[published: May 13, 2008]
Artisans of a kind of realized life-after-death, taxidermists are perpetually at work on an elegy: for the animal, for the natural world, and for a craft threatened by economic instability. Photos by Kramer O’Neill.
The parking lot of the Blair County Convention center is nearly full. Everywhere, trailers are emblazoned with animal-themed logos and dashboards are littered with product pamphlets from degreaser brands and fleshing machine manufacturers. It’s clear the taxidermists have arrived.
The convention center is a modern, glass-fronted affair set off by highways from the town of Altoona, Pennsylvania. Immediately next door is a spanking new Marriott Courtyard, where a few hundred taxidermists have put themselves up for the weekend for the 29th Annual State Championships of the Pennsylvania Taxidermy Association.
Inside the convention center, a selection of animal mounts (“mount” is the preferred term for a work of taxidermy) adorn a makeshift wall: a Russian Boar pokes its tusks out aggressively from inky-black fur, a silver pheasant gracefully displays its plume, and a massive zebra set at eye-level looks intently forward, its ears pricked up in a state of rapt attention. A few “life-size” mounts (taxidermese for a mount using the animal’s entire body) stand around the perimeter of the room: mostly waterfowl, feathers neatly groomed and dustless, and a reddish coyote, pausing in mid-howl among a few stray pinecones in the snow.
A large flat-screen television broadcasts FOX News right behind it. I can’t decide whether the coyote is joining in with the network’s alarmist screed or howling in protest, but I am moved by its plaintive expression and attracted to the glamour of its fluffy, bristling coat. A small plaque reads, “The Conversation.” This will be only the first of several unsettling experiences of empathy at the Pennsylvania State Taxidermy Championships. But this is the taxidermist’s contradictory function: he (or she) must be as much empathetic animal lover as he is meticulous artisan. At the state championships, one needs a foot in each camp in order to win the coveted blue ribbons.
The annual convention itself reflects the bifurcated nature of the taxidermist. Upstairs is the Competition Room, where judges consider the creativity, artistry and anatomical faithfulness of each mount, shining LED flashlights into nasal and ear cavities and inspecting paw fluffiness and whisker placement. Downstairs, seminar rooms offer instruction on “Mounting a Sheep Shoulder Mount” and “Business and Pricing,” while nearby a sprawling trade floor is bustling with merchants of the taxidermist’s trade: McKenzie Taxidermy Supply, the biggest company in the industry, stocks just about anything a taxidermist could want, but specializes in manikins—molded polyethylene forms over which the taxidermist stretches the tanned hide—for species in all stages of maturity from the ubiquitous whitetail deer to the sinewy bobcat.
Taxidermy has its etymological roots in the Greek “taxis” meaning arrangement, and “derma” meaning skin. Bettcher Industries demonstrates the merits of its latest fleshing machine—an electric apparatus designed to remove the last bits of flesh from a hide and then thin it so that it’s more pliable before being salted and tanned; smaller businesses offer fiberglass fish blanks, skins, false moss for watery habitats and wooden plaques, while rugmakers offer samples of felt backing and display their photos of coyote rugs and zebra pillows (tail attached).
Taxidermy, like many trades that give rise to cottage industries, has yielded a number of thriving, highly specified suppliers. Jessie Alfaro is the principal of Tohickon Glass Eyes, which she owns with her husband, Antonio. The business began as the lovechild of Jessie’s uncle, a taxidermist, and her mother, a fine artist, who took out a loan against her car, bought a box kiln, and began making glass eyes in 1971. Theirs was the first glass eye company in the United States. Today they make 33,000 products and employ about 50 people in three factories, 22 of whom are full-time artists. All of Tohickon’s glass is optical, meaning it’s the same type of glass used in camera lenses. They sell about one million pairs of eyes per year and have branched out into the special effects industries, supplying human glass eyes for forensic reenactments, mannequins, and dead bodies for films. The Tohickon booth looks like the jewelry table at a fashion market—garnet and flame-colored birds’ eyes with wide black pupils are bunched together in sets of 20 and look like tiny bunches of exotic flowers. Jessie’s favorite eyes are the tropical fish eyes, which have a teardrop-shaped pupil and come in stripes and wild colors. The biggest eye they have crafted is a whale eye “as big as a dinner plate,” which is on display in a whale installed at the Long Beach Aquarium in Southern California.
