Animal house 

At a Missoula taxidermist's, the dead can prance

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.

click to enlarge The trophy room at Missoula hunters John and Kari Ottman’s house sports dozens of Dale Manning mounts, including deer, sheep, caribou, a goat, a musk ox, and a polar bear that won first place at the world taxidermy championships in 2007. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The trophy room at Missoula hunters John and Kari Ottman’s house sports dozens of Dale Manning mounts, including deer, sheep, caribou, a goat, a musk ox, and a polar bear that won first place at the world taxidermy championships in 2007.

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."

He pauses.

"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.

click to enlarge The work that Dale Manning did on this bighorn ram—shot by the taxidermist himself in Rock Creek a few years back—won him Best of Show and numerous other awards at the Montana state taxidermy competition. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • The work that Dale Manning did on this bighorn ram—shot by the taxidermist himself in Rock Creek a few years back—won him Best of Show and numerous other awards at the Montana state taxidermy competition.

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.

It's easy to get blood out of most hides, but the white fur of mountain goats and Dall sheep can be tricky. Hoffman says they sometimes have to get out spots with hair bleach. "You make a paste and put it on, get the hair dryer and heat it up," he says. "A lot of times you have to do it maybe three times. If you let it sit too long it [can turn] the hair purple."

Hoffman polishes the mule deer's antlers with Mop & Glo. The taxidermied animal winds up smelling like it just came out of a salon—flowery, with a hint of chemicals. All of that mixes with the musky scent of the shop's tanned hides.

And that's just the beginning. After five or so deer are sewn onto their forms, the real work begins. Plaster of Paris rebuilds muscle where an ear attaches. Clay underneath the hide allows remolding of the facial structure. The ear bud is reshaped and pinked with paint to make it come alive. The nose is Dremeled so it looks like a real cavity, and painted in browns and grays, then clear-coated for a wet shimmer. Elmer's Glue-like Mod Podge is used to touch up the eye glands, giving them a porous look. Skin is tucked. Tear ducts are recreated. Then the eyes are carefully set inside the lids.

click to enlarge Taxidermist Dale Manning finds a customer’s elk rack amid the dozens of racks adorning his shop. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Taxidermist Dale Manning finds a customer’s elk rack amid the dozens of racks adorning his shop.

Inside the work studio, Manning keeps a drawer full of eyes. There are orbs for every kind of animal imaginable, with colors of emerald, gray-blue, mustard and cerulean. The deep brown ones are for deer; Manning mostly stocks those, which come in 10-packs. The material is glass made in Germany. The eye itself is made in Pennsylvania. They're mostly round, but the pupils vary from nearly pin-point to oblong, stretching horizontal for some and vertical for others, some sharply defined and others appearing to seep at the edges.

Manning has a separate box of loose eyes that testify to the history of taxidermy. He lays them out in order of their evolution: The old-school deer eyes are flat with round pupils. The next eye is even more realistic, with a basic oblong pupil. "And then they got a little more clever," he says. "This next one has a long pupil but you can see some blue in it. And then one step further, instead of solid glass they do a convex eye with a white band, which is the new thing."

Competition eyes are even more realistic. Those go for up to $200.

Manning pulls out a sheep's eye with a sclera band—the dark detail around the iris. The white of the eye has veining in it. Even up close, you could mistake it for the real, dewy eye of an animal. A high-end mountain lion eye is engineered with equally convincing style. Shine a flashlight in it and it projects the eerie green glow of a cat's eye in the dark.

Taxidermy supply websites boast ever-evolving technologies such as liquid eyes, flexible models that conform to the eye orbit, "expression enhancing" paint colors and speckled eyes from Europe sold as Quantum VX Prestige with the claim that "only nature does it better."

Stuffed animals

Taxidermy comes from the Greek words taxis, which means movement, and derma, or skin. The practice goes back to ancient tribes from all corners of the globe that preserved animals for spiritual and hunting rituals. Later, nobles on great estates used preserved animals as status symbols. By the 1800s, tanneries were commonplace but animals were still being crudely stuffed with cotton and rags and papier mâché, not unlike a child's stuffed animal. In the early 20th century, the Boone and Crocket Club began its scoring system for big game trophies. At around the same time, pioneers such as Carl E. Akeley began making anatomically correct forms for hides. The term "stuffing" was replaced with the more artistic term "mounting."

