Mounting the courage

🕔Mar 09, 2006

A conversation from a few nights ago replays in my head and I crack a smile.

“Ally, can you do a load of laundry on Monday morning?” my sister asks. “Can’t,” I tell her, “I’m going to the taxidermist.”

She looks at me for a second to see if I meant to say I am going to the dentist. “What are you going to do—stuff a bear?” she asks. “And have you forgotten that the sight of blood makes you faint?”

I try to forget my sister’s reminder as I bravely make my way to my profession for the day. A few steps ahead, a man carries a deer head by the antlers, much the same way a child would casually carry his lunch bag to school. I stop and stare at several animal heads that are upside down and bloody, balancing on long perfect antlers.

Taking a deep breath, I stare down at my corduroys, hoping that my ensemble conveys both professional journalist and I-can-get-dirty-while-skinning-a-wild-animal. What is one supposed to wear?

I soon find out as I sit opposite Ted Moon at Adams Igloo & Full Moon Taxidermy in Smithers. He sports yellow waterproof pants that look as though they’ve seen blood before. There’s the smell of wood smoke… and something else, something unidentifiable. Leathery and dead. A Tragically Hip song plays on the radio. It doesn’t get any more northern than this.

In the corner there is a woodstove, giving the room a cozy feel. Despite this, I am quite unnerved by the extremely lifelike stares of the wildlife that adorn the walls. There is everything from birds to mountain goats, to fierce, little wolverines. Some look curious, some angry, and others alert. The most frightening is a fully stuffed cougar that returns my gaze at eye level. This hair-raising beauty looks as though he could leap off his perch at any minute.

Moon must sense me eyeing our furry companions as he tells me that children who enter this room fall into two categories: fascinated and terrified.

I can honestly say I am officially both.

As I wait to try my hand at skinning, I listen patiently to the customer ahead of me. He debates whether his deer mount should be painstakingly preserved as “full sneak” or “semi-sneak.” I am lost already. Moon gestures to the deer on the wall and I realize that he’s referring to the head positioning of the animal. Aha! I’m catching on already.

The customer gives Moon the blow-by-blow account of how he and his son shot a deer and a black bear. Clearly, the storytelling is an integral part of the experience when getting one’s prey immortalized. This freshly hunted black bear is quite unique. A white ring of fur on his chest resembles a shooting target. The animal didn’t stand a chance.

Moon offers up a steady stream of small talk as he sits with the black bear skin on his lap, slicing off the fat. It almost reminds me of trimming the fat from meat in my kitchen, except my meat is usually boneless and without fur.

Suddenly I’m surprised by what sounds like nails on a chalkboard. Moon is sharpening his knife, preparing to cut the bones out of the claws. Once removed, they resemble a human skeleton hand with the top half of the fingers chopped off. Lovely. He chucks them onto the floor, adding to a growing pile of bear fat. Moon shows me how tiny flaps in the ear are sliced open to ensure that they dry properly. Judging by his deftly moving fingers, this is incredibly skilled work. I ask Moon if he has ever cut himself.

“Not too often,” he smiles. He tells me that bear cuts are extremely prone to infections. All of his previous nicks and scratches were carefully cleaned and usually followed by a trip to the doctor for a tetanus shot or stitches.

This may explain why I am doing more watching than skinning.

At my feet lays a giant moose skin that Moon has salted. He opens up a garbage bag and pulls out a recently brought-in hide. He examines it closely with his bloody hands. The fur will slip when it is left for too long, he explains. The fresher the kill the better it can be preserved.

The next step in the skin’s afterlife is to be hung up to dry and sent off to the tannery. After this, the skins are wetted, nailed down, and stretched out. Each re-creation is carefully fitted with a urethane foam mould in the shape of the appropriate animal. The foam is sanded and shaped to fit the creature. The skin is then placed overtop using special hide paste. The key is to secure the skin over the man-made materials so that it appears lifelike. In fact, the word taxidermy is derived from ancient Greek, with “taxis” meaning movement, and “dermo” meaning skin.

Gone is my image of stuffing an upright bear full of cotton wool. I am not completely off track, however. In the 1800s hunters would bring their skins to upholstery shops to be sewn up and stuffed full of rags, cotton or straw. Early taxidermists soon developed their craft by creating anatomically correct mannequins with accurate placing of the animals’ bone structure. Professional taxidermists no longer use the term “stuffing.” They refer to “mounting” an animal.

Meanwhile, my admiration for this wildlife art mounts. A modern day taxidermist is a combination of businessman, butcher, carpenter and artist.

The final touches involve sculpting the nostrils, painting the delicate area around the eyes, and positioning the ears. The eyes, by the way, are not real. A good taxidermist will use museum-quality glass eyes at around 28 dollars apiece. Taxidermists must also know how an animal would naturally look in the wild. A proper mount will accurately depict the natural motion of the animal, as well as its natural environment.

I study the silently roaring bear head on the table in front of me. The ears lay flat when its mouth is open, Ted explains. I realize that my mouth, too, is open. Moon informs me that German clients often prefer their open-mouthed bear heads to have perked up ears. It is the customer’s personal preference how the animal will look, even if it is anatomically incorrect.

There is a knock at the door and three hunters come in from an expedition. Disappointment shows on their faces as harsh weather cut their trip short. There is the token American, no doubt hoping to bring a hunting trophy home and a few good stories from the North. Moon tells me that international hunters don’t usually transport the meat of their kill. Instead he distributes the meat to people who can use it, making sure that none of it goes to waste.

As my crash course in taxidermy ends, I can’t help but admire the ferocious beauty of these eternally preserved creatures, not to mention the work that goes into achieving it. These animals are awe-inspiring in their lifelike poses, but it is still ironic that they are first killed to later look alive.