Joe Havel, ex-chef and now full-time taxidermist, says he comes to trade shows for the deals. “You get pretty good prices here,” he says, and adds, “These guys are the only ones making any money off this business.” He motions towards McKenzie Supply, a company that has in recent years bought up several smaller supply companies. Unless you have a big shop that caters to hunters wealthy enough to hunt in Africa and install trophy rooms in their homes, Havel says, you’re competing with other taxidermists for local hunters’ business. “And what are you gonna say when this kid comes to you with his first buck? Are you gonna tell him you’ve raised your prices and you won’t do it for less than $500?” Havel shrugs. “You do it for less. Of course you do.”
One doesn’t enter taxidermy to make money, but making a good living isn’t unheard of either. Marcus Zimmerman is owner and proprietor of Zimmerman Wildlife Studios, one of the largest taxidermy shops on the East Coast, which caters to a wealthy clientele of well-traveled hunters. Zimmerman runs the “Business and Pricing” seminar—the description in the conference’s literature claims that Zimmerman “has a good insight of what is needed to promote taxidermy to a higher level, so as taxidermists we all enjoy more respectable careers.” It’s the small-time taxidermists that seem to have the least-sure footing, and they make up the bulk of the taxidermist trade. Most of the money that comes in is from area hunters, so the economies created from these small businesses are almost entirely local in their scope. A great deal of hunting and taxidermy takes place in rural areas clustered around towns abandoned by manufacturing; it’s easy to see why taxidermy has attracted so many men and women in areas where jobs—particularly jobs that require some kind of artistry—are scarce.
In order to place at the state level, competitors must develop a highly discerning eye when it comes to their own work, and they must also studiously develop a mix of physiological and behavioral knowledge.
I’m watching a product demonstration where a man with glue-covered fingers is gluing two pieces of hide together so that they appear to magically form one piece of flesh when I’m approached by Dan Snyder, with whom I’ve corresponded briefly before attending the convention. Dan, a silver-haired and -bearded, barrel-chested man with wide blue eyes and a ruddy complexion, is the outgoing president of the Pennsylvania Taxidermy Association, and asks if we’d like to visit the Competition Room where the judging is taking place. As journalists, we’re being granted a privilege that most competitors would give their left arm for.
Up in the Competition Room, judges squat before an arresting array of species. 328 animals in various states of embodiment fill the room’s carpeted floor. Whitetail deer shoulder-mounts line makeshift gallery walls, here and there a life-size black bear, a line of turkeys, an aisle or two of fish, and every now and then a more exotic species: an African lion, a wildebeest, a javelina, a majestic Australian scrub bull.
Taxidermists are hardcore realists. The mounts themselves exude an eerie, hyper-real quality reminiscent of air-brushed photography. Each hair, each feather, each whisker and eyelash are carefully groomed and positioned in order to provide optimal symmetry, compositional balance, beauty and expression. Eye position is key in figuring expression, and is perhaps the most challenging aspect of taxidermy. The ability to manipulate eyes expressively and convincingly are a crucial factor separating Amateurs from Professionals and Professionals from Masters—the three levels at which taxidermists compete.
Though some highly-skilled and ambitious taxidermists sculpt the entire manikin themselves (a throwback to the days when all taxidermists worked this way), most competitors use pre-sculpted manikins and focus on the detail work of getting ears and cheeks right. Since the feet and sensory areas (nose, ears and mouth) are the only pieces of the animal that the average taxidermist must sculpt or purchase separately from the form, this is where the taxidermist’s grasp of craft and artistry shows itself most plainly. If a whitetail deer’s ears seem anything but smooth, perky, straight and full of life, the taxidermist loses points, so in order to place at the state level, competitors must develop a highly discerning eye when it comes to their own work, and they must also studiously develop a mix of physiological and behavioral knowledge. Since the majority of entries are whitetail deer “shoulder-mounts” (a cost-effective way to mount a trophy—the animal is cut off just behind its shoulder), eyes and ears are the first thing that judges notice, but when it comes to “life-size” (read: full-body) mounts, the criteria changes a little.
