WARNING: These entries will be discussing death, taxidermy, and the use of animal parts both in spiritual practice and for research and display. If these subjects bother you, please don’t continue reading. Thanks!
Today I want to share with you the story of two skin spirits that I feel are close, personal friends of mine. A coyote pelt, Trevor, and a bobcat skull, Veteran.
Trevor was a “rescue” pelt, personally tanned by a taxidermist friend of mine that I met through DeviantArt, years ago. Why was he a rescue? Well, like a lot of coyotes, in life he had no understanding of cars or roads.
Unfortunately, a car claimed his life.
When my friend put a lot of rescued roadkill pelts up for sale, I was immediately drawn to the first image I saw of him. He had a lot of reddish in his fur, and an almost calico mottling that I hadn’t seen in a coyote before.
He was fairly cheap, even for a coyote, because of the large “scars” where his fur had been essentially ripped off in road burn, and the holes his death had left him with. In this picture you can see them – his head is to the left side of the picture, tail aimed toward the right.
You can see the wrinkled whitish yellow spots of bare leather on both sides, as well as a mark in the middle about where the “small of the back” would be in a human. But you can also see the interesting coloring that initially drew me to him.
Now, I talked in the last entry in this series about how when I make a “connection” with a particular bit of sacred remains via images, I usually find that there’s a skin spirit attached once I get them into my possession and can touch and work with them. Trevor, I thought, was an exception.
I gently pulled him out of his shipping box, and I felt…nothing. Not even just “dead,” I actually felt nothing. It wasn’t even that feeling of there being something there, but it not being ready to communicate with me yet. It was like walking into a kitchen, knowing something’s cooking – and there’s not only no scent thereof, but also no evidence otherwise for cooking.
You then assume you were wrong and there’s nothing cooking.
I welcomed the pelt anyway, and laid him across the back of my desk chair. Until cats began using my chair as a way-station between table and window, I usually had a pelt across the back. Whoever I was working closest with at the time – or whoever was newest.
I find this bonding period important with the skin spirits. And even though this new coyote felt like nothing to me, I wasn’t prepared to discount him – if for no other reason than I thought his coloring was beautiful and I didn’t want to put him in storage.
So the coyote stayed on the back of my chair for several months – to the point that I almost forgot the pelt was there. I petted him as I got up or sat down, running my hand over the intact fur at the top center of his back.
And slowly, VERY slowly, I became aware of his spirit.
It happened over time and was so faint at first that I didn’t recognize it was him. I thought I was being nudged by one of the other active spirits in the house – either one of my other skin spirits, or one of our past cats. So at first I just reached out to what I felt and sent a general “Hi, is there something I can help you with?” to the origin of the nudge.
Then, one night, he finally broke through.
I was asleep. Like so many interactions that I’ve had in dreams, I was in wolf form – or, at least, I THOUGHT I was. I was moving through dense undergrowth. It was dark. I could see fairly well – especially the rabbit I had my sights set on.
Thinking about it later, I should’ve realized I wasn’t dire wolf in this dream – rabbits are too small to be regular prey items for my kind.
But they’re perfect for a lone coyote.
I stalked the rabbit, but right before I would’ve pounced it must have heard me. It wheeled and ran. I gave chase. The dense brush opened up into what I thought was a clearing. I was closing in on the rabbit.
The texture of the ground beneath my paws changed. It hardened. Unnaturally hard.
Asphalt? the human part of my brain wondered. The coyote was intent on the rabbit.
Then I was blinded by a searingly bright light. I felt a horrible pain rattling through my entire body. And then darkness.
I woke up.
My heart was pounding, and I felt dizzy. My whole body ached with the force of the impact that I had never actually felt. And in my mind’s eye, I saw the coyote pelt with his road burned bare leather, his torn ears and skin, lying on the back of my chair.
Suddenly I knew that hadn’t just been a bad dream. After months of sitting on my chair, the coyote had come out of hiding and approached me. In my dream state, he’d shown me what had happened to him. And I was left with an overwhelming question:
What am I now?
The next day, I took the coyote from the back of my chair and worked with him for awhile. I won’t go into detail of what I did – these moments of communion are private between the shaman and the skin spirit. However, when I came out of it, the coyote had chosen his name.
I’ve learned that when skin spirits leave the mortal plane, sometimes their level of thinking elevates. I’m never sure if this is a side-effect of being at one with the Totemic archetype spirit for their species, or perhaps a result of having tied themselves to a human being – in this case, me – and therefore borrowing some of my cognitive abilities. But for whatever reason, the longer a skin spirit works with me, the easier it is for me to understand them and put what they want and think into human words.
I’ve also delt with skin spirits that retained their fully animal, instinctive natures – and yet were still presences. I have a squirrel pelt that’s like this. I’m honestly not even sure if it knows it’s dead.
The coyote was one of the former types. After our long discourse that day, he had chosen the name Trevor. When I asked him why, he said it “felt right.” And he wanted to help me.
Looking up the name later on Wikipedia, I found this name definition, and it struck me as poignant:
Trevor is…a name of Irish origin. It is a reduced Anglicized form of Gaelic Ó Treabhair (descendant of Treabhar), …meaning “industrious,” “tight,” or “prudent.”
Specifically, based on the fact that Trevor indicated a wish to help me, the “industrious” and “prudent” meanings stood out to me. If the dream he gave me was how he died, he had definitely NOT been prudent in life. However now, in death, given a new chance to make a difference, he was choosing a name for himself that, perhaps, would help him remember how he came to be here and to NOT make the same mistake again.
