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Long-time taxidermist brings hunting memories to life

January 26, 2019

CANTON, Ohio (AP) — In the workshop behind his Perry Township garage, Bob Hanley brings dead critters to life.

Not a literal, “It’s alive,” Frankenstein-style reanimation. Hanley’s handiworks are very much dead. They only appear life-like.

Hanley is a taxidermist — a trade that is part sculpture, part upholstery and part leatherwork. He has a taxidermy diploma on the wall but taught himself most of what he knows about mounting trophy fish, birds and quadrupeds.

Hanley, 63, runs Bob’s Taxidermy out of a simple workshop. Ohio’s deer season ends next month, and his project on a recent morning was a 12-point buck.

Each deer mount starts with a hide from a butchered deer, and if it’s a buck, the antlers. Hanley tans the hide and removes the flesh, a process that takes several days. He also grooves and shapes a foam form that gives the finished trophy the right shape. Clay around the eye sockets and other parts of the face and stiff liners inside the ears give the mount subtle muscle tone and attitude.

Hanley spent a couple of hours getting the hide onto the mount, but the buck’s face still looked like a ragged mask — lips agape, eyes and nostrils just empty holes. But a few more hours of work would transform it.

Hanley’s fingers flew as he stitched the thick hide together with heavy string and a 3-inch-long needle, careful not to trap hair in the stitch or leave a gap in the conversation.

Hanley talked a lot. About his dogs and his granddaughter, about the concrete Bigfoot someone pinched from his front yard and the orange, furry thing that he captured on his game camera near Sandy Valley. About faith and getting saved.

There are more than a dozen fish mounts on the south wall of his shop and even more land animals — boars, deer, sheep, a turkey, a bear — on the north side, and a story with each. Hunting boar at Ted Nugent’s ranch in Michigan. (“I’ve got his autograph over there somewhere.”) The big muskie his daughter caught at Leesville Lake on a stormy day.

“I built my business on fish, I don’t want to do it anymore,” Hanley said, explaining that mounting fish is hard on his hands, but it’s how he first learned his craft.

Hanley said he always had an interest in preserving animals. When he was a kid growing up in Canton, he tried to pickle mice in alcohol. It didn’t work.

He took his first stab at taxidermy after a fishing trip in the 1970s. He had caught a 5-pound bass and wanted to keep it as a trophy. His fishing buddy told him how to mount it.

Hanley used a marble for the eye and filled the fish with the innards of a stuffed animal and a coat hanger. He’s not sure where it went; he probably threw it away.

“I wish I still had that fish,” Hanley said.

Taxidermy remained his hobby until the early 1990s, when he made it his livelihood after the plant where he worked closed.

Hanley said it took him a long time to learn taxidermy. He did a home study course, watched videos and took a class on mounting turkeys, but learned the most by watching animals, be they his dogs, deer in the woods or fish in a lake. How do they hold their mouths? How do they move their eyes? How does the fur whorl? How do the scales iridesce?

As Hanley talked, he pulled the hide over the nose of the foam form, smeared it with glue, trimmed the lips, nostrils and eyes, and carefully tucked away the extra skin. The ragged mask was gone.

Around this point, Hanley usually took a break so that he can look at the mount with fresh eyes to make sure he hasn’t missed a flaw.

He still had to paint the mount, adding a little pink in the ears, nostrils and around the eyes, and some tiny bumps on the nose, to bring it to life.

“It’s their trophy,” he said of his customers. “A lot of guys hunt all of their lives to kill something like that.”

Hunters have killed more than 165,000 white-tailed deer so far this hunting season and archery season closes Feb. 3.

The tiniest fraction of that harvest ends up in Hanley’s workshop on Whipple Avenue SW, and he said that’s OK.

With almost 30 racks hanging in the back of the shop with tags, each one representing a customer’s buck, he has plenty of work to see him through to next deer season.

Hanley is one of several taxidermists in the area. He doesn’t claim to be the best. He doesn’t enter competitions. He charges $390 per deer.

“I just want to make a living,” he said.

Besides hunting and fishing trophies, people contact him with all kinds of crazy requests: Hamsters, iguanas, dogs, cats, groundhogs.

One lady asked him if he could taxidermy a cat that had been buried three days. No, he couldn’t.

Another time, a man hired him to mount a lobster.

A lobster?

“He wanted it done,” Hanley said.

Hanley has had a few apprentices over the years, but they didn’t stick with it. People think taxidermy is easy money, but building your own business is tough, he said.

Some days, the hide doesn’t want to fit on the mannequin or something else goes wrong. And the ticks have gotten so bad that Hanley wears a protective suit sprayed with repellant when he handles the raw hides.

Hanley spun the mount around on his work stand once again.

“Now,” he said, “it’s starting to look like a deer, isn’t it?”

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