[Last week, my outtakes got linked to on the taxidermy.net forums, where taxidermists go to help each other on such tricky items as painting an elk eye or tanning a snake skin. If you want to know a thing about taxidermists, you should know that every one I ever asked questions of answered them in a way that was friendly and quick (the one exception being a certain NYC-based “rogue taxidermist” so self-involved and rude I dropped him from the book and hope his career has ended and ended tragically. At taxidermy.net, there’s also a lot of arguingit’s an Internet discussion board, so this is no surprise. They argue about the work of taxidermy, sure, but also about the taxidermy industry as a whole. They argue about competitions and judging and awards. They argue about current events. It’s what every subculture does online.
I bring it up only to state an ongoing concern: I didn’t write The Authentic Animal exclusively for taxidermists, but the book is so much of taxidermists and their work that I hope this subculture likes the book. I hope I did some justice.
In honor of my being linked to on taxidermy.net, I’ve chosen the following outtake. I think it got cut for two reasons. First, there’s this forced and confounding queer-history metaphor I try and fail to deploy. Second, it’s the bit where I try to get a handle on the history of taxidermists’ organizations. It’s a good history, and I think it’s an important one to get down in writing. It turned out, though, not to fit in with the chapter on taxidermy competition as well as I would have liked it to. It also turned out that I wasn’t the person to write this history.]
As soon at the Society of American Taxidermists [founded in Rochester, N.Y. in 1880] was no more, taxidermists almost immediately began to go into hiding, learning their trade through J.W. Elwood’s Northwestern School of Taxidermy correspondence course, or by their own dogged trial and error—secreting any techniques they discovered like squirrels with valuable, lucrative acorns. For the entire first half of the 20th century, taxidermists weren’t really a community. Taxidermists were solitary men and women tucked away in basements or small-town workshops. Is there an occupation today with similar beginnings? One where the bulk of information on how to get started and how to grow was found chiefly in the microscopic type of magazines’ back-page classified ads?
I’m tempted to “queer” the whole industry in the academic sense, lining up its timeline against that of gay liberation, in that the SAT folded right around the time that Oscar Wilde—arguably the world’s first public homosexual—began his literary career, and another national organization of taxidermists didn’t exist until 1969, the year of the Stonewall Riots. Between these bookends you have shadows and suspicion; taxidermists themselves sometimes refer to it as “the dark ages.”
The beginnings of what was to become the National Taxidermists Association don’t involve anything like a riot, nor are they synched up with so historic a date as the death of Judy Garland (though Carl Akeley’s star protégé, James L. Clark, had himself just died), but they are just as magical.
The official mythology, as written up in a 1996 issue of Breakthrough magazine, says that Charlie Haynes, a taxidermist out in Poplar Grove, Missouri, woke up in the middle of the night of December 1, 1969, and shook his wife Lola’s shoulder, waking her up. “I just had the craziest dream,” he said. This dream was of a meeting, among all the taxidermists they could think of, right there in Poplar Grove. The Hayneses had recently started their own supply company, and had been looking for advice, trying to get in touch with other taxidermists who might help them grow the business. Lola thought that inviting them all out to the shop was a fantastic idea, and after a series of phonecalls and letters, they sent seventy invitations out across the country.
In April of 1972, when fifty taxidermists showed up in Poplar Grove for two days of planning, no one was sure what the mood would be. Relations between taxidermists in this country were so icy that the Hayneses were worried fights would break out. Perhaps even with fists. Instead, people quickly started sharing advice. One man would mention he’d been having trouble keeping the fins of a largemouth bass from drying up and cracking, and another man would say, “Well, here’s what I do.”
There’s no patron saint of taxidermists, alas, and yet someone was smiling down on Poplar Grove that weekend, as without knowing what he was walking into, a neighboring farmer showed up at the Hayneses with a stillborn calf he wanted them to mount. A two-headed stillborn calf. Charlie Haynes demurred, citing too much work piling up in his shop. Pearl Henderson, a taxidermist from Arkansas, asked for a sharp knife and began skinning the calf right there on a table, creating unexpectedly the first seminar in NTA history.
The first official meeting took place that September, where board members were elected (Charlie serving as the first president) and people lined up to pay the $7.50 annual fee to become NTA members. Immediately, everyone wanted to know what this $7.50 was for, and how it would be spent. Immediately, accusations started to be thrown around that the board members were only using the NTA to promote their own interests (particularly those board members who were also suppliers). Dissent among members was so thorough that a U.S. Game and Parks official invited to speak at one early convention declined. Taxidermists would never be able to band together and fight any hunting/mounting restrictions, he said, because they were too busy fighting each other.
Here’s a little joke I wrote: How many national organizations does it take to appease a whole country of taxidermists? Give up? It’s two: one to reign as the oldest and largest and to run the most popular annual competition in the country, and another to exist in angry but earnest opposition thereto. Okay, so it’s not that funny of a joke, and if you’re a taxidermist there’s nothing funny about it at all. Because while throughout the past thirty years or so any number of organizations have started up as an alternative to whatever sneaky or shameful practices had been going on in the NTA, it’s always been done after some real heartache, or a serious amount of misappropriated funds.
[Much of what you’ve read above came from Ralph Garland’s piece about the NTA in the Spring 1996 issue of Breakthrough, as well as correspondence with George Roof and John Janelli. I spent five years or so researching and writing a book on taxidermy, and I know about one tenth, maybe, of what these guys do. I thanked them in the book and I’ll thank them again here.]