"The natural history museums were actually the theater for people," says Larry Bloomquist, publisher for the Baton Rouge-based taxidermy magazine Breakthrough. "Taxidermy had a lot of advancements during this period, between 1900 and 1930. But museum taxidermists were extremely secretive to protect their jobs. And commercial taxidermy was still terrible."

Bloomquist witnessed the second wave of taxidermy when he opened his taxidermy shop in Alabama in 1968. Taxidermists began to share trade secrets in the 1970s, just as the technology developed for more lifelike possibilities. Bloomquist started Breakthrough in 1989 and sold his shop in 1994 to devote himself full time to the mag. Taxidermy competitions were popping up. In the last decade, Bloomquist has helped spearhead a world taxidermy competition that has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker and The New York Times.

As taxidermists fine-tuned their craft, the detail work and addition of habitat pedestals pushed it into the artistic realm, which brought in a wider audience.

"There's always been a stigma about taxidermy," says Bloomquist. "And of course you have both men and women that love to hunt. But for the most part, around the United States, the men have been the hunters and the women were saying, 'I don't want that hanging on my wall.' That attitude has changed a lot because of artistic compositions taxidermists began to develop."

The first anatomical forms were fiberglass. The newest models are polyurethane and can be sculpted to anatomical accuracy. Manning has stacks of supplier magazines that offer all kinds of forms for mounting. On the shop's walls you can see the creamy forms, with the muscles and lines of deer but no antlers, looking like ghosts.

Says Manning, "The industry has changed so much that we're now being looked at as more of an art form instead of the psycho Norman Bates in the basement with his scary looking mounts around him."

click to enlarge After mounting a century-old mule deer rack onto a customer’s new deer mount, Tyler Hoffman applies gel to make the deer’s hair lie just right. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • After mounting a century-old mule deer rack onto a customer’s new deer mount, Tyler Hoffman applies gel to make the deer’s hair lie just right.

Yet you only need to look at a room packed with the evidence of dead things—antlers and heads and hooves—to come away with the idea that taxidermists must be morbid or insensitive. Or both. Taking dead animals and resurrecting their bodies into a lifelike illusion? What art seems stranger than that?

Manning gets it. "Maybe we should act weird and play the part for your story," he jokes, then adds, "It's reality. If you want a little taste of reality and death, come to the taxidermy shop!"

Still, taxidermists often are really just wildlife geeks. They tend to love everything about animals and like to talk in detail about hunting. They get to know the ins and outs of habitat and anatomy and behavior. They like to make the dead seem beautiful and alive through the precision of their cosmetology.

Customers have various reasons for getting animals mounted. In a recent issue of Montana Outdoors, the Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks magazine, editor Tom Dickson explores what it is about mounting animals that appeals to some people. Surveys show that for most hunters, the trophy isn't the top priority. It's being out in nature, spending time with other hunters and obtaining meat that's important. The trophy is an extension of that experience.

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."

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY CHAD HARDER

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."

When Manning started competing in taxidermy, it was with birds. The cost in labor isn't much if you have tools like mounting stands, scalpels, needles and thread. If you have no other work to do, you can put together a bird mount in a day for $15. Competitions are scored on artistic merit and anatomy, among other things. Judges are taxidermists who excel in that category. In 2001, Manning went to the National Taxidermy Convention in Columbia, Mo., and won North American Waterfowl Champion, North American Turkey Champion and National Taxidermist of the Year.

He decided to go bigger. Manning's friend John Ottman, a worldwide hunter whom he's known since high school, went up to Canada on a hunt. Eskimo tribes are allowed a quota of polar bears by Canadian Fish & Game in order to manage them in certain areas, and, at that time, the ban on bringing polar bears into the U.S. had been lifted. Ottman took a bush plane to a far north hamlet called Holman. An Eskimo guide took him another 100 miles into a remote area with a nine-dog sled team.

"There's a quota, and out of 16 hunts only four were taken," says Ottman. "Most of the other hunts are weathered out; they turn into ground blizzards or the ice starts to break and you just can't travel. ... We were the last hunters...I was fortunate to get one."

