The Trophy Shop: An Inside Look at the Workings of a Taxidermy Studio

taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

The Trophy Shop
What does it take to be a taxidermist? Our correspondent spends three days in the studio with one of the world's most underappreciated artists
By T. Edward Nickens ¿¿ The cat comes to the shop in a garbage bag the color of dead spruce. The bundle is slightly smaller than a basketball, and it's hard to imagine something further removed from the majesty of an Alberta cougar. "It wasn't a big lion,-¿ Gary Padlesky says, untying the knot in the bag. "But the guy who brought it in was tickled pink.-¿ The hunter had spent over a week in the Rockies near Alberta's Jasper National Park. Early on his guides cut a set of big tracks in the snow, and they spent days following the trail as temperatures soared. They continued tracking over bare ground until a blizzard halted the hunt. Finally, on the last day, the guides cut another track and bayed the cougar in a matter of hours.
Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

The story ends as the hunter steps up to the tree, his pulse racing and the clock ticking because there's a flight to catch. The party is exhausted after 10 days of chasing lions, and the cat is high above, spitting and snarling, raining saliva and tiny bits of bark on the forest floor. And that is where Padlesky begins-"a particular moment in time, and a plastic bag of wet hide and hair. The task at hand is a peculiar alchemy: Turn the one into the other.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Padlesky runs a bear camp in Alberta and a billfish operation in Costa Rica, but his lifelong passion is taxidermy. For him, mounting game went from childhood curiosity to basement hobby to career. Now Padlesky's studio overlooks a wide lake in the rolling parkland north of St. Paul, Alberta. Up here, you never know what sort of game might come in. When I show up for a three-day visit in March, his cedar-planked workshop is packed: Freezers hold the hides of barrel-necked Alberta whitetails by the score. Black bear skins drape over tables. On the storeroom floor are a pair of skulls from bighorn sheep downed by Cree natives. There are wolverines, owls, African reedbucks, baboons. Three Russian brown bears. Eagles for the ceremonial war staffs used by local native tribes.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

We'll get to some of that over my next three days as a taxidermist apprentice. But for now there's a bag full of cat. Padlesky pours it out of the sack, a tawny cascade of slippery hide. The head comes out last. Deflated, it stares from the table with a toothless, eyeless expression.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Breaking the Mold
Making a cat, deer, bear, or full-mount giraffe requires a similar starting point: the mannequin-like form that is the mount's foundation. The casts are creamy yellow, the color of bone, sculpted with tendons and muscles. While some taxidermists shape their own, most turn to suppliers who produce an array of prefabricated molds. Padlesky takes a middle route-"he finds a form that suits, then tears it apart to rebuild it again.
Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

For this mountain lion, a fair bit of customization was required. Before I arrived, Padlesky had removed the head, split the skull, and widened the body. He opened up the mouth and changed the head position so the cat would be looking down. He does this with knives, sandpaper, and two-part, self-expanding polyurethane foam, which sells for $500 for two 5-gallon pails. This step of manipulating prefab forms is one of the skills that separate the ordinary skin-stuffer from the true artist.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

It takes us most of a day to get the skin in position. We smear the cat form with hide paste, a gray, slow-drying concoction, and slip the skin over it. Padlesky rolls small balls of modeling clay between his hands and places them on the bald feet. These he will shape into toes, heel pads, and tendons as the form sets over the next few days. This foundational work can't be rushed. Each step builds on the layers of detail that precede it-"the amount of hide paste smeared into the clefts between muscles, the way the cat's skin is wedged into the groove Padlesky cut behind the front shoulder, forming a ripple of muscle that speaks of the aggression and coiled energy of a bayed lion.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

"There,-¿ Padlesky says. He stands back and studies the animal. Through the course of the day, the cat has risen from a heap of unarticulated wet hide to the form of a cornered feline. "We have what might pass for a cat, don't you think?-¿ Padlesky nods to himself and runs his hands along the paws, squeezing the hide to create a crease for each of the tendons running behind the knuckles. He thins out the membrane in front of the ankle, pulls the whiskers forward as they would be when a cat pulls its lips back in a snarl. Details, details. It's the little things that bring the cougar to life. He snubs out a Players cigarette and cuts off the light. We leave the animals in the dark.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Multitasking
"I'm a little embarrassed about this,-¿ Padlesky tells me the next day, "but deer have controlled my life. Hunting whitetails or thinking about whitetails or guiding clients to whitetails-"every aspect of it was almost like a fix. Taxidermy is just one more way of being associated with whitetails. If I won the Powerball lottery tomorrow, I'd still mount game heads.-¿
Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Padlesky is seated on a ragged stool, the cape of a heavy 10-pointer draped inside out over his knees. This is one of about 120 deer heads he'll do in a year. Meticulously, he pares away the meat from under the lips. He moves around the inverted face, trims excess flesh from the eyelids and nose pad, and brushes out the sawdust that accumulates in the ears during a part of the tanning process that removes moisture from the hide. He snips away cartilage from inside the ears and deftly sews a small rip. "Must've gotten pierced in a fight,-¿ he says. It's all a part of the story.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Just last week, Padlesky pulled a mule deer cape out of the freezer and noticed that part of an ear was missing. Most hunters ask him to fix such flaws, but Padlesky called the customer about it. "This one was a fighter, eh?-¿ he suggested. The hunter shared the sentiment. "Oh, yeah,-¿ he told Padlesky. "Don't fix a thing. That's how I want to remember him.-¿ The sad truth, Padlesky says, is that most people just drop off the hide, horns, and deposit check, and tell him to call when it's finished. In those instances, they get the standard treatment: full-shoulder mount, a slight turn to the head, ears cupped forward. Like most artful taxidermists, however, Padlesky welcomes the client who wants more. "I like being able to do what I feel the deer skin wants to be done,-¿ he says. "But it's neat when the customer wants some attitude in their game head.-¿Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

