What it was like to work for a Taxidermist; I got to see a lot of animals from the inside out.
For about a year I was an assistant to a taxidermist. That was as long as my heart and soul were mesmerized by the process of making taxidermy mounts. It was a given that over time the indignity of what was being done to these noble creatures with souls and presence outweighed my fascination.
“Arms straight out and stiff, hands grasping the neck of closed pillow cases; it was not unusual for grown men to come into the shop with live rattlesnakes….”
NOTE: This is not an anti-hunting piece, nor is it meant to disrespect hunters or taxidermists. I got to see and handle hundreds of native animals up close. The work done by the taxidermist was almost always respectful and done to preserve the animals dignity and inherent beauty.
How I Began Working with the Taxidermist and Learned to Paint Fish
I worked for a taxidermist when I was a much younger person, during the second half of many years spent in private art colleges.
He found me.
He needed someone who could mix colors accurately to paint the beaks of ducks. He also needed someone to paint around the eyes and in some cases inside the mouths of his mounts. These parts of the deceased animal lost their vibrant color in death. Initially the taxidermist would point to a color in a picture in a book and say, “that orange, can you mix that color to paint this part of the duck’s beak?” I got the hang of it pretty quickly. In a short time I taught myself how to paint with an airbrush and began airbrushing the fish he mounted.
He had a very successful taxidermy shop which was located a few blocks off the Mississippi River and across the street from a large hunting supply store. Both the taxidermy shop and the hunting store were the only ones of their kind around for hundreds of miles. Business was very brisk at both places.
Over time fishermen took me out in small flat bottomed fishing boats before sunrise on the magnificent Mississippi river. My mission was to see fish the moment they were pulled dripping from the water; just as their life was fading from their big, dark shining eyes. Their luminescent coloring would drain away as their life
slowly dripped out of them. Much later after the taxidermist was finished with the long and interesting process of mounting the fish, I would recreate their rich layers of luminescent color with an airbrush.
The taxidermist was very good at what he did. He had a natural ability to capture the spirit of the dead animals in his mounts. He hand carved all the fish forms using high density blue styrofoam. Everything in the back of the shop was covered with tiny bits of blue styrofoam that he carved and sanded to get the forms just right before stretching the dead fish skin over the form. The blue styrofoam picked up static electricity in the process and it stuck to everything. It was impossible to clean it all away.
How to Hand-Sew a Bear Skin Rug
Eventually I began doing the work to finish the bear skin rugs. It was a long process done completely by hand. My part of the process began after the skin had been tanned and returned to the taxidermist. He would mount the head with the mouth open, teeth and tongue exposed. Glass eyes were put in — glass eyes were used in everything. Did you know there is an entire industry devoted to making glass eyes for dead creatures? Fish, lizards, amphibians of all types, and of course, mammals.
I got the bear hide when he was done with his part. My job was to paint around the eyes and mouth to cover up the tanned hide and make the newly mounted parts flow naturally into the skin and fur. The touch-up painting was followed by about a week or so of intense hand-sewing. The tanned skins of the deceased animals were always super hot and heavy on my lap. The bear rugs I worked on did not have soft fur, due to the younger ages of the animals and the time of year they were killed. Given the specific timing of bear hunting season followed by the long winding process involved in making a bear skin rug; I always wound up hand-sewing bear skin rugs in the intense heat of midwest summers. It was a test of physical endurance.
I used a tool called a “Sailor Maker’s Palm.” It’s leather and fits over the thumb and wraps across the back of the sewer’s knuckles. A small lead cup is located over the base of the thumb — which is where the needles are placed to push them through the tough bear skin. This essential tool perfectly protects the soft flesh of humans who hand sew leather or sails. Leather needles are triangular shaped and have long razor sharp edges, vs what we would think of as regular needles which are round and only sharp at the tip like the needles we use to sew buttons. For each stitch I would place the base of the needle in the cup of lead in the leather palm and push with my palm to get the needle through two layers of felt and the leather of the bear’s tanned skin. I could easily have seriously hurt myself if I did not use the Sailors’ Palm for every single stitch, every single time. Hand-sewing a bear skin rug is not like hemming a skirt or a pair of curtains.
