Emma Hawkins loves wildlife to death. She is a taxidermist

"Why have money in the bank when you can be surrounded by beautiful things?" Emma Hawkins says, gesturing to a room filled from floor to ceiling with stuffed animals. Bear skins are slung over the banisters and beneath our feet lies a zebra skin; there are cases filled with butterflies, beetles and spiders, and high above our heads glass-eyed sporting trophies peer at us from their wooden plaques.

With its mixture of taxidermy and curios, Emma's shop, Hawkins & Hawkins, is a miniature Natural History Museum-cum-props cupboard. Her aim was to recreate a Victorian cabinet of curiosities; a room set aside for collections of scientific or cultural interest, covering anything from fossils to stuffed animals and natural history drawings.

To this she adds whatever takes her fancy. The stranger the better: an elephant ear table, an iguana ashtray and a necklace of gold mounted stag's teeth. On a desk two figures dance together in a garden under a glass dome. "It plays three tunes. I've never seen one of these musical boxes in such good condition. I buy what I like, after all you've got to be able to live with it. I look for things I've not seen before or simply things that amuse me."

A large case of creatures from Australasia are Emma's link with home in Australia. Her father, an Englishman, is an antique dealer in Sydney and it was through him that her interest in the trade developed. At 17 she came to the UK and worked for a number of dealers before setting up on her own to pursue her passion. She has been surrounded by stuffed animals for as long as she can remember, as a child she slept under the watchful gaze of a stuffed giraffe, whose head and neck sat next to her bed. "The local vet in Australia used to buy from my father and his waiting room was filled with stuffed dogs. He never had any trouble with late payments."

Most of her stock comes from antiques fairs and auctions. "I only sell antiques; I've no interest in contemporary pieces. I don't believe in killing animals to stuff them or for their furs. But without these stuffed specimens, we would have no record of what certain animals looked like. There are no dodos left: all we have is a reconstruction which is not the same thing." Stickers on the door declare her support for the World Wide Fund for Nature and Passports for Animals. To those who suggest that by having anything to do with the trade in dead animals, regardless of their age and provenance, is hypocritical she says: "Why throw out something so beautiful to prove a point? Surely that is a greater waste."

Her taxidermy is mainly 19th century, when the Victorians' interest in stuffing animals for scientific study, trophies and ornamental purposes was at its height. One of the few later specimens is the head of a tiger, killed in India in 1926 by the woman it hoped to have for lunch. A framed letter from the Churgulia Forest Department describes Mrs Smythies' brave struggle with the "enraged brute". The tiger will soon be leaving for the States. "It's been bought by a vegetarian lion tamer," Emma explains.

Downstairs there are fossils, whale teeth, a hippo skull, a stuffed American Heath Hen - now extinct - a case of exotic birds and a couple of skeletons. An iron mantrap with a grisly past is propped against the wall surrounded by board games, hunting knives, weights and scientific instruments. Behind a Victorian screen, a small dog crouches on a bed of dried flowers. "That's Myrtle. I keep her there because she upsets people. But someone obviously loved her. Look at the trouble they went to when she died."

Wherever you look there are extraordinary things and many are surprisingly affordable. A complete turtle on a stand is about pounds 40, a monkey head pounds 210, while the splendid heath hen will set you back pounds 1,200. Prices for taxidermy are governed by the rarity of the creature and the skill with which it has been stuffed. "I look for life and humour. For birds and animals, Roland Ward was the best. He was able to capture their characters so well."

Her clients are varied, ranging from interior decorators to people who have just been struck by the beauty of a stuffed animal. She recalls one customer who made the expensive mistake of popping in with her seven-year- old daughter. The child took one look at a stuffed Hoppen penguin (pounds 135) and refused to leave without it. Penguins are very popular - there is currently a waiting list for them. Other common requests include bats and monkeys, but you can ask for anything and, as long as you are patient, she should be able to get you the llama, polar bear or earwig of your dreams.

Every item has a story. Particularly moving is that attached to the first platypus to reach England. "It arrived in a bale of cotton," she explains, "and when it woke up and scurried out, the dockers were horrified. They had never seen one before so they beat it to death. The owner of the shipyard was furious and fired the men responsible and had the platypus stuffed. It sat in his office until he died."

At 23 Emma is the youngest of only a tiny circle who specialise in taxidermy and curios. "She has a cult following," says Nick Brawer, a regular customer who has arrived to pay for half a dozen ceremonial lances and a stuffed tiger. He has come straight from an auction in Salisbury and wants to show off his latest acquisition. "You are going to love this," he gasps as he lugs a large box into the shop. "I just had to show you." He unveils a dispatch box complete with secret compartments and a fully working mimeograph which can produce unlimited stencils of documents; an early photocopier.

Nick, one-time Chilean roller blade champion, collects campaign memorabilia from the Raj 1877-1914. "My New York apartment is an exact replica of a British officer's quarters in Madras c. 1900," he says.

Emma's stock is so eclectic that nothing looks out of place, so if a client changes their mind, whatever she has bought on their behalf is simply added to the other treasures. Her office is dominated by a spectacular silver throne. "I've never been able to sell it," and towering behind her on an old filing cabinet are a pair of fiery red platforms with dagger heels and gold-edged hearts cut out of the soles. "Aren't they fabulous? I had to have them."

Hawkins & Hawkins, 201 Westbourne Grove, London W11 (0171-221 5218). Wed-Sat 10.30-5pm.

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