There's infinite variety in the attitude available. While Padlesky works the hide on the deer form, I flip through a stack of taxidermy supply catalogs. Shoulder mount poses include upright, semi-upright, head-up offset, semi-sneak, full sneak, semi-sneak aggressive, semi-sneak head-up, and a dozen other permutations. A deer mount can be personalized to carry all the memory a hunter could hope for. "That's why they want it on the wall,-¿ Padlesky figures, "because nothing else-"pictures, video, stories-"nothing would ever do for them what that deer on the wall does.-¿Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Splitting his time now, Padlesky moves between yesterday's cat and today's whitetail. With handfuls of modeling clay, he builds up the basic deer form into the face of a rutting Alberta buck: wedges of clay on the heavy brow; rolls of the stuff under the lower lids, then the uppers; more of it pressed into the flare of each nostril. Beside his workbench are tacked-up photographs of deer muzzles, eyes, and ears. "It's not guesswork,-¿ he insists. "It all goes back to the references.-¿Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

The cat's hide is in good shape, but the face needs detailing. Padlesky regrooves the wrinkles on the nose that lend the lion its spit and snarl. Back at the deer, he stitches up the cape, smoothing hair, adjusting the lips and ears. In four hours he has made a deer, lacking only a brushstroke here and there and the dimpling of the nose with clear resin.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

It may be difficult to explain the attraction of a dimpled deer nose to anyone but a hunter, but for so many of us, Padlesky included, an animal mount is a possession above all others. "If my house caught fire, first, I'd throw my sheep head out the window. Grab a bunch of photos. Maybe then I'd run for my rifles. The rest of it could burn to the ground.-¿Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Cracking Skulls On my third day in the shop, we tackle the bighorn sheep skulls. Removing the horns requires letting the skulls rot for a few days to loosen the connective tissue. Now Padlesky holds a fetid cranium overhead and bashes it against the concrete floor. "This is a little nudge compared to what they're used to,-¿ he says. Putrid brain goo pools onto the floor. "Nasty,-¿ he groans as he grinds a reciprocating saw through the bone. He slips the heads into a pot of boiling water, then walks over to yesterday's deer head to smooth the bridge of the muzzle.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Back to the cougar, and last on the list is the base on which the cat will perch. We dump out a large bag of fake rocks that weigh next to nothing. I try to give Padlesky a hand, but it's not the sort of task that invites collaboration. My meager skills as hide holder and tool getter aren't useful now. Padlesky is focused on another world, out there in the Alberta Rockies, making the kind of ledge a cat might choose for its final stand. It's time for me to go.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

As I pull out of the driveway I catch a final glimpse of Padlesky through the shop window. He has opened another plastic bag and holds a set of antlers in his hands. He's started another story.Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

The following three big-name taxidermists offer advice to hunters on how to save your hide. Philip Soucy
Philip Soucy Studios, Libby, Mont., 406-293-9192
After years of studying taxidermy, Soucy opened his shop in 1996. He specializes in cats from around the world. Over the past year he's mounted 61 leopards and cougars-"one of which won the National Taxidermists Association's 2006 competition. On prepping the hide: "There are two schools of thought on skinning an animal for a life-size mount-"using either a dorsal cut or a ventral cut. It's a critical decision, so ask your taxidermist which he prefers before you wade in with a knife. Me, I want a ventral cut, every time.-¿
Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Stan Taylor
Wildlife Creations International, Glenrock, Wyo., 307-436-5360
In the fall, it rains antelope and muleys in Taylor's shop. He'll do a thousand game heads a year, including African species from some of the biggest names in trophy hunting. With only one other taxidermist in the studio, Taylor has his hands on every animal. On quality: "Don't get hung up on the horns. Look at the eyes, ears, and nose. If you can't make eye contact with the animal, something is wrong. Look at the ear butts. Are they aligned perfectly? Is there depth in the nostrils, or is the skin just stuffed in there?-¿
Erika Larsen
taxidermy photos

taxidermy photos

Carl Pepi
Jonas Brothers Studios, Brewster, N.Y., 845-278-0506
Founded in the Bronx in 1908, Jonas Brothers was Hemingway's favorite shop. Pepi bought it in 1985 and now oversees work on over 700 animals a year. Black-tailed gazelle, Turkish ibex-"nothing is too exotic, nor too mundane. On doing your homework: "Trophy preparation has deteriorated to the point that it's almost a crime. Don't assume your guide knows what he's doing. Turning ears, splitting the lips-"learn what it's supposed to look like before you're sitting there with a knife. A taxidermist is only as good as the skin you hand him.-¿ -"T.E.N.
Erika Larsen