“It’s the ears and feet,” says Michelle Burkholder, pointing to the feet of a large black bear that appears to have just been caught pawing a birdhouse in someone’s yard. “You have to get the musculature right.” Michelle, a petite, no-nonsense woman with sandy-brown hair whose Black Bear cub won the Delia Akeley award at Nationals last year, is assisting Ken Stryker, the Large Mammal Judge. Stryker notes that in order to appeal to judges, taxidermists must capture a moment in the animal’s life, but the kind of moment captured appears to have an entirely unpredictable, and entirely subjective value in the eyes of each distinct judge. The mount that we are standing around has secured its moment, even told a brief story, but Stryker is drawn more immediately to a large and frightening cougar (or mountain lion), which hisses forever, ears back, teeth bared, its nose wrinkled in a terrifying snarl. The massive cat has braced each of its paws on the spread branches of a pale, thick-armed tree, the type you see in the southwest growing stubbornly from dusty rocks.
The effect is startling: the cat’s eyes are trained to engage with a six-foot-tall man. I, being a five-foot-eight woman, get it immediately and stand transfixed before this mountain lion, lamely going over in my head the “Things To Do If You Encounter a Mountain Lion in the Woods” pamphlet I received as a fourth-grade Girl Scout in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. There is something cathartic to the experience, a moment that reminds you that you are still a little lower on the food chain if you are not armed. I want to meet the guy who made this one—a helpful judge goes off to find him and leaves me looking at the cougar. It looks right back.
There is something cathartic to the experience, a moment that reminds you that you are still a little lower on the food chain if you are not armed.
Taxidermy occasionally allows for this kind of unsettling communion with the animal who once occupied the skin now mounted and positioned just so. Paul Czarnecki, previous president of the PTA and principal of Tri-State Taxidermy and Fishing Charters, is hard pressed to explain this part of the taxidermic process to me, but what he says sounds vaguely spiritual, though not unlike the process of writing or making other art—a good taxidermist has to be open to the unknown. “There is a look I’m trying to achieve. I might not know what it is til I get there, but . . trying to capture the personality of an animal is the goal of taxidermy.” Czarnecki, whose waterfowl garnered him a Second Best in the World award, has worked with all manner of creatures including elephants and giraffes (though he remarks that those are logistically inconvenient for a one-man shop). “The biggest challenge a taxidermist faces is burnout,” he says. Czarnecki is competing for the first time in 12 years and has entered a pair of green-wing teals in the waterfowl category and a menagerie of fish entitled “Invasive Species.”
Czarnecki is one of a handful of taxidermists who title their mounts—titled mounts often offer a conceptual spin on the standard mount, complicating the narrative. “Invasive Species” features a brown trout with a large lamprey eel-bite scar behind its front left fin, chasing small round gobies past a cluster of zebra mussels. Gobies, lamprey eel and zebra mussels have all been artificially introduced to the Lake Eerie ecosystem, arriving in the ballast of shipping vessels. Czarnecki is attempting to show the effects of these “invasive” species on the brown trout.
Czarnecki and his wife, Christie, the current secretary of the PTA feel passionately that hunting, fishing and taxidermy are all very much concerned with conservation and environmental awareness. Christie, a pretty, energetic young woman with a relaxed demeanor, has a breathless kind of enthusiasm for the subject of taxidermy, though she is not herself a taxidermist. “When I met Paul eight years ago and he told me he was a taxidermist, I said, you do what?” She looks at me as though we both understand the inherent creepiness of taxidermy. “But now I see it as honoring nature. The more I learn about them, the more protective I am of them.” I’m between Christie and Paul, who sits open-faced, friendly, an introverted man with wide blue eyes and a rosy complexion. He says he has a deep respect for animals and thinks of the taxidermist community like a family, “where everyone likes each other.” That taxidermists have a remarkable enthusiasm for their craft may have something to do with a kind of de facto community that results from feeling somewhat slighted by the rest of the world. He voices an almost universally-held belief that taxidermists deserve a little more respect. “Have you seen how they’re depicted in movies?” Paul asks me, “always villains, really sinister types.”
