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Dead animals come alive in a Columbia hotel near zoo

June 29, 2019
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In this June 20, 2019 photo, Bryan Stillwell, of Iron Station, N.C., inspects a turkey he mounted at the South Carolina Association of Taxidermist convention in Columbia, S.C. (Tracy Glantz/The State via AP)

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — Across the highway from Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, on the first floor of a hotel in Columbia, a crew of animals was very still on a recent Thursday afternoon. Unblinking, unmoving, but looking like they might breathe in a second, ducks, bears, deer and foxes were on display at the South Carolina Association of Taxidermist’s annual conference.

It’s one of many shows across the United States that is hosted to bring together taxidermist pros and beginners, award great work and share new techniques for making hunted creatures look good.

Stephen Mellor, 71, has been to a lot of them. He sat in a chair watching a workshop on habitats and not participating because his back hurt, he said. Though he lives in a small town in Ohio called, appropriately enough, Killbuck, Mellor travels around the country leading and attending taxidermy seminars.

This year, he’s been to workshops in West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and, now, South Carolina. Mellor is a seasoned taxidermist who has stuffed animals as large as elephants and hippos and too many deer to count, but he avoids squirrels. They’re small, difficult to work on and even harder to make look good, he said. You won’t find many of the tree-dwellers as contest entries.

“I’ve been to five shows this year. Not one squirrel,” he said.

But the strangest animal Mellor said he has mounted in his career is a muskrat, a mammal that looks like a cross between a New York City subway rat and a small beaver — round, pointy-faced, fond of water.

Taxidermy has evolved and become “so refined” in the past two decades, Mellor said, in part thanks to the Internet.

The quality of the work is better, because access to information about taxidermy is ample. But the web has also caused a decline in the number of people who will pay to attend a show when they can get similar information for free, Mellor said. On the first day of the South Carolina show, there were 55 registered participants.

It can cost around $800 just to attend an out-of-state show, which includes travel costs.

In the habitat workshop, a group of 14 people surround a teacher, who is talking about the benefits of using fungus as a background for an animal (it’s biologically correct and adds a pop of color, too.)

Taxidermy, in these circles, is more than making a stuffed duck that looks like, well, a stuffed duck. Dead animals, with the help of intense attention to detail and artistic technique, are endowed with personality, sass, beauty and even a story.

In the competition room, a pompous, aggravated turkey knocks down a decoy bird, a thin and wobbly plastic replica, stuck into the ground on a stick. The front half of a wild boar plays around in fresh mud, dirtying his snout. Two deer heads munch on corn cobs, sprinkling the soil beneath them with kernels. A trickster red fox climbs stealthily on a branch. A happy duck carefully inches his beak toward a shoreline to sip water.

On the afternoon of June 20, quacks punctuate the habitats lesson. Donna Naughton, 61, apologizes and silences her phone.

She is not presenting one of her pieces — most of which are birds or her favorite, puzzle-like blue crabs — but she’s here from her hometown of Jacksonville, North Carolina, to learn more.

Naughton learned how to do taxidermy work from her father. She started working on animals right out of high school, she said, and has continued for decades. Naughton said she returned to a more dedicated taxidermy practice in 2005, when her husband retired and her daughter was grown.

She works at home, in a full face of makeup and a pair of pink gloves, from her “she-shed” in the backyard, which has air conditioning, floral print curtains and a freezer dedicated to storing animal parts (and sometimes, “cool pops” she snuck in from the house fridge).

Naughton, who is “not a women’s lib-er, not a feminist,” said she gets annoyed when male hunters bring her their catch because they want “a woman’s touch.” She rolls her eyes at the idea that taxidermy done by men is different from the work women do.

All good taxidermists need patience and, despite what others might think, she said, they need affection for animals.

“You’ve got to love animals and love trying to take something someone killed and made a mess of and make it beautiful again,” she said.

Naughton has even preserved clients’ pets as taxidermy, which is the most difficult task, she said. Unlike “a hunter and his bravado,” owners of dead pets are in mourning.

And she needs to take someone’s beloved chihuahua dog or house cat, skin it, measure the carcass, preserve its feet, drape the skin over a mannequin form and replace the eyeballs with glass eyes.

“Usually the first cut is the hardest because it’s something that someone loved,” she said.

Even after all that work, Naughton said she will never be able to capture the animal’s true personality or bring it back to life. But the best taxidermists get close.

“Some of these guys can mount something and it’ll look like it’s fixin’ to breathe,” she said.

Next door to the workshop, vendors show how the sausage is made. John Clarke, former president of the South Carolina association, greets the representatives selling fake cartilage ears, varieties of glass eyeballs, deer antler jewelry and wooden mounts for animal heads.

Clarke, 69, grew up with a mother and grandmother who were artists. As a teenager, he said he went to a friend’s house and was enraptured by a glass dome with taxidermy songbirds inside. He spiraled into a taxidermy obsessive, and moved overseas to Denmark when he was 23 for a six-month apprenticeship with a taxidermist whose work Clarke found in a trade magazine.

“We worked on everything from polar bear rugs to . . . some zoo work, mountain kangaroos,” Clarke said, noting there was little hunting regulation in 1973, when he lived in Denmark.

While Clarke and others are lifelong taxidermists, doing it either for fun or as a profession, a few child taxidermists attended the South Carolina show with relatives.

The state has seen a decline in youth hunting in the past few decades, according to David Lucas, a Department of Natural Resources spokesperson. Still, Clarke said taxidermy has been around since the Egyptians and maybe before then, and he doesn’t see it dying anytime soon.

“It’s the memories of the hunt or the fishing trip. It’s not so much that ‘I caught this fish,’ but maybe, ‘My grandson was with me and he caught his first fish,’” Clarke said.

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Information from: The State, http://www.thestate.com

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