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Lifelike

Still life
Christopher Smith
/
Christopher Smith

For the Werners, taxidermy — “capturing the spirit” of a dead creature — is all about family, tradition, memory and a love of animals 

When I call Werner Family Taxidermy in Henderson to arrange a visit, Ryan Werner is remarkably friendly and open. “Sure, come on down,” he says, just as it says on their website: “Come check out the showroom.” The shop sits beside their house on Basic Road, across from Dog Beauty Parlor pet grooming. Upon entering, I’m greeted by several dozen animal heads, or mounts, displayed on the walls. Then I get a friendly handshake from Ryan, a bearded man wearing a Guinness beer T-shirt, shorts and baseball cap.

Behind him, his wife, Vikki, sits with a scalpel, thinning a deer hide strewn over a bench. She’s focused and bespectacled. Their pet dog, a rescue mutt, runs around in the shop, and one of their three sons is hanging out in the back, where later he’ll show me a coyote that he killed and mounted at age 14. He’s 17 now.

But first, I spot a small bobcat mount of some sort, and ask Ryan if I can touch it. He seems relieved. “Yes! Go ahead, we want you to touch them,” he says. “That’s part of what this is about. We want you to be able to experience them because you’d never get this chance in the wild.”

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True enough. If I saw this cat in the wild, I’d walk the other way. Perhaps run. Here, I touch its fur, which has been cleaned and brushed, the skin tanned, and then stretched over a foam model in an action pose. I pet its fur; it’s soft. All around me, glass eyes carefully placed in elk and antelope faces stare me down. Ryan invites me to walk around and feel the horns and fur, while he talks about the family business.

As children, both he and Vikki hunted with their fathers, and they continued the tradition with their three kids. After a hunt in 2008, they sent their “harvest,” as hunters call it, off to a taxidermist to be mounted (not “stuffed”; that’s a common misnomer). They weren’t impressed with the results — it had visible staples, among other problems. So Vikki decided to learn the trade herself, in their carport.

“We bought a tarp to cover the front so that the cars driving by wouldn’t see,” says Ryan, who also works full-time for Clark County doing roadwork. “We made tools out of scrap metal and whatever we had.” Vikki did a taxidermy apprenticeship, and initially, she barely charged her new customers. “We’d give them a lower rate (to attract them) and use that money to buy more materials and tools and reference books and freezers and paint,” Ryan says.

But she got better at it quickly, and the business grew. Ryan learned some basics, too, and eventually, they had to move the business into a building beside their house. Their three sons began learning the trade to help out, and later, an adopted daughter joined the effort. What started as 10 or 20 animals per year has turned into about 1,000 mounts annually, primarily from Nevada hunters, although some come from as far away as Africa. This year, as hunting season began in August, they hired extra help and started tossing around the idea of expanding to a new shop, perhaps in Arizona.

“We didn’t think it would get this big,” says Ryan, who acts as the business manager while Vikki remains lead taxidermist. “From August to January, it’s just crazy.”

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Still avid hunters themselves, they have to schedule their hunts carefully to keep up with the demands of taxidermy, which come at all hours: “Say we get someone who has a harvest from Pioche, three hours away. They may not have it back to their truck until 10 p.m, so they may not get it to us till 1 a.m. We have to be available on standby because you need to get it in the freezer. Most people can’t fit an elk in their freezer. You’ve got to take care of the hide; you don’t want it to dry out or the meat to go bad.”

The Werners eat all of the meat they hunt, and they don’t buy beef at the grocery store. Instead, they take their venison harvest to one of their two favorite local butchers, John Mull’s Meats (which also operates the Road Kill Grill restaurant that was featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives), or Branded Meats & Deli. “It’s delicious,” Ryan says as we look at a deer mount that has straight pins holding its lips in place while it dries.

The process goes something like this: A hunter brings in the animal, usually having already gutted it. If not, the Werners gut it, clean the hide, preserve it with salt and then ship it to a tannery to be rehydrated. After that, a meticulous process of stretching the hide over a foam form begins. Taxidermists usually use molding clay in the lips and eyelids, screws to secure the antlers or horns, and carefully glue the glass eyes, which, like the foam forms, are ordered from suppliers and are specific to the species. It usually takes six to eight months to finish a mount, but it varies depending on the size and condition of the animal, the pace of the season, and custom requests (such as positioning).

We walk under a huge fly zapper — bugs are drawn to the flesh — back to where Vikki is thinning a deer cape — the hide of the neck and head. She’s using a scalpel to carefully shave the inside of the cape, pulling off excess strings of fat or flesh.

I touch it: cold, sticky, gray.

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Vikki says she tries to capture the spirit of the animal, and be true to its original beauty. “It is an art,” she says. “But I don’t like to say it that way because then my artist friends come and want a job —” she laughs — “and you can’t just make whatever you’re feeling inspired to make. You have to see what (the animal) is going to look like and work towards that. It takes practice.”

Although the Werners offer pet taxidermy, Vikki is cautious about accepting those jobs. “It’s very hard to capture the spirit of the dog or cat they knew for years. Sometimes, they bring it in when they’re grieving, and a few months later they may not want it anymore. So it’s hard.”

On the other hand, the Werners say, hunted wild animals turn out more lifelike, but also bring a memory with them.

