hage-Ali sought out a Shark Tank-style group that eventually gave her a small loan. 

“I had to present in front of people and I was like the weirdo there,” Hage-Ali said. “Everyone else was doing legit stuff and I’m bringing my terrarium with skulls in like, ‘Hey guys, I want to open a store that has bones and plants and stuff.’ It took a bit of convincing. Funding arts is risky, doing something new and different is risky, especially when I didn’t have any of my own collateral. They really took a chance on me.” 

That risk paid off in a big way. The shop now has over 34,000 followers on Instagram. Their unique pieces fly off the shelves, sometimes before they even have a chance to list them in their online store. On the upper end, dioramas easily sell for several hundred dollars. They’ve also now been able to provide a place for smaller sellers, much like they were just a few years ago, to hawk their products. 

“I think [so many people like it] because it’s the combination of life and death,” Hage-Ali said. “I think it makes it more approachable and digestible, that balance and that juxtaposition of life next to death. I also think that it’s really great to see that process of life and death in one vessel and how it interacts on a small scale. I think it takes on large concepts in a way that is easier for people to understand.”

Johnson said the explosion in popularity of “oddities” like taxidermied animals, bones and mounted insects has to do with two factors, as he sees it. One, people have spent more time in their homes over the last year as the pandemic brought stay-at-home orders. People finally had the time to work on the home improvement projects they’d put off for years. 

“People are spending more time in their homes,” Johnson said. “They want to beautify their spaces. I feel like it’s becoming a little bit more accepted. I feel like people are not as weirded out by taxidermy, it seems to me.”

Another factor leading to the recent popularity boost is the increasing involvement of women, people of color and LGBTQ+ groups in the outdoors. 

Johnson, who grew up in Colorado Springs, spent weekends exploring the state by hunting and fishing. Those activities ultimately influenced his career path. He started in the seafood industry as a fish butcher and spent several summers working on a salmon boat. As he would take the fish apart, he thought about how he would put them back together. This ultimately sparked his interest in becoming a “preservationist,” as he likes to say. Before starting The Terrorium Shop with Hage-Ali, Johnson worked at Jonas Brothers Taxidermy, one of the oldest commercial taxidermy studios in the country. One of the things Johnson loves most about working for himself is the process of trial and error that comes with testing new ways of preservation. 

“What we’ve really gotten into, and I hadn’t really seen a lot of people doing it, is dry preservation where [animals] aren’t preserved in a liquid,” he said. “I feel like we’ve kind of, I don’t want to say the word pioneer, because that feels a little bit too self-aggrandizing, but I just hadn’t seen anybody else doing some of the things that we’re doing with reptiles and stuff like that.”

But the business doesn’t always run smoothly. Hage-Ali said the industry is challenging in general because the oddities trade is so competitive. Being a woman business owner adds another layer to the difficulties of owning a shop in general, she said, especially in such a male-dominated industry. 

“You’re not taken as seriously,” Hage-Ali said. “Especially when we were doing [the shop] space, I had some interactions with the guys who put in my skylight. They were only talking to [Johnson] the entire time. It’s just like little things like that, that I’m kind of constantly aware of.”

Not to mention the hurdles they faced as a small business during the pandemic. When closures began, Terrorium had been in business for less than a year. The shop received no federal government assistance, and not for a lack of trying. Hage-Ali said the shop was eligible but she didn’t hear back from anyone regarding her application for so long that by the time she did, the money had already dried up. 

“The whole thing was really scary,” she said. “I thought I was going to lose everything and no one knew what was going to happen. And we hustled, we were out here delivering plants every day to people’s houses and just kind of working with what we had.” 

Hage-Ali knows that the Terrorium contributes a lot to the Denver community. On a personal level, they do custom work and pet memorials for bereaved owners, giving their animals a second life. They teach classes so Denverites can create mini-worlds of their own with objects that are sentimentally valuable to them. But what Hage-Ali said the shop also provides is an accessible way to experience the mountain ecological system Colorado is so well-known for.  

“We really try to utilize native animals in this area and try to bring that kind of nature-y vibe into the city,” she said. “I hope that it inspires people to get into art and nature and play around and not be afraid to get weird.” 

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