Shaun Lewis placed two lifeless wood ducks on the counter of McLagan’s Taxidermy. He had shot the pair of drakes on a hunting trip with his buddies last autumn in the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge. The electric company foreman stashed the spectacularly colored birds, which are “especially sought after,” in his freezer until he had $600 to preserve the hunting memories — the rain, the cold and the camaraderie — forever.
“It’s an exciting thing. Going into a taxidermist, you always have a good feeling because you’re taking something you want turned into memories. You don’t just shoot a tiny deer and take it in. It’s something that you’re proud of. It’s a great feeling.”
After Tim McLagan checked Lewis’ hunting license, the two talked about the scene Lewis, who has hunted since he was a teenager, would like him to curate.
“One drake will sit in a roosting position on a big piece of driftwood,” Lewis said. “He’s almost sitting down with his wings tucked in but you can see all the vibrant colors of his wing patterns. The other will be suspended in flight. Wood ducks are gorgeous.”
Swift, stinky business
At the height of several hunting seasons, which include elk, deer, bear and many varieties of fowl, Central Oregon taxidermists find themselves busier than ever. In his workshop situated between Bend and Redmond, McLagan presently has about 200 commissioned mounts that are undergoing various stages of preservation. In one shed — “the salt room” — 40 cured hides and capes (skin from the head and shoulders) are draped on hooks or are still lying in mounds of curing salt. Then they get tanned, a several-month process that McLagan outsources. Customers often commission two mounts of a single animal. The first, known as the European style, features the bare skull preserved and displayed on a plaque. The traditional mount showcases the hide, which the taxidermist fits on an anatomically-correct mannequin. A crucial step in the preservation process is maggot-aided decay. In his backyard, McLagan swung open the door of another shed he calls “the rot room,” in which the skinless heads of 30 deer, moose and elk sat wrapped in plastic bags that retain moisture and encourage rot. After a four or five days, McLagan simmers the skulls in water before he removes “goop material” with a pressure washer. Next, he soaks the skulls in a whitening peroxide solution. After an application of clear coat sealant, McLagan readies the skulls for mounting.
The heavy stink of rot and decay is a part of taxidermy — a factor that no longer offends McLagan unless it’s a hot summer day and the stench is particularly ripe.
“I keep these sheds right by my bedroom window,” he said with a chuckle.
“I guess I didn’t think that through.”
McLagan, 59, is one of about a dozen taxidermists in Central Oregon and creates about 300 mounts each year.
His price list ranges from full-bodied smaller pieces like crows and ducks ($300 each) to cougars ($3,200) and bears ($3,200 to $4,650). Larger exotic trophies, such as a full-body rhinoceros ($23,000), are an option, too, but McLagan has yet to preserve such a trophy.
“I’d certainly take it on, although I’m not 30 anymore,” McLagan said in the workshop connected to his rural home.
Plenty of research would be required to ensure the mount is anatomically correct as well as aesthetically jaw-dropping. In McLagan’s trophy room, boar, beer and gazelle shoulder mounts — which feature the head and end at the shoulders — vie for wall space and visitors’ attention. McLagan has hunted — and eaten — each of the animals. Cougar meat, he said, supplies excellent tenderloins and breakfast sausage.
“You would think it was pork,” McLagan said, adding that its leanness calls for lots of oil or butter.
While some of the larger trophies tell the story of an epic day in which McLagan almost became the prey, other pieces are sentimental. On the wall rests the head of an innocuous forked-horn buck. McLagan shot the deer on the last hunting trip he took with his father shortly before he died in 2005.
“It’s not how big it is, it’s the memories you’re preserving,” McLagan said. “We’re not just killer savages throwing heads on the wall.”
Not ‘stuffed’ animals
When Thomas Andreatta, a Chemult taxidermist, speaks about taxidermy with the uninitiated, he’s quick to point out that the adjective “stuffed” is a misnomer in the taxidermy world.
Contemporary taxidermists either fit hides over the polyurethane mannequins that were shaped in a factory or that they carve themselves. There is no stuffing to be seen. Hidden tape and wire help fan feathers and claws alike into anatomically correct positions.
While the ancient Egyptians’ mummification may be counted as the earliest strain of taxidermy, contemporary taxidermy is rooted in post-Medieval Europe and was later refined during the 19th and early 20th centuries, according to the website Taxidermy Hobbyist. Explorers and scientists would collect species from far-flung parts of the world. Preservation methods, however, were crude, and stuffing material included rags, straw and cotton. Many techniques didn’t completely halt decomposition.
“Early taxidermy was lumpy,” Andreatta said. “It was not true to form.”
Andreatta, 53, said everyone who comes through his shop’s door has a story. A few years ago, two brothers brought in a few common ducks. The pair had recently lost a brother, who rounded out their hunting excursions, in a car crash. To commemorate him, the two packed his ashes into shotgun cartridges and went hunting. These ducks were what they came home with.
“Taxidermy (can pack in) some pretty intense memories,” Andreatta said. “When I heard that story, boy, I said, ‘Have I heard everything now,’” he added with a laugh. “Taxidermy is a study in anthropology. You really get to see what makes people tick.”
Andreatta, who specializes in birds and turns around 75 to 100 avian recreations a year, said sometimes he preserves people’s pets, such as parrots. McLagan once mounted a champion mushing dog, yet now declines pet preservation.
“The people I deal with all day are happy,” McLagan said. “If I take care of people’s pets, it’s emotional. They lost their loved one, and a couple months down the road, it’s a whole different ballgame.”
Birding for keeps
Alex Sackerson, 42, has owned and operated Predawn Adventures, which leads personalized group hunts, since 2014. Sackerson, who lives in Prineville, said he encounters a variety of hunters, many of whom keep lists of birds they hope to harvest and preserve with taxidermy.
“It’s almost like a bucket list for them, like a ‘I want to get this done before I die’ type of deal,” he said.
On a recent hunt, Sackerson shot a rare Canada goose with an atypical all-white head. He and his hunting party, who had spotted the bird during previous seasons in the same location, all hoped to fell it.
“So of course now he’s going on the wall,” Sackerson said. “I still have buddies who are envious they didn’t get him.”
Throughout his home, Sackerson has 20 “pieces,” which include a Ross’s goose, a white-fronted goose and an American wigeon. He also has a mallard and a spoonbill, which were the first birds his preteen daughters shot. Sackerson, however, is running out of wall space, which is why he has suspended five birds from his ceiling with fishing line.
“They look like they’re actually flying,” he said, joking that he would sooner buy a larger house than limit his growing collection of objects he considers art.
“Taxidermists are artists. They bring the animals almost back to life — that’s what I like,” he said, adding that the best taxidermists can expertly reproduce different flying and landing techniques. When seasoned hunters and trophy collectors convene, he said, they often delve into detailed discussions about the avian subspecies and rare cross-breeds and anomalies. Taxidermy specimens distill these conversations.
“To hunt king eiders, you might have to go on an extraordinary hunt up in Alaska. You’re dealing with nasty hurricane winds and 14-foot (ocean) swells. Conditions can be so extreme,” he said. “Or you can be down in Argentina in shorts and flip-flops shooting at ducks. (Taxidermy) gets people to reminisce about the special hunts of their lifetime. It’s quite the conversation piece.”
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