Taxidermy tends to be a solitary pursuit, so it’s no surprise that the profession draws introverted people. Thirty years ago, before the National Taxidermy Association was founded and spurred trade shows like this one, taxidermy was a highly secretive profession that encouraged taxidermists to hold their cards close to their chests in silent competition for customers. But these days, trade shows and access to taxidermy.net have fomented a thriving community among taxidermists, many of whom are concerned that their trade is dying out.
In 1952, the Boy Scouts of America’s merit badge in taxidermy was done away with in a sweep that included badges for blacksmithing, carpentry and pathfinding. According to Snyder, taxidermy deserves its rightful place alongside other outdoor sports such as fishing and rifle shooting, for which merit badges are still awarded. Snyder, along with taxidermist networks across America, aims to get the taxidermy merit badge reinstated.
To that end, Snyder walks me into the Grizzly Seminar Room (we pass a “live display” of assorted waterfowl milling about a small pool on the way), where he introduces me to Chris Barnhart, Master Taxidermist. “She’s come all the way from Brooklyn, New York,” Snyder says. Barnhart, a tall, slender North Carolina native with a trim walrus-style moustache and a disarming grin, jokes in a thick southern drawl that I won’t understand how he talks. Barnhart is leading the ongoing Grizzly Bear seminar, to which the PTA has invited several troops of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America who have assisted on the mount earlier in the day.
One Boy Scout remains—a tall, lanky kid wearing spectacles and a red bandana around his neck—and looks on as three taxidermists carefully stitch up the belly of a large blonde grizzly sow, which is positioned on her side with metal rods protruding from all four paws. Having only seen images of mounted grizzlies up on their hind legs in attack position, I ask Chris about this and he tells me they’re making this particular piece for a new museum in Montana sponsored by the Center for Wildlife Information, whose slogan is “Be Bear Aware.” Norman Schwartzkopf is its spokesperson, and last year the Senate unanimously passed Resolution 347 designating May 2008 as Be Bear Aware and Wildlife Stewardship Month. I wonder aloud how the grizzly bear came to be there, and Barnhart tells me, “she’s from Montana. . . roadkill . . . she was accidentally taken. . .”
“Taken” is hunter-speak for killed, and it’s illegal to kill a grizzly bear in the lower 48 states. He gives the girl-grizzly a mournful look when he says this. The sow is to be mounted on a rocky habitat, probably in the process of foraging for food (bears are omnivores and known to frequent berry patches and other sources of vegetation). I ask if her facial expression has been finished yet, and Barnhart leads me around to the grizzly’s face and begins poking at the fur around her glass eyes, which are set into a clay that serves to mimic the soft tissues in the cheeks and around the eyes. The clay isn’t yet dry, so Barnhart can sculpt whatever facial expression he wants. “What’s she going to look like?” I ask, struck by this weirdly godlike ability to fasten an animal’s demeanor for all eternity. “Oh, she’ll have a nice, soft, subtle look. We don’t want an angry look.” When I ask how he’s decided that should be her expression, he recites the mantra of the taxidermist: reference photos, reference photos, reference photos (along with videos, films, watching animals in the wild—anything that can help a taxidermist create a lifelike pose). But after all that, he admits, “it’s just her.” He runs his right hand through her fur and looks down at her with unmistakable tenderness.
Most taxidermists begin as casual hunters. Although hunting would seem hard to reconcile with a professed love of animals, some hunters see themselves as replacements for the natural predators of deer, which have been taken out of the ecological equilibrium by human expansion. That expansion has its global effects—snow geese have been breeding so heavily due to global warming that the population has been ravaging farms all along its migratory route, and so game commissions across the country have declared a permanent open season on the species.
