On a table outside his taxidermy shop in Missoula's Riverfront neighborhood, near the Good Food Store, Dale Manning skins a gut-shot coyote. It's a fresh carcass, but it stinks. It's nothing like the earthy smell of a newly killed deer hung in a cool garage. With half its face removed and a slick, pink, nearly hairless body, the coyote resembles a macabre cartoon character from "The Ren & Stimpy Show." One of its tea-green eyes bulges toward the sky. When the sun slips behind the clouds, flies begin to swarm.
"You came at about the worst time," Manning says. "This is my least favorite thing to do."
Manning, 50, isn't much for bragging but he's a national and international award-winning taxidermist. He's owned the Missoula-based taxidermy studio Custom Birdworks and Big Game Connection, Ltd. since 1988. He sports a white mustache, a laid-back demeanor and a deadpan delivery to match his wicked sense of humor. Sometimes he can't help breaking into a grin. At the moment, though, he's grimacing a little at the stench as he draws his knife across the back of the coyote's ear, which has been turned inside out like a sock.
The coyote came from a regular client who conscientiously brought it to Manning quickly after it was killed, sealed inside a bag sprayed with flea killer. Field care is important: If the client had brought the coyote just a day later, it probably would have already turned green and Manning wouldn't have accepted it. At that point it's just not worth dealing with, Manning says.
Coyotes are the hardest animals to stomach. The ripe smell lasts until Manning puts the carcass in a garbage bag that will be frozen until garbage pick-up day. "We have a saying around here," he says: "The only good coyote is a live coyote."
Tyler Hoffman, Manning's young associate, who has also won numerous awards, stands nearby, scraping fat from the hide of a 22-year-old steer. The animal came to Montana on a big cattle drive from Texas a decade ago. His owner, a rancher, had hoped to get him through one more winter. But with few teeth left to eat with, he was going downhill fast. So he was slaughtered and sent to the butcher. Now the animal's head is inside a large freezer several feet away. Manning points to the worn down teeth.
"Today was a bad day for him," he says. "Or maybe it was a good day. The rancher didn't want him to suffer."
Manning works with animal carcasses all the time, but he doesn't envy people who do the slaughtering. "Everything we see here is already dead," he says. "It's hard enough with chickens—especially for my wife who snuggles ours into their roost each night. When one dies, it's a sad day."
"But I guess you can't anthropomorphize everything or you'd need therapy."
God in the details
Custom Birdworks and The Big Game Connection is a blur of constant motion. Inside the front room there's a menagerie of animals frozen in action. A fox curls up, eyes half closed, nose tilted up as if he's sniffing the air. A flock of upland birds and waterfowl that are roosting or in flight surrounds him. A ram is continuously leaping from a rocky ledge.
The back room is where all the taxidermy takes place. Antlered whitetail deer hang on the wall waiting for skin. A mountain lion in mid-roar balances on its side across a worktable. The large bolt through the bottom of its paw will eventually have him clinging to a tree limb. In another room, antlers of all sizes hang high up near the rafters. Some are in line to be mounted, some are being held until the customer pays in full. Others are racks Manning has bought over the years.
Big game hunting season is hectic, but the work here continues year-round. On April 15, bear season opens, which is the same month turkey season begins. There's always a season for something, and that includes local hunters who go on safaris in Africa or Australia and bring back exotic creatures. Batches of hides are sent in boxes to a tannery in Kalispell; one contains a New Zealand tahr, an Australia wallaby, a black bear, some river otters and an African kudu.
The tannery re-hydrates the hides in a pickle bath solution, shaves excess mass beneath the hair and brushes them out and cleans them up. They're returned to the taxidermy shop about four months later, ready to be mounted, and generally returned to the owners, completed, within a year. In this shop, mounted deer go for $550; elk, $995. A black bear costs $595 with a closed mouth and $675 with an open one.
The tanned hides can keep forever. Some clients—like the one who shot the coyote—just want a soft, tanned hide. If it's going to be mounted, though, the hide has to be re-hydrated and stretched so it's malleable enough to be put on a form and sewn together.
On a recent fall afternoon, Tyler Hoffman is at the shop refurbishing a mule deer head from the early 1900s. The owner's great-grandfather shot the deer and the mount was passed down to him. Over the years its cape became ragged, so the owner shot his own mule deer and is having Hoffman replace the old skin and put the original rack back on the head. "It was actually kind of cool to tear that old mount apart to see how they used to do it," Hoffman says. Inside, he found artifacts of taxidermy's past. It had the entire deer skull inside, bleached and screwed into a wooden frame. The neck was made from excelsior—wood slivers used for packing—wrapped in string.
Now that the new cape is on, Hoffman uses hair gel to tame cowlicks on the coat. Hoffman's mother is a hairdresser in Missoula and he gets product tips from her. The one he uses now is an ice blue gel called Spiker—the kind that smells like Irish Spring and was popular in the '80s. Whitetail hair lays down easily but mule deer tend to have unruly tufts where the skin has been pulled tight on the cheeks or around the nose and eyes. If the hair won't stay down, Hoffman pins a rag over the gelled hair and waits for it to dry, then brushes the excess goop out so the follicles stay soft.
Sometimes, if it needs cleaning, the taxidermists wash the cape with Pert Plus and dry it with a blow dryer. With older mounts, they shampoo the cape gingerly to keep the leather from degrading.