Take this deer and stuff it

by Brian Clarey

Michael Taylor’s showroom is full of deer heads: a white-tailed doe’s head emerging sweetly from the brown paneling, along with four bucks; a 7-point black-tailed buck stares at the door; and the naked skull of a white-tail, with horns intact, hangs solemnly near the corner.

There’s the head of a sika deer from China; a javelina, or collared peccary, from Mexico; a buffalo skull; a South African white-tailed gnu, also called a black wildebeest, and two mouflons with thick black pelts, one of them baying. A wood duck is frozen in mid-flight above the computer station; a rattlesnake poised to strike graces a low shelf. There’s a strawberry grouper and two largemouth bass and a 45-pound striper that Taylor caught himself.

He’s got the hide of a caracal, an African lynx, in the freezer and a freeze-dried deer’s nose on a counter, and from the ceiling in his workspace hang some petrified fish with their gills flaring and the heads of wild turkeys. In a cardboard box he’s got the skin of a 300-pound bear covered in salt, waiting to go to the tanner, and a boar’s head in need of repair on a table covered in assorted antlers and horns.

‘“I don’t have a single piece in the house,’” he says.

Taylor has been practicing taxidermy for more than 20 years. He’s always been a hunter and fisherman ‘— ‘“Hunting is a tradition that’s passed down in families,’” he says, adding, ‘“You don’t have to kill something every time you go out to have a good time,’” ‘— and when he saw a taxidermist mount a deer he decided to give it a try.

They held a taxidermy class at GTCC back then, and soon after Taylor enrolled he rose to the head of the class. He started getting videos and attending seminars and before he knew it he was a taxidermist.

‘“I just like the animals, ‘“ he says. ‘“I like the way they look.’”

His workshop contains many tools used by all sculptors: glue and Bondo; tiny screws, brackets and bolts; paints and brushes; skeletal forms. But also he’s got tiny drawers full of eyes and collections of feathers and a machine that shaves the hides thin enough for his purposes.

‘“It’s definitely an art,’” he says. ‘“And not all artists are the same.’”

In the center of the workspace stands a mannequin representing a small black bear. He’s got the hide all ready to warp it in, and he’ll be making a set of teeth to put in the mouth.

‘“I use the same acrylics as a dentist,’” he says. ‘“You can use the real teeth [but] they can crack if you don’t do it right.’”

The mannequin is posted to a boulder that Taylor made. He’ll adorn it with moss and leaves and then take a walleye that he’s preserved, make some scratches on it and then mount it on the rock near the bear’s paws.

The bear, shot in Canada by a longtime customer, is one of many he’s mounted over the years. But right now it’s deer season and he’ll spend the rest of the winter preserving kills for North Carolina hunters.

What he sells is labor: state poaching laws state that it’s illegal to sell wildlife for a profit. Taylor can’t just go shoot a fox, mount it and sell it.

‘“You see these deer heads at a garage sale; technically that’s illegal,’” he says.

Shane Nevitt stops by the shop with a deer in a plastic garbage bag, its head lolling from the opening.

‘“That’s a nice deer,’” Taylor says. ‘“Got a good neck on him.’”

‘“Ahm’on get a shoulder mount done with ‘im,’” Nevitt says.

Taylor nods approvingly.

‘“Eighty percent of your deer come in in the first two weeks of deer season,’” he says, followed by another spurt late in the season when hunters pick out the best of their accumulated kills for mounting.

‘“That one’s been in my freezer for over a month,’” Nevitt says.

Taylor’s done thousands of deer over the years, dozens of bears and wild turkeys, and too many fish to count. He’s also done novelty pieces like deers’ butts and jackalopes, hare’s heads affixed with small horns. And he gets unusual requests fairly often.

‘“I had a lady call and she told me she had a pair of goldfish,’” he remembers. ‘“I laughed and she about broke down crying. I thought it was one of my buddies playing a joke.

‘“I steer clear of pets,’” he adds. ‘“It’s not that you can’t do ’em ‘— you can do anything. Technically you can even do a human. But if Fluffy don’t look just right’….’”

Fish, he says, are difficult to process. The crappie are the most delicate.

‘“We call it the dove of fish,’” he says.

And doves?

‘“Oh Lord, doves,’” he says. ‘“Golly. The skin is super-thin and it will just tear all to pieces if you’re not careful.’”

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