Leonard Skinner gets up a little early to have coffee with his friends, Old Bucky and Big Moosey. They were always in his shop, just hanging out. They were great listeners. And watchers.
He flicked on the lights and a hundred pairs of eyes were on him. Deer eyes, boar eyes, eagle eyes, fish eyes, moose eyes, bear eyes, buffalo eyes, the squinting eyes of cougars and bobcats, and the wide eyes of does. Dozens of eyes glistened from the shelves in dishes like M&M's.
The rest of his shop looked like a Mr. Potato Head supply room. Piles of pale white, hairless ears are scattered on his work table. Rubber noses filled a plastic bin. There were paws and hooves. His tool table looked like he'd struck it rich at a garage sale for a dentist and hairdresser. There were brushes to create the color and texture of bear noses, tweezers for raccoon eye lashes, clamps to repair antlers, files to shape talons, drills, scissors, knives, forks and spoons.
The potions and lotions came in every kind of bin, tube and bottle. There were the usual lubricants and varnishes: WD-40, petroleum jelly… but the professional also had Hide Glue, Liqua-Tan, Cartilage Liner Ear Adhesive, Buckeye Paste, Antler Stain—all the stuff you didn't want to accidentally grab in the shower.
His library looks normal enough, until you look at the titles: “Bear Measurement Tips,” “Trapped Air Removal,” “Tastefully Done Tongues,” “How to Use the Dad-D Noser” and “Building a Custom Rock” (when real rocks just won't do.)
Several deer hides are still soaking in vats of these chemicals. In the freezer were some double-bagged deer heads with antlers carefully wrapped and enough of the “cape” to do a wall mount with a full shoulder display.
On a stand in the middle of the room is a ghostly white deer. Lenny flings a preserved and tanned hide like a bed spread over the back of the form. He pulls and tugs and, when done, the hide glue and stitching hold it in place.
Amateur work is easy to spot—fur that was rough or torn looking, antlers that stuck out like old television antennas and worst of all, bad expressions. Laughing foxes or flirtatious owls are the mark of a novice.
Customers pay more for Lenny's skill at recreating the moment of capture. It’s delicate work and, with special tools, Lenny is able to bring the nose to life with a texture and gloss that would have been lost on an animal dying in the wild. He uses clay around the critical eye area, forming a natural looking opening and matching up the size with the deer's eye socket.
He's become known for his semi-sneak mount, the deer crouching, peering through branches. For some smaller mammals and birds, the whole body can be placed on a display stand rendered to resemble its natural environment and positioned to look less cautious. Fish are a different story. Capturing the fish's expressions isn’t as important as its colors. Only a skilled airbrush artist could recreate the brilliant colors that disappear after a fish has been caught. Lenny thinks about signing up for a workshop at the next National Taxidermist Convention, but doesn’t want to spend money on a whole new set of tools.
If a hunter isn’t very skilled at killing or cleaning his deer, Lenny charges extra to patch any holes or tears and has to work harder to camouflage any stitching. The mark of the good taxidermist is in the details—a good mount is one that looks alive, so the fur has to be perfect, the nose wet and glistening, the muscles bulging in the right places.
For exotic species or big game, Lenny does a lot of research. He also uses pictures and videos his clients supply, so he can study the nature movement of the animals. Today he is putting the finishing touches on a red fox perched on a log, leaning down to take a drink in a creek, one paw curled under. He can’t seem to find the right position for the tail, so he rifles through hundreds of natural anatomy, biology text books and illustrations until he finds what he is looking for.
He picks up the phone. “Okay, Hank, your bass is all set. You're going to love this one. I'll be here until 6:00.” He looks at his watch and sighs. Hank is a great customer, but he loves to talk, and he is usually angling for compliments. When he’s busy like this, Lenny doesn’t like slowing his pace for chit-chat. He knows that the time spent with his customers is the real reason for their loyalty.
His visit with Hank goes well past 7:00 and, after turning off the coffee maker and saying goodbye to his old, old friends in the shop, he shuts off the lights, heats up some microwave buffalo wings and goes to bed.