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Manning says that if you would have asked him 20 years ago what makes a person put a dead animal on the wall, he wouldn't have known what to say. Decades into the business, he knows it's a complicated answer. There are people more interested in the size and score than the experience, and there are others who see mounting a trophy as a tribute to an animal that provided them food, a challenge and a connection to the rest of nature.
"It can be a chest-pounding thing for some people," Manning says, "but for others it's probably emotional. It's preserving a memory of a hunt that means something to you. Maybe it's your daughter's first buck or your dog's last pheasant retrieved."
Once, he says, he caught one of his apprentices commenting on the underwhelming size of a customer's elk. "I told him, 'That guy's a quadriplegic and he blew on a straw to kill that elk—so now how do you feel?'...This experience in a taxidermy shop is really different for everybody who walks through that door."
'You have to have a vision'
Dale Manning grew up in Missoula. He started hunting birds when he was 14. No one else in his family hunted. When he wanted to get one of his ducks mounted, it proved too expensive for him at $150 and not a priority in his family's budget. Then he found an ad in the back of Outdoor Life magazine for a correspondence course through the Northwestern School of Taxidermy and sent away for it.
Every week he'd get a new lesson in the mail, say, instructions on how to skin a squirrel. Two weeks later he'd receive another packet, perhaps this time on mounting fish. When he finished the easier lessons, he apprenticed at Bitterroot Taxidermy.
He originally wanted to go into wildlife biology, he says, but he was discouraged by the lack of jobs in the field. So he went to the University of Montana business school for finance and economics, worked at another taxidermy shop, Taxidermy Unlimited, then at Bob Ward's, and cultivated a bird-mounting business on the side. In 1988, he opened Custom Birdworks.
He also married his wife, Jennifer, who happened to be vegetarian.
"I'm not anti-meat," she says. "I'm kind of a live-and-let-live girl. But I just felt like, if you're going to eat it, you better be willing to be part of the process—or at least have a good understanding that meat doesn't come from Safeway in cellophane."
She recalls one of their first dates when she was getting into the passenger side of Dale's truck and saw a severed duck head in the door jam. "I thought, 'Good grief! What have I gotten myself into?' I didn't understand it at first, not at all. But I started eating wild game a few months afterward, when I understood a little bit better the idea of fair-chase hunting."
The Mannings have some taxidermy on their home walls, including a deer head, a turkey and a couple of antelope, though they recently took them down at the request of the real estate agent who was trying to sell their home. Jennifer says she understands concerns people have about hunting and taxidermy. "There are those people that mount everything they shoot, or who are [unethical]," she says. "But that's not most people, not in my experience. People I know enjoy hunting for being in the outdoors and the whole process... not just pulling the trigger."
In the early 1990s, Dale added Big Game Connection, Ltd. to the title of his business. So many of his bird customers were bringing in big game on the side that it made sense—though it makes for an unruly name.
When Manning first got into taxidermy, he says, it was a world of secrets. "Taxidermists wouldn't share information with anybody. They figured that if they gave somebody a certain technique, they'd lose work to him."
Manning clearly doesn't see it that way. Tyler Hoffman, his associate, and his two young apprentices, Conner Jenkins, 18, and Lucas Hoffman, 20, and Tyler's younger brother, are learning all the tricks of his trade. Manning enjoys being a mentor.
One recent day, the three workers are salting the old steer. The chestnut hide takes up the entire salt table, which looks like a small, elevated sandbox filled with 1,000 pounds of fine mixing salt yellowed by blood. The men are on their knees rubbing salt into every nook of the hide to make sure the salt will suck out any moisture and cure the hide for its trip to the tannery. Manning watches them work for a few seconds, smiling. "It usually doesn't take three people to salt a hide," he finally says, loud enough for them to hear. All three turn and give him an amused look. He's screwing with them. They laugh. "That'll be on the agenda for the employee meeting on Monday morning," he says.
Jenkins started learning taxidermy six years ago. He worked on his high school senior project with Manning as his mentor, and learned early the importance of covering your mistakes. When a load of birds fell out of a truck while he was going 70 on the highway, he was still able to piece together the broken tails and half-broken heads of several birds and win second place in the state's professional taxidermy division. "It's all a matter of adapting," he says. "You learn to fix mistakes. You've got to be able to put things back together and make them look really good."
Statewide associations and online forums distribute plenty of taxidermy tips these days. At state, national and international conventions, taxidermists meet for competitions and perfect their craft. Buying the newfangled eyes is one thing, but just taxidermying an animal isn't enough anymore. It has to be in action, atop some kind of scenery piece—a rock, or ice. It has to look like it's about to take a breath.
"Even if I tell you how to do it, even if I tell you everything I know, you as a person still have to be able to do it," Manning says. "You have to have the mechanics to do it, the tools to do it and the artistic ability to do it—which is huge."