The taxidermist’s shop was near the Great River Road in western Wisconsin. There were lots of rattlesnakes in the region. At the time, the Wisconsin Dept. of Natural Resources offered a bounty on the rattlesnakes in the spring, a dollar a snake was paid; bonus if it was a female, an additional dollar for every unborn baby snake was also paid. The eastern shore of the Mississippi is a breathtaking place with sandstone bluffs rising hundreds of feet in the air. Today’s spectacular bluffs were the ancient river bed of the Mississippi in its much younger days. The Mississippi River is huge by today’s perspective. 12,000 years ago she was three, four and five times as wide; the water reached from bluff to bluff and was as deep as the bluffs are tall. The bluffs along the western shore are a perfect place for rattlesnakes with their huge vertical craggy sandstone faces and endless deep cracks and ledges for the snakes to bask on in the sunlight. The rattlesnake hunters “harvested” the snakes in the spring.
Arms straight out and stiff, hands grasping the neck of closed pillow cases; it was not unusual for grown men to bring live rattlesnakes into the shop.
I would politely take the pillow case from them with the live snake inside. I ALWAYS triple checked to be sure the pillow case was securely tied shut. Holding the pillow case safely away from my body, I’d carry the live rattlesnake enclosed in his pillowcase through the back of the workshop and put it into the vintage ice cream freezer way in the back. The rattlesnake would slowly go to sleep in the deep freeze and eventually die. The taxidermist would come out and talk to the customer about how the customer wanted the snake to be mounted. Options included, coiled up as if sleeping, rising up, mouth open as if to strike, or sometimes locked in battle with another mounted animal.
One sunny spring afternoon a man dressed in tan camo stopped in the taxidermy shop. He told us he had something to show us outside. The taxidermist and I followed him out to the street where his pick-up was parked. The pick-up had a camper shell in the back with small windows on the sides and across the back hatch. We stepped up to the back of his pick-up with the man, where he opened the back hatch. A sound that had been muffled while the hatch was closed grabbed us. It was a dry papery, raspy sound like lots and lots of newspapers being shuffled across a hardwood floor. As my eyes adjusted to see what was inside the back of the pick-up, I realized the bed of the truck was covered with dozens and dozens of live rattlesnakes. It was impressive and an impressive sound.
We stood there silently, listening to the sound made by the snakes moving over and under each other in the back of the truck. It sounded like nothing I had ever heard in my life before or since. The man pointed out one particular rattlesnake, it was a creamy tan color. It’s distinctive coloring set it apart from all the other rattlers. “That one,” told us, “that’s the one I want you to mount for me.”
I chuckled and left the two of them to do whatever it was going to take to remove the singular cream-colored rattlesnake from among the dozens and dozens of live rattlers inside the back of the pick-up. I wanted no part of witnessing the process.
When the taxidermist skinned the deceased rattlesnakes, he did it under running water in the tiny kitchen in the back of the shop. His hands were always full of small cuts, it was the nature of the work. Skinning the rattlers under running water was his way of insuring that any venom that might be in the snake’s meat would wash away instead of entering the ubiquitous cuts all over his hands and poisoning him.
It was always interesting to hear the sound of the rattling of the rattlesnake’s tail as the taxidermist did his work on the deceased reptile.
The taxidermist often ate for dinner whatever he mounted that day. He drew the line at the rattlesnakes. The snakes he worked with came in from the wild and there was no way to ensure that the snake had not gotten into a fight with another rattlesnake and had been bitten — which would have put the venom into the meat of the snake’s body. and not just contained within the sacs of venom behind their fangs in their mouths. It was always interesting to watch the taxidermist carefully pull back the gums of the rattlesnake to see the sacs of venom behind their fangs.
Did you know you can tan the hide of a snake using antifreeze? Not all rattlers brought to the shop were mounted. Sometimes the customer wanted the tanned hide so it could be fashioned into a belt.
Simmering Animal Heads
There was always a pot of decapitated animal heads simmering on the stove in the small kitchen in the back of the shop. It’s stunning what a horrific eye-watering smell it makes; boiling the flesh, eyeballs, tendons and brains out of a skull. Yes, there was a knack to it, thankfully this was not one of my duties. The taxidermist would occasionally poke at the pot of simmering severed heads to test their degree of done-ness. Boil for too long and the bones become too soft. Once the “meat” had reached a corrected degree of done-ness, the taxidermist would remove the skulls from the pot to let them cool. Later, with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, he would sit and pick and clean all the meat off and out of the skulls. He did have a fine collection of beautifully cleaned skulls on display in the showroom.
