Animal house 

At a Missoula taxidermist's, the dead can prance

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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.

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