He and Manning are both sensitive to the fact that some people don't like the idea of shooting a polar bear, although Ottman says he believes that the experience, the information gathered and the economic benefit it has for Eskimo communities are important. Back at Holman, after Ottman shot the polar bear, the Eskimos had a celebration and cooked the meat from the polar bear's feet. The 30 large kits the size of duffel bags that they brought on the hunt were filled with fat from the hindquarters, the tongue, the testicles, the liver, and the kidneys, which were dissected to collect information about the bear. Ottman says that a council of Eskimos sat with Canadian biologists and reviewed the information, monitoring mercury levels in the bears, among other considerations.

Ottman says that taxidermy gives him a naturalist's look into the life and anatomy of the animal. Memorialzing the experience is one part of it, but it's not about mounting a piece for bragging rights.

"I didn't do the hunt just to say I got a polar bear. I want to see the world through the eyes of hunting. I want to hunt in ways that could support these small communities and capture good information about wildlife."

Taxidermying the polar bear took Ottman, Manning and Hoffman at least 120 hours. A polar bear's hide is typically so heavy that it takes that many people to maneuver it off and on the form to give it a custom fit. And then they mounted it on a granite platform and made a Plexiglas, resin and Styrofoam structure that emulated ice with the blue of the ocean shining through.

"The polar bear was fun," says Ottman, who says the cost of the mount was comparable to that of a mid-sized car. "It turned into a cult. We had books on polar bears and pictures. It was insane. But Dale's incredibly talented, and so is Tyler. I'm an average taxidermist...Dale knows what it takes to make it perfect."

click to enlarge PHOTOS BY CHAD HARDER

In 2007, Manning and Tyler Hoffman traveled to the world taxidermy championships in Reno, where about 20 countries were represented, from Europe, Australia and North America. Manning and Hoffman brought the polar bear, hoping it would get some recognition—and it did: They won the collective artists award and first place for large mammals. Their bear mount also landed on the cover of Breakthrough, the taxidermy trade magazine edited by Larry Bloomquist, who has called it his favorite cover of all the magazine's issues.

For Manning, that cover was a landmark, "kind of like being on the cover of Rolling Stone," he says.

Manning is clearly proud of his wins, but he's also modest. It takes three interviews to get him to explain why he stopped competing on the state level.

"I've been competing for 40 years as the bird guy," he says. "Then I did the polar bear thing, which blew everybody out of the water, because I'm the bird guy." He'd started competing with big game in 2005, but when his polar bear won the world large mammal award, he felt challenged. "I was getting shit that I could only compete in big game once, and that I got lucky with the bear," he says, smiling slyly. "And so then it's like, 'I'll show you.'"

A few years later, he bagged a large ram up Rock Creek. The ram had been in rut so the meat was no good, but Manning turned it into a stunning piece of taxidermy, not just because it's lifelike but also because of the mechanics. The ram is leaping off a rock with only one foot planted on the base and the rest of its body, including its large horns, hanging to one side of the center of gravity. It makes no sense, physics-wise, until you know how Manning did it.

The rock habitat is actually painted foam cast from real rock. (Manning's perfection of that rock look—whether it be mountain rock, barnacled sea rocks or riverbed rocks—propelled him to start a faux-rock-making business on the side.) From the rock, steel tubing runs up through the grounded leg and is bent at all the joints up to the hip. At the hip it goes into the middle of the body and then, in the middle of the body, there's a piece of one-by-four steel stock that's welded from there and runs into the front shoulder.

"You have to have a vision," he says. "You can't just mount a standing duck, put it on a piece of driftwood and expect it to go win at a show. It's gotta be suspended out, flying against the sky."

And here was a ram practically flying. At the 2009 Montana state taxidermy competition, the awards stacked up. Manning won Best of Show from the judges. He won Taxidermist Choice, an award voted on by his peers. He won the People's Choice from the viewing audience. He won the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep Award, Montana Outfitters Guide Association Award and the Fish and Game Award. Because he was sitting at the back of the room, he had to keep coming up for every award. After a while, he asked Tyler Hoffman to go in his stead so he could leave.

"It was weird," he says now. "I won about every award that you could win at the show—and it was embarrassing. It was out of my control."

Pressed about why he thinks that ram got so much attention, he takes a breath.

"A lot of thought went into it," he finally says, smiling.

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