Did you know classical music is played for the flesh eating dermestid beetles in a sealed room of the Field Museum? Wire tanks hold the colonies of beetles whose job it is to slowly eat the flesh from the skeletons of dead animals. The clean skeletons are eventually put on display or carefully recorded and stored away in the vast collection of cabinets. Every skeleton you’ve even seen in a museum or where ever needs to be cleaned — ever stop and think about that?
The day I showed into the dermestid beetle room, an adult male lion was being skinned in the room next door. His pelt was being peeled from his hind quarters over the top of his head, like a banana is peeled. It was an odd and disturbing sight seeing the magnificent lion on the big stainless steel table, with his nose, front legs and huge paws sticking out from the middle of his peeled hide.
Taking in Dead Animals
One of my jobs was customer service at the front counter. The taxidermy shop was divided into two parts, the public space, filled with mounts of all types of midwest animals, fish and reptiles. And the back where all the “magic” happened, or in this case “ where the sausage was re-made.”
Part of my job was to take in the all dead animals. There was not a man who came into the shop who was unable to drop off his dead animal without telling me in excruciating detail how he killed the animal.
I was not numb; each and every story of the death of the parade of beautiful creatures began to weigh heavily on my soul.
The taxidermy shop was located in an historic building with 14’ tall pressed tin ceilings. There was a knee-high platform along the front of the shop with huge floor to ceiling windows. The taxidermist often switched out the displays. He had a sweet little cocker spaniel — living — that loved to sleep in the front window among the mounts on display. It was always fun to see folks’ reactions whenever the dog would wake up, yawn and stretch in the front window among the dead mounts and lightly jump down out of the window.
A Wolf-Whistling Parrot
A small green parrot was the second consistent living animal of the taxidermy shop. Max lived in a large cage in the back workroom next to the deer heads. He was fond of riding on my shoulder. He provided lots of comic relief for me. When the front door bell sounded announcing someone’s presence in the shop, the small parrot would fly for my shoulder so he could go out with me and greet the killers of beautiful animals — oh, excuse me, hunters. The parrot had one trick; he could do an incredibly loud wolf whistle. He and I would go out to greet the hunter, and sometimes the parrot would let loose his wolf whistle. Startled, the man would look around the shop and only see dead mounts with their glass eyes peering out at the lives that were taken from them and me. I seemed to be the only living thing in the shop, other than the extremely cute cocker spaniel circling my legs. The parrot hid in my hair on my shoulder. To clear myself I would lift my hair to show the hunter that it was the parrot and not me that had catcalled him.
Sometimes I would make it out front without the parrot on my shoulder. In those instances Max the parrot would fly up into the back of the false ceiling that housed the lights for the mounts on display. He’d waddle towards the one hole in the cedar shake shingles that covered the false front; the hole was exactly level with his beady red eye. He’d let out his very loud wolf whistle. I would die a little bit inside as it was tough explaining it was not me whistling in admiration of the killer of beautiful animals — the hunter, but the shop parrot.
The parrot was not really allowed to be loose in the front of the shop, though he did look adorable perched on the antlers of the deer, elk, and moose mounts. The thought of him flying out the front door into the great beyond — where he would not have survived the deathly cold midwest winters — was reason enough to keep him in the back of the shop.
I did not stay at the taxidermy shop for more than a season. My soul could no longer take all the death of all the magnificent creatures, each with a soul of their own. I became a strict vegetarian and got a job as a waitress at the only vegetarian restaurant in town. I also began working at the local food co-op where I cared for the plant collection in exchange for 20% off my groceries.
I was thankful for all the time I had been able to spend holding, touching, working on and drawing so many incredible noble animals, birds, and fish. It was a once in a life-time opportunity. I was given a rare luxury of time to hold a magnifying glass up to the iridescent feathers of a male pheasant to try and understand how the light reflected from all the different feathers. I made many attempts to try and recreate the luminescence of a feather, I never did quite capture it, but was grateful for the opportunity.
Today I am a strict vegetarian, and have been for a very long time. When I was raising my kids, we ate meat. Meat eating was a small part of my former life; never again.
Every living thing has a soul, no matter how small or from what animal family;