Creature Feature

A collection of creatures draws curious looks and friends keen to add to this unusual menagerie.

A decade ago, guests invited to Christy Hassell’s home might have been delighted to find her dinner table graced by a few items from her candy-colored fake food collection.

These days, they’re more likely to spot of rat, frog, iguana or raccoon. Not as in cute ceramic ware or elegant glassware, but the real deal, all fur, scales and claws. The only glass is
in the eye sockets of her taxidermy specimens.

It’s been enough to elicit screams from some guests with a fear of particular rodents, amphibians or taxidermy in general.

“One of the caterers asked if I could hide the rattlesnakes. They bothered her,” Hassell says. “Otherwise, our guests know me and I try not to offend them. I put lei on them so they’re decorative.”

For many, taxidermy is associated with death, and a quick search on the Internet turns up stories of people who run crying from museums upon sight of a taxidermy creature.

But not Hassell, who says she’s fascinated by her menagerie.

Nothing in her past would indicate her attraction to the macabre. She says she wasn’t a collector until, in the 1980s, she worked in catering management at the Hilton Hawaiian Village and Halekulani, and started to collect resin food replicas to amuse clients.

“I had a wonderful collection of fake food. I would go to San Francisco and find fake hot dogs, milkshakes, hot fudge sundaes, tacos and plates of spaghetti,” she says. “I displayed it in my office and clients loved it. I got a lot of ‘wows!’”

Her less-appetizing collection started innocently enough. As the wife of renowned Hawaiiana collector Watters O. Martin, she found herself gamely accompanying him on visits to antique shops. During a trip to Paris, she came upon a small shrunken head from South America.


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Christy Hassell (opposite page), shares her home with a menagerie of taxidermy creatures that some may consider frightening, but she considers companionable. Here, "Iggy" the Iguana plays the harp.

“I had seen these things at auction houses in London, so I knew it was real, but it was very expensive so we passed on that,” she says.

But the memory of the curiosity stayed with her.

Back in Honolulu, she continued to explore flea markets with her husband.

“Watters taught me to be his scout and told me what to look for, like Ming’s jewelry and anything Hawaiiana. I didn’t find very much, but one day he was dawdling along, so I walked ahead and saw an iguana playing the harp and I had to have it because it was so bizarre and such an unusual piece. I mean, how many people have any iguana playing—not a guitar—but a harp?

“It was $25, and in those days, it was kind of up there for something nobody wanted, but I had to have it.”

After that, noting her fascination with the strange, her friend Regina Kawananakoa gave her a gift of taxidermy frogs, and because of Hassell’s enthusiasm.

“She got on a kick of bringing me frogs every time she found one.”

Hassell’s collection continued to grow with the de-acquisition of the Kamuela Museum on Hawai’i Island, from which she was able to pick up several pieces, including her beloved rat and a peacock.

Other fascinating creatures followed, including two raccoons, a small alligator, squirrel and armadillo, most with alliterative names reflecting their species, like Allie the alligator, Ratty the rat, and Iggy the iguana.

One of her favorite pieces is a display of colorful, iridescent insects mounted in a block of clear resin.

She admits to being a prankster and enjoys the shock factor her collection provides.

“It gives me great pleasure. I have a giant cane spider pin, and instead of wearing it like normal, I put it on my shoulder, and when people see it, they say, ‘Don’t move, you have a spider on your shoulder!’ And I say, ‘I do?’ Then I laugh.

“I like to pull jokes on people. I love to play. It’s probably one of the reasons I was on restriction as a teenager. My entire junior year, I couldn’t leave the house. I got into a lot of trouble.”

Although Martin often rolls his eyes over her obsession, he believes Hassell’s taxidermy complements his own collection of paintings, calabashes and Hawaiiana, displayed in their home.

“I think it’s fun and reflects Edwardian-style decor, when people had all these things behind glass,” he says. “It works.”

Although Hassell doesn’t know the provenance of the taxidermy because each of her 21 pieces came to her secondhand, she likes to think the animals died of natural causes before being preserved.

“When you go to people’s homes and see mounted heads and furniture with animal parts, like a table with an elephant foot base, or zebra skin rug, those kinds of things are disturbing to me. I’m not interested in trophy animals.”

And with cats and dogs as pets, she doesn’t see a taxidermy future for them.

“I don’t think I would ever do that because I know them.

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