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The story of Phil the muskrat, Facebook sensation

Photos by Shelby Watson-Hampton Shelby Watson-Hampton with her Uncle Phil and her stuffed muskrat
ME AND UNCLE PHIL: I was 10 when I went on my first trapping excursion for a muskrat. I named him Phil, after my great uncle Phil, who was along on that first trip.
Shelby Watson-Hampton’s stuffed ‘Holiday Muskrat’ has quite the story behind him.

OK, this time I’m not going to dive into any big issues or wax philosophical. I’m going to tell you a tale. I think we could all use a bit of humor right now, and my family is a little crazy, and I might as well get some useful mileage out of that. 

To begin, it’s best to start with a little background first. 

My parents, who have been blissfully married for over 35 years now, come from very different backgrounds. Mom’s people are from Texas and Arizona, and she was raised to be a proper Southwest suburban girl, complete with dance classes, cotillion and matching teacups. 

Dad, on the other hand, is a good ol’ country boy. He spent the first half of his Southern Maryland childhood in the tobacco fields and hog pens on our family farm, and the second half hunting, fishing and trapping everything with fur, feathers or scales. 

I am my parent’s only daughter. I, too, took dance classes, piano lessons, cotillion and had matching teacups. But I was my father’s shadow and a real tomboy. Girly things were fun occasionally, but they were no match for the fun to be had in the great outdoors. 

This leads me to the heart of this story. 

His name is Phil, and he is muskrat. A stuffed and mounted river muskrat. I named him after my favorite great uncle Phil, who was with us the day we hauled him in over the edge of a boat. It seemed like the right thing to do, as it was a momentous occasion. 

I was 10 and it was my first trapping excursion with Dad. Muskrats are trapped for their meat, which we eat, and their pelts are sold to the faux mink trade.

As is customary in many Southern or rural farm families, a child’s first catch is often celebrated by stuffing, mounting and slapping that thing on an accessible wall or end table. My older brother’s various first mementos include a mounted duck, a rockfish and a white-tailed buck. My younger brother has a buck, too — he probably had more than that but, you know, he’s the youngest child.

I think that by then we were running out of wall and table space. My mother’s sanity can only take so much. But the first and only thing I had mounted was Phil. 

My mother, whom as you might imagine did not grow up with dead animals hanging on her walls, put on her game face and dealt with it. Actually, she played it to her advantage. 

She patiently waited until my father’s hunting hobby got slightly out of hand, and the trophies were piling up, and then she suggested that he build his own man cave garage barn to store all his trophies. While the contractors were at it, they might as well go ahead and spend a few extra hours redesigning her entire kitchen. And the bathroom. And the laundry room. Well played, Mom, well played. 

As of this moment, my parents have half a new house and all of the critters now live in the barn. There is nary a stuffed head in that house anywhere. Except Phil. And our Phil is no ordinary stuffed muskrat. He is “The Holiday Muskrat.”

Yes, that’s right. He is dressed throughout the months in holiday-appropriate attire and displayed jauntily on the foyer table of my childhood home. 

I’m pretty sure that on that day somewhere back in the mid ’90s, when my grinning father lifted that stuffed water rat out of the taxidermist’s box, it was either a beat’em (with the stuffed critter upside his head) or join’em moment for my mother. And, like the lady she is, she gracefully chose the latter. If it was going to sit in her house on her side table, it was going to be properly displayed; it was going to be a talking piece. 

The first outfit was cute and slightly inspired … but really it was just a warmup. My mother’s muse really kicked in with the subsequent holidays. 

Stuffed muskrat Phil dressed as a leprechaun
HOLIDAY PHIL: Our Phil is no ordinary stuffed muskrat. He is “the holiday muskrat,” as he dressed throughout the months in holiday-appropriate attire.  

The first time that I posted his photo to Facebook my online posse lost it, y’all. He gained an instant following, and now it’s become a thing. 

And that, my friends, is a true story. When life hands you a muskrat … you stuff it, dress it up and start its own fan following on Facebook. 

Because why not? 

Watson-Hampton farms with her family on their fourth-generation family farm in Brandywine, Md.

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