Christie offers perhaps the most ethical reason to support hunting—she’d rather eat something that’s been fairly chased and caught than something from a factory farm. Harder to rationalize, however, are the African safari hunts—these are a dream for most hunters but a decidedly different practice from hunting for food. An African hunt is the big-ticket item being auctioned off by the PTA at the banquet tomorrow. Paul Czarnecki lived in South Africa in the apartheid of the mid-1970s, when poaching was rampant and animal populations were becoming severely threatened. Organized hunts, he insists, encourage conservation—essentially he’s suggesting that organizing hunts is ultimately more lucrative for local populations than receipt of bribes for poaching, but it’s hard to say exactly where the money goes when you have hunters paying $35,000-50,000 for a hunt, plus extensive trophy fees for each animal killed. The Jane Goodall Institute and other conservation organizations (including the Competitive Enterprise Institute) have pointed out that photo safaris offer a more lucrative and locally managed business model that serves to conserve animals without killing them. But photo safaris might not be a convincing alternative if one assumes that hunting will always take place wherever the most exotic animals are to be found.
Outside the competition room, a crowd of taxidermists is chomping at the bit, waiting to get in and see what they’re up against. Ribbons have not yet been awarded, but the judging has already taken place. A sign reads: Free admission for Boy Scouts! People shift their weight from one foot to the other, rubbernecking to see if the door’s opened yet. It’s here I meet Ashley Barrett, a 26-year-old from Chambersburg, PA and self-described “mammal guy.” He’s responsible for the cougar with the snarled-up nose, a pair of bobcat cubs frozen in mid-wrestle, and a Dall sheep shoulder mount. Cats are his favorite: “I can walk past a turkey and I can’t tell you whether it’s good or not,” he says, “but there’s something about cats—I just want to pick them up whenever I see them.” He learned his trade from his father, who made the move from hobbyist to business when Barrett was 14. He joined his dad’s business right out of high school, and today they have a successful shop called Critter Creations. Barrett bought the skins for the bobcat cubs from taxidermy.net, where everything from ammo to lifesize coyote mounts to polar bear skins are available for purchase.
Nina Lukaszewicz, a 17-year old with jet-black hair and braces, bought her piebald fawn skin from taxidermy.net as well, and hopes it will get a ribbon because “it’s unusual.” Her life-size mount stands amid leaves and rocks, looking small and peaceful. Nina started tanning hides when she was 12 and, after teaching herself the art of taxidermy through books and videos, decided to open up her own shop, though that’s still a year or two off. Her grandparents hover around her, clearly proud of her prodigious talent. Nina’s nose ring and dark clothes set her apart from the other, mostly middle-age male taxidermists, but she is not the only female.
Danielle Harrison, a serious 21-year old with cornsilk-blonde hair, has been practicing taxidermy for six years and now runs her own taxidermy studio, but admits that it’s hard being a girl in this business. She has to work hard to overcome the gender gap to get customers in the door—“just come in and see the shop, I tell them. If they see my work they’ll come back.” She hopes to change peoples’ minds about what kind of work women can do in the field, but says she doesn’t know any other female taxidermists, so she focuses on perfecting her craft. She’s standing next to one of her entries to this year’s competition—an arresting caribou shoulder mount with antlers nearly five feet wide. “My dad took it up in Quebec,” she says, and explains how she divided the form into sections and filled in the gaps with polyurethane foam in order to get the curvature she wanted in the caribou’s neck, but this is just the beginning of the detail work she’s done on her mount. “Around the eye, there’s about seven different colors,” she says.
Harrison began her career as a taxidermist through apprenticeship, though many competitors have attended trade schools. One of them came all the way from Greece to attend the Pennsylvania Institute of Taxidermy in Ebensburg—Lysimachos Polychronidis is a bearded twentysomething, with a colorful knapsack thrown over his shoulder and a small silver hoop piercing the cartilage of his left ear. He chose the program because it’s the longest one he could find—seven and a half months, as opposed to the three-month programs more commonly offered. “There are only two taxidermy schools in Europe,” Polychronidis says. “The one in Amsterdam only teaches in Dutch, and the one in Bohn only teaches in German. I don’t speak Dutch or German. So I’m here.”