“The reason we enjoy taxidermy,” says Ryan, “is that we’ve been hunting since we were young — my dad and both grandpas were hunters — and it’s been handed down in our family since I don’t know when. You can take photos, yes, but you put photos away and forget about them. Taxidermy is a 3-D photo. When I walk past mounts, I remember everything that happened on that hunt and everyone who was there, and I remember the animal. You remember it in a way you don’t when you look at a photo. You really get to see it and enjoy it.”

That's the case for customer Greg Veire. "It brings me back to the moment I encountered the animal, and I can relive those moments," the lifelong hunter says.   

 

The 5 PercentAlthough animals were mummified or otherwise preserved as far back as ancient Egypt, taxidermy as it’s recognized today became more common in Europe in the 18th century as the interest in studying nature grew. It was a symbiotic relationship: taxidermy helped scientists study nature, and advances in science helped develop methods of taxidermy. By the Victorian era, taxidermy mounts had outgrown the world of science and nature and moved into living rooms and parlors as a fashion statement. Since then, it’s seen ebbs and flows in popularity, but remains a standard way to display hunting trophies, and a way to display animals at museums. While some people enjoy it for the memories it evokes or the educational experience, others see it as a grotesque or unnecessary reminder of animal killing. 

About 5 percent of the U.S. population hunts, according to the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Wild animal populations are managed by the state, and the number of hunting tags (tickets to authorize a big game animal kill) issued each season is determined with a goal of managing animal populations. Hunting license fees and tag fees go to efforts to manage wildlife and their habitats. Big game species in Nevada include mule deer, Rocky Mountain elk, mountain goat, pronghorn antelope and black bear. Additionally, hunters may kill certain species of quail, grouse, dove, coyotes and jackrabbits. NDOW licenses more than 90 commercial taxidermists in the state.

In July, international anti-hunting passions roiled up after Cecil, a well-known lion living in a wildlife park in Zimbabwe, was killed illegally by American trophy hunter Walter Palmer. People flocked to social media to lambaste the hunter, publicize his Minnesota dental practice as a target for protest, and threaten his life, driving him temporarily into hiding. The government of Zimbabwe called for his extradition to face criminal charges.

The Werners shake their heads about this — they espouse hunting rules and ethics, which allow hunters to kill approved species in approved areas. Law-abiding hunters are keenly aware of the damage done to their sport by those who don’t follow the rules and draw attention to what non-hunters consider to be brutal or unfair treatment of animals.

“Listen, we love the animals. And we go to places to see bighorn sheep where we just take cameras. It’s about preserving the beauty,” Ryan says. 

“Taxidermy is not for everybody ... but with taxidermy, you can come touch it and feel how thick the horns are and rub the fur and see how it’s soft this way and coarse the other way. ... You can’t just walk up to an elk and do that.”

The Nevada Department of Wildlife hunter education course, which is required prior to acquiring a license, instructs hunters to follow the “fair chase” rules, which prohibit using vehicles, electronic animal calls and shooting within a fenced enclosure. The hunting guidebook also advises hunters to “strive for a quick, clean kill, ensure that meat and usable parts are not wasted (and) treat both game and nongame animals ethically.”

Ryan and Vikki say they’re active in conservation efforts with the Nevada Department of Wildlife. Last month, they rounded up 25 volunteers to install water guzzlers for an antelope herd; they’ve held fundraisers that benefit habitat management. They're also active at meetings of the county's wildlife advisory board, frequently offering input about wildlife issues.

"Everybody knows the Werners," Veire says. "They're always up to jump in and help out (with conservation efforts)."

“We’re not just excited about the size of the hunt or the business, we’re just as excited to see kids get their first deer, even if it’s a doe with no horns. We’re just as excited about that as getting the guy with the state record (biggest mount),” Ryan says.

The Werners do offer taxidermy for African animals, provided they were legal hunts. Their website’s price list includes a full-size lion for $5,875 and a giraffe for $28,725. But their bread and butter — Nevada’s antelope, deer and elk cape mounts — run closer to the $600-$1,200 range, more for full-body, life-size trophies.

 

A Flash of Life (almost)Ryan shows me a bird mount — a little bird, smaller than my hand — and ushers James, his 17-year old, youngest son, over to talk to me. “I found it outside, it was already dead,” James explains. “And I was just bored.” So he took it into the shop and carefully sliced it open, removed the innards and bones, preserved it and, he says, gave it some dignity by displaying it here, looking upright and clean in the shop. In his three years of hunting and doing taxidermy, he’s completed all kinds of mounts that have taken on a lifelike appearance. But it all started with a coyote.

We walk over to the coyote mount, which seems small, and even to the inexpert eye, a little ragged compared to the finely stitched mounts around the shop. It seems somehow less lifelike than the others — but I can’t be sure why, since none of them are alive.  

“It was his first (kill),” Ryan says. “And he said he wanted to (mount) it, so we let him ... It was pretty good for his first one, but it’s actually pretty bad.” Ryan and James laugh as we look at it. Although I don’t see any staples or thread, it’s missing that weird moment where you double-take for a second and allow your mind to imagine a live coyote. And that’s one way to tell well-crafted taxidermy from that which is less so: the fleeting sense that it was once alive.

To the Werners, that’s a valuable experience. In fact, in addition to growing the business, one of their long-term goals is to provide more education about wildlife, hunting and taxidermy to Southern Nevadans.

“Vikki would love to do a whole education (display) at the County and let people interact with hunters and let them know we’re not bad people,” Ryan says. “We’re animal-lovers. We don’t want anything to be extinct.”