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Though my teacher’s name is lost to the years, I vividly remember my fifth grade science classroom.
One wall of bookshelves was packed with jars that held tiny captives suspended in liquid: baby pigs, a fish skeleton, a coiled snake, a bloated heart from some unidentified animal. On the back wall near a bank of windows were gorgeous yet deadly plant specimens: pitcher plants, sundews and Venus flytraps.
Amid squeals of “gross!” and “weird” from my classmates, I found these things only slightly unsettling; the greater part of me was fascinated. I couldn’t take my eyes off these wonders. I wanted to possess them. One afternoon, when long shadows fell in the empty room, I filched a jar with a floating mammalian fetus, my heart beating wildly.
This is how collectors are made.
Decades later, I still nurse a mild fetish for all things preserved. Bighorn sheep, deer, antelope and steer skulls share wall space with folk-art paintings. Elk horns decorate my dining room table. I have a personal altar where teeth, furry pelts and feathers share space with candles, rocks and prayer beads. On a hike earlier this year, I was as excited as a 10-year-old child when I found an intact coyote skull that still had hair on the muzzle.
I find these remains cool. And I’m not the only one. The Science Channel has a show called Oddities dedicated to such ephemera.
Soft-spoken, red-bearded Mason Conway is another member of our tribe. He owns the Curious Nature shop in central Phoenix. Conway’s interest in critters also was sparked as a kid. Trained as a veterinary technician, he spent the past decade saving animal lives. He’s also taught at local colleges, and worked with the Phoenix Herpetological Society, Arizona Humane Society and Arizona Exotic Bird Rescue.
Conway’s shop—an outgrowth of his own collection—carries an ever-changing array of skulls, bones, vintage taxidermy, preserved animal specimens and exotic plants. Everything is ethically sourced, and prices start at under $10.
“I want these things to find a new home,” he says, mentioning an impala mount that recently sold.
I ask him if he’s ever acquired something he couldn’t bear to part with.
“Yes,” he said. “I found a taxidermy monkey at a yard sale. It lives (upstairs) next to the TV.”
Conway is picky about what he buys and displays, and he works diligently to find the best specimens. Far from creepy, Curious Nature is an elegantly curated space. Conway clearly has an eye for design: The lighting is beautiful, the forms graceful. The merchandise might be dead, but the shop feels magical and alive. Framed butterflies, preserved scorpions, beetle earrings, a bisected pig heart, deer mounts, freeze-dried bats, mineral specimens, antique medical instruments and resurrection plants all compete for attention.
Conway’s enthusiasm and reverence for these things is evident. He welcomes questions from serious shoppers and curious gawkers alike. This is not a stuffy museum. Conway encourages kids—and their parents—to touch the shop’s wares. He says a majority of his customers are women, as are many of the younger taxidermists working today, including one who recently taught a workshop onsite.
As I’m wrapping up my interview on a sunny October day, as if on cue, a little boy presses his nose to the glass door, straining against his mother’s hurried tug to keep walking.
“That happens all day long,” says Conway with a smile. “Kids are the most open, less freaked out than adults.”
He then relates the story of Ivy, whose parents “are not into this kind of stuff, but respect her interest.” They let her pick out a frog in a jar for her seventh birthday and then got her a cabinet to store it in.
Ivy represents the next generation of our tribe, an oddities collector in the making, and Conway is happy to enable her curious nature.
About the author: Suzanne Wright
Suzanne Wright first stepped into the Sonoran Desert some 30 years ago and was immediately smitten. She has written for national publications such as National Geographic Traveler, USA Today and American Way, but she’s happiest exploring and writing about Arizona for regional outlets like AAA Arizona Highroads, Arizona Highways and the Official Travel Guide to Greater Phoenix.