He looks at us quizzically—we have recognized each other as city people—“what do you think of this place?” I’m on guard, having grown oddly fond of the taxidermists I’ve met in the short time I’ve been here. “Well everyone seems very nice,” I offer, but he’s not talking about the approachability of the conventioneers—he’s talking about the behavior of the area’s citizens. Polychronidis is bewildered by Americans’ laissez-faire attitude towards their government. I offer my take on American nonchalance—we’ve already signed our power away via the Patriot Act, we’re all in so much debt we can barely think, etc., recognizing how feeble these excuses might seem to someone not so accustomed to shrugging when the subject of the powerless populace comes up. He is not buying it: “They don’t talk about politics at all. It’s very different in Athens,” he says, where he plans to return and work in the museum business. Polychronidis’s cultural bewilderment doesn’t stop at political dialoguing habits—he’s also living in a car-culture with no vehicle, and doesn’t understand why everyone looks at him so strangely when he takes to the highways on foot. For the moment, I don’t either. An afternoon rain sets in as he heads out the door, and I remember the 30-minute drive to Ebensburg. I wonder how he’s going to make it back.
The next morning we return to the glassy, austere convention center to find taxidermists inspecting the mounts in the competition room. Prize ribbons adorn the majority of mounts, though only a few are blue, and even fewer read “best of category”. Erica Wilson, a 10-year old girl with a paralyzing shy streak, has contributed a freeze-dried black squirrel emerging from what looks like granite. Nearby in the junior amateur division, 12-year old Colton Craig appears happy with his second-place ribbon for his black bear cub, which gazes adorably at a butterfly on a branch. I’m surprised that Craig’s cub didn’t garner him the coveted blue ribbon, but then, really, what do I know about taxidermy? I have clearly fallen prey to the “cutesy effect” that tends to dominate the People’s Choice Award.
Although it’s clear that many competitors make their artistic choices with an eye toward story, a few mounts in the room stand out for their immediate, fully-realized narratives. An African lioness hovers in mid-fall after having pounced on a fleeing wildebeest. The wildebeest’s eyes pop in surprise as the lioness bites into its neck. Both animals are about to collapse onto the ground in a bloodthirsty pile, but taxidermist Tony Loverchio has suspended them in mid-fall just before the wildebeest is finally taken down. Loverchio is either shy or skeptical of journalists, but eventually he seems okay with answering a few questions and tells us that he’s from Glennallen, Alaska, but he’s out East doing some work for a George A. Dante Jr., president of Wildlife Preservations, who counts the prestigious New York Natural History Museum among his clients. Loverchio, who looks a bit like he might drive a motorcycle with his long sandy-brown ponytail and walrus moustache, describes his work as “mostly predator stuff.” Some of his previous mounts include a grizzly bear jumping over a dead caribou being eaten by a few wolves, and a moose with five wolves attacking it.
With a master’s eye for detail, Loverchio has included a pile of actual dung in the habitat of his lioness and wildebeest. Perched on the top of the pile is an actual dung beetle. This type of detail rewards a judge’s exacting search for distinguishing characteristics. A few aisles away, nestled in the waterfowl mounts, is a life-sized deer leaping from the scene of its own undoing: it has knocked over a terracotta flower pot containing a bee hive, and a few irate bees cling to the deer’s apoplectic neck. This is one of several mounts depicting the interstice between the human and animal worlds. Elsewhere in the competition a black bear paws a birdhouse in someone’s yard; a deer is caught clearing a barbed-wire fence; and a crow perches on top of a leather work boot clutching a bit of red fabric in its beak—I’m mystified by the last narrative, and wonder if its author means for us to presume the crow has done away with the boot’s former occupant.
In the evening, after the merchants have packed up their wares, the convention center’s grand ballroom gets decked out banquet-style. Servers in green vests and crisp white shirts pour water and iced tea into stemmed glasses on tables laden with heavy white linen and artfully folded napkins. The awards banquet is the pinnacle of the championship. This is where the judges hand out the People’s Choice Award and the PTA Taxidermist’s Choice Award, as well as prizes that have not been declared by ribbons—Breakthrough Magazine’s Best of Show, the Freeze-Dry Award, the PA Trapper’s Association Award and so on.