Not that there are many highways and cars that could hit him in the spirit realm, to my knowledge, but the point still stands.
What I found the most interesting about his choice of name is that – unlike almost every other skin spirit I have – he both chose it for himself (rather than agreeing to one I suggested for my own personal reference), and he chose a name that I did not know the meaning of at the time he chose it.
Everyone knows that names are important to me for a variety of reasons. Before I suggest a name to a skin spirit, I always have it in mind based on either a reference (my red/gold coyote pelt is named Clayton, after a werewolf in Kelley Armstrong’s Otherworld series that shares similar fur color), or on some aspect of the meaning of the name that I feel reflects the skin spirit strongly (such as Veteran, who we’ll be discussing shortly).
But this was a name that, while I know I’ve heard or read it before, I had never looked up the meaning thereof. To this day he is still the only one of my skin spirit menagerie to have chosen his own name without any prompting from me. He remains a steadfast partner – the first to volunteer when I need a spirit’s aid, and always the first of my little spirit coyote pack to greet me.
Veteran on the other hand – well, he’s a completely different story.
The bobcat came from the same place that Trevor did, but rather than a roadkill, he was a hunter abandonment. The customer just wanted the pelt from the bobcat trophy, not the bones or anything else. My friend rescued the skull when the rest was to be incinerated.
As she was cleaning the skull, she discovered a surprise. Lodged in the muscle around the left eye, there was the lower canine tooth of…another bobcat.
It had healed over, completely – there was no evidence of it until the muscle started being cleaned away. This guy had obviously been a scrapper.
Once the skull was clean, she noticed something else – a dent, on the top of the skull. It was about where the upper canine teeth of the bobcat that lost the tooth likely had landed. I tried to get a good picture of it recently, but I’m not sure if you can tell.
On top of those injuries, the skull’s own left top canine tooth was broken – and it had come to the tannery that way. It wasn’t deep enough to expose the root, but probably hadn’t been comfortable in life.
She had been going to sell the skull – however, something about it made her decide to send it to me instead. So one day, I randomly received a package with a bobcat skull in it. I was thrilled, of course – it was the first feline skull in my collection. However, there was something about it that was disconcerting.
She sent me a message on DA telling me about the skull, and why she’d included a disembodied bobcat canine tooth along with it (the one found in the cleaning process). I thanked her and said I loved it – which I did. She told me the skull was from a male, and she’d leave it up to me what to do with him now.
Well, I put him on my desk and kept him there. Kind of the skull version of what I do with pelts lying on the back of my chair. But something was…off.
I got the distinct impression that he did NOT like me touching him. If he had muscles, he would’ve snapped at me. He was not happy to be here, he had gone through a damn lot in his life to end up like this, and he did not appreciate it.
Several times, the skull seemed to leap off either my desk or my shelf – wherever I was storing him at the time. There was nothing to cause it – the skull was just suddenly in the trash, or on the floor. I’d pick him up, apologizing for having to handle him, and put him back where he was.
I hoped that, over time, I’d break through his anger and eventually get to know him for the spirit he is. It took almost a year, but I eventually had my breakthrough.
I randomly started researching how bobcats are traditionally trapped. I knew for a fact that he had come from a hunter, thanks to my friend. I came across both trapping and shooting as methods. Not having his paperwork, I didn’t know how he was killed. But I had enough of an interest that I approached him the next time I meditated.
I carefully picked up his skull and settled down with him in front of me, staring into his empty eye sockets as I normally do when working with bone spirits – it gives a sense of connection. I approached him and offered my most sincere, respectful apologies for what had happened to him.
I “showed” him the knowledge I’d gained through research about how bobcats are taken by hunters, and I apologized profusely for what had happened to him. I let him know that I had nothing to do with the hunter that had taken him, and that I only wished to be his friend. I would even help him move on, if he wished.
While I was sending these things to him, all I got was the same anger I always felt. When I was finished with my end of the communication, I just waited for him to respond. All previous times I’d attempted communication with him, I’d given up after half an hour or so of silence and anger. This time I was determined to stick it out.
Almost an hour later, when I felt like I was about to fall asleep, the answer finally came.
“I fought larger cats than me. I protected my territory. I mated as many females as I could. I was in top condition.” The resentment, the anger in his tone was palpable, even though the words weren’t so much words as just feelings I felt impressed into my head along with the usual anger – but now I knew WHY he was angry.
I offered him an apology again. I didn’t like what had happened to him. But I couldn’t change it, and if he wanted to remain attached to his skull, there was a place for him within my skin and bone spirit menagerie.
There was a long time of silence again, but I respected his right to deliberate – and for the first time, the anger seemed to ebb. Finally, his answer came – a definitive affirmative – but with the stipulation that should he change his mind, I would release him. I agreed.
And that is how Veteran – so named because of all he went through in life, death, and beyond – came to be a close friend and trusted spirit. Yeah, he’s the grouchiest of all my spirit animals – but he brings the voice of an experienced warrior. And sometimes, that’s exactly what you need.
In the final part of this series, we’ll talk about some skin spirits that have been in the public eye for decades – both before and long after their death.
Next week, we say “Happy Trails” to this blog series, by meeting none other than the late Roy Rogers’ faithful four-legged friends, Trigger, Trigger Jr., Bullet the Wonder Dog, and his late wife’s horse, Buttermilk.
Tygerwolfe Designs Photography (circa 2013)