Soon the taxidermists file in with families in tow. Everyone is spiffed up—some men sport button-downs in camouflage and deer prints, while others are decked out in suspenders and plaid shirts. Women glitter in their jewelry and dresses as they take their places. The air is buzzing with anticipation as the final guests file in. Dan Snyder, seated center-stage at a podium and flanked by the board of the PTA, who have worn ties and jackets for the occasion, respectfully requests that the audience stand when the Pledge of Allegiance begins. The lights dim, and a video begins to play on an adjacent screen—a country trio in identical blue-and-white Western outfits are mounted on horseback. These are the Sons of Tennessee, and they sing a close-harmony rendition of “She’s Not Just Another Flag,” while a montage of war footage plays to a dramatic climax—We’re America—May God ever keep us free, they sing, and then go into a sung version of the Pledge of Allegiance. The crowd of taxidermists rise, place hands on hearts, and chant along with the Sons of Tennessee. The Pledge ends with a shot of a shuttle launch, an operatic kind of ending that has the effect of making everyone proud of themselves. For those with a religious or nationalistic streak—and most hands are on hearts—it’s a confirmation that taxidermists are of a piece with the rest of the country, and a heartwarming start to an awards banquet where some are going to be singled out as better than others. Past PTA President Jeff Kuhn begins dinner with a brief prayer that thanks God for the privilege of participating “in an art form that honors Your creation.”
After the taxidermists have collected their dinner from the buffet tables, Snyder deftly moves between charity auction for the PTA and Camp Compass, and the much-anticipated handing out of awards. Camp Compass volunteers—inner-city teenagers dressed in green fleece pullovers and khakis—make their way through the banquet tables displaying an antler wine rack, mounted fish and whitetail shoulders and other goods up for auction.
Youth outreach has taken off in the taxidermy community in recent years. Camp Compass Academy, a year-round nonprofit organization founded in 1994 by sixth-grade teacher John Annoni, chooses about 60 kids from the Allentown, PA area to mentor in fishing, archery and hunting—outdoor activities normally unavailable to city kids, and ones that Camp Compass’s literature suggests instill such virtues as patience, determination, and perseverance. No child is turned away for lack of funds, and all children receive some sort of scholarship. The PTA Convention’s annual awards banquet serves as an auction to raise money for both Camp Compass and the PTA. “Campers” pass out DVDs in printed cardboard sleeves that depict a hiking compass bursting through a brick wall, kind of like the Kool-Aid pitcher. All wear uniforms, and most are black or Latino. The outreach focus may be on city children, but this camp has the effect of extending traditionally white activities to the black and Latino community. It’s an unusual kind of outreach—hunting, after all, is an insular activity—but one that appears to be working. Each year the waiting list counts over 80 kids. Snyder is self-deprecating and jovial throughout the banquet, and his technique is effective—the PTA generates an impressive $8,000 from this year’s auction, to be split between Camp Compass and the PTA for operating costs.
Taxidermists are artisans of a kind of realized life-after-death, perpetually at work on an elegy for a life that remains pure, unsullied by the complicated difficulties that humans face in their day-to-day lives.
Ashley Barrett, articulator of the snarling cougar, sweeps the awards, walking away with Best of Show, Breakthrough Magazine Best of Show, and Taxidermist of the Year, the top three awards, along with Master Division Best of Category for Large Life-size Mammal, Small Life-size Mammal, and Large Misc. Gamehead. Paul Czarnecki wins Master Division Best of Category for his “Invasive Species.” Tony Loverchio wins the first place People’s Choice Award for his African lion/wildebeest combination, followed by Barrett’s cougar for second and his bobcat cubs for third. Erica Wilson, the 10-year old with the black squirrel, wins the Freeze Dry award. A total of 78 awards are handed out, and in the end the room is awash in mutual appreciation. One hunter stands and attests to the quality of the African hunt being auctioned off—an $8,000 value that will unfortunately not include the cost of air travel, which makes bidding rather slow—and lists off the 16 animals he took while on the hunt he won at auction last year. He winds up bidding on the hunt himself.
There is a certain cult of celebrity surrounding some of the taxidermists present at the convention. Chris Barnhardt, of the “Grizzly Bear” seminar, autographs a cover of Taxidermy Today magazine, which features his gray fox mount, which he’s entitled “Chillin’.” The fox is lying down on its belly, happily resting its head on crossed paws, reminiscent of a friendly dog. It’s clear that Barrett, at 26, is destined for such stardom, but the bulk of taxidermists here are wildly happy if they place at all. Dwayne Hallett, who won 1st place in the amateur division for his whitetail mount, says “I’m on cloud nine right now.” Others who have not received a ribbon have discussed their mounts with judges and know where they went wrong, though some disagree with the judges’ perspectives. One competitor complains that the turkey judge makes his own forms and is prejudiced toward mounts that use them. Another taxidermist suspects jealousy was at the root of his second-place prize (he expected to receive a blue ribbon). But overall, despite a few momentary clashes, taxidermists are a supportive, thriving community that depends heavily on the interconnectivity of its tradesmen and artisans.
Joe Havel reminds me of an industry expression: “Taxidermists are the most highly skilled and the lowest-paid,” he says, and admits it’s hard to keep a one-man shop in business, but a love of the job helps smooth out the bumps in the economy—to a point. Their economy is local and in some senses highly sustainable, but it’s also a luxury, even for its poorest patrons, and when the economy goes south, so does the business of taxidermy, so taxidermists have been hard hit by the widening gap between rich and poor. This is a devastating trend for a trade that exists mostly for the lower and middle classes. For those with the wealthiest clients, who aren’t affected much by economic slowing, business is booming. Those who can afford to build trophy rooms in their homes and regularly hunt in Africa for exotic species are busy watching the online records at Safari Club International, the record-keeper of note, and trying to out-do each other, while proprietors of one-man shops worry about raising their prices enough to keep their shops open.
After making a final sweep of the mounts and saying goodbye to all the taxidermists we’ve meet over the past few days, we embark on the journey back to New York by way of downtown Altoona, where we haven’t yet been, due to the convention center’s location—well outside of town. As we roll into Altoona, we can see why. There’s a stark contrast between the glistening modernity of the convention center’s sweeping glass arcs and the rotten porches and crumbling brick of the closed shops in downtown Altoona. A new minor-league baseball park stands optimistically at the edge of town, but other than that the town appears to be dilapidated, forgotten, a sad relic of the rust belt and a reminder of how difficult it must be to find a job in the rural reaches of Pennsylvania. After failing to locate Altoona’s model train museum (Altoona bloomed out of the convergence of several train lines and supplied the rail steel for hundreds of miles around), we fail to find a spot for lunch. Most restaurants are closed, and many residents of Altoona depend on glorified gas stations instead of restaurants or convenience stores. Even the trophy factory has shut down. While the online community connecting the hunters and taxidermists of rural Pennsylvania has grown by leaps and bounds, the infrastructure and industry that once connected residents has long since decayed, perhaps beyond repair.
What will this de-facto community do? Will it secure the place of taxidermy for future generations? Will it organize its membership as a political entity to effect change that might benefit its core client base, the lower and middleclasses? Taxidermists are artisans of a kind of realized life-after-death, perpetually at work on an elegy for a life that remains pure, unsullied by the complicated difficulties that humans face in their day-to-day lives, and yet human encroachment on the habitats of America’s wildlife is showing its face even amid the pastoral settings of the taxidermist’s work. With any luck, America’s flagging economy will not sink so low that these careful artisans must quit the craft that provides such meditative, engaging work to so many.
Copyright 2008 Last Exit
- #1 Rock 'n Real Estate
- #2 Farm/Land
- #3 Showbiz
- #4 Violence & Conflict
- #5 Islands
- #6 Animals
- #7 The Subterraneans
- #8 After the Deluge
- #9 Boredom
- #10 Fear and Loathing
- #11 Medicine
- #12 Obsession
- #13 Migration
- #14 Revolution
- #15 Hidden In Plain Sight
- #16 Independence
- #17 Exploration
- #18 Education
- #19 Walls and Borders