Polish in His Horns
A taxidermist’s artistry
interview by Marissa Guggiana
EVER CURIOUS ABOUT LIFE AFTER DEATH, I recently visited Forrest Farnsworth, owner of Big Game International, a small taxidermy company in Sebastopol, California. I brought a deer head from a buck my greatgrandfather had shot in the 1940s because I figured it would give us a chance to sum one another up and, more practically, because its ears were leaking dusty stuffing and had been through several generations of Scotch tape repair.
Taxidermy has moved a long way from your grandpa’s deer over there. He probably did that himself.
How can you tell?
As he rattles through the list, the antlered creature that once seemed so regal begins to seem more and more deranged.
No detail in the nose, no nostrils, the eyes are shallow. See, he wouldn’t be able to close his eyelids. The nose is off-center, the mouth is off, the horns are too far back on its head. The paint is coming off the back of the eyes. Eyes should be at a 50-degree angle.
Forrest explains that only predators look straight ahead and there is absolutely no evolutionary reason that a deer should have eyes situated on the sides of its head, each peering at an absurd wall-eyed 180 degrees, like my hand-me-down trophy.
Can you fix him?
The ears would probably deteriorate if I tried to sew them, but I can clean him up a little.
I ask how he moved from home taxidermist to professional skin-gluer (Forrest gave the etymology of taxidermist: taxi=glue, derm=skin).
I started with my brother in 1957, when I was a teenager. We would hunt and bring back deer and quail. So we did a correspondence course. They would send these stick drawings for instructions. They wanted you to order everything from them — they were a supply house as well.
It’s a hard business to make a living at. While you’re building up a clientele, you keep your day job. But it is easier today than when I started because it’s more pure art. My daughter is quite an artist. She’s even better than me with the habitats and the expressions. Especially on the cats. I give her all those to do.
The projects on the work floor include a bear head, an ox, a wart hog, and several breeds of deer, as well as a corner with multiple wild cats in various stages of finish work.
Do you ever do pets?
I do not do pets. Main reason is a wild animal is associated with food or with an experience, but pets are family members. I did a cocker spaniel once. The guy was a widower and he would sit every night and watch TV, the dog on the arm of the chair while the guypet his back. Over the years he had worn down his fur along his back. He had me stuff him in the right position so he could rest on the armchair and they could watch TV together forever. Not to be unfeeling, but now when people call, I tell them to get the shovel. Make a nice little memorial.
Tell me about what a deer carcass goes through.
Once the animal is killed, the main thing is the meat. If you’re lucky enough to get a nice skin and antlers, you might want to have it stuffed. We skin the head. The skin gets salted, which temporarily preserves it. Then the skin goes to a commercial tannery.
What happens at the tannery?
They used to pickle the skin with formaldehyde and arsenic to preserve and to pull the hair into the follicle. Today’s chemicals are very benign.
Then they send the skin right back?
The tannery is the biggest holdout in the process — it takes three to six months.
We are ambling through a storage room: wood slat floors buoyant with age, low ceilings, and aisle after short aisle filled with forgotten horns, old forms, and time-softened tools. Sunlight inches through cracks. We arrive at the antler aisle.
These are all waiting for their skins to come back from the tannery. Each one has a number that corresponds to the hide. See the skulls are flat on top, so the antlers can sit straight on the head.
Horns stay on for life, but antlers are a living organism. They live and die each year. These lines are blood vessels. They get this velvet on them and they rub it off on trees. The bark stains them, like poison oak will turn them black. It’s instinctual and it’s almost a pride thing, like “Look at me. I’ve got polish in my horns.” The shit we have to go through to attract you girls.
And once the skin is back? What is the next step
for these lady–killers?
We will get the skins wet and stretch them over the
forms. They used to make papier-mâché forms — you
can see one here.
It is decaying gently and smells like old books. Hanging from the walls or leaning up against aisles are examples of newer forms. They are polyethylene and a sunny, utilitarian shade of yellow. The heads are small like skulls, but the bodies fill out to live animal size. The effect is fantastical and incomplete, like peering into a carnival tent during dress rehearsal.
We order the forms by size and posture. Sizes go by length: nose to the corner of the eye, neck measurement, all the proportions. And the postures vary: straight ahead, semi-snake left, semi-snake right, sitting or standing and rearing up.
How do you pick the posture? Does the hunter decide?
Yeah, the hunter chooses. I like the docile postures, not when they’re all pissed off at the world.
Back in the main workroom, he motions to a bear standing on its back legs, arms up in menace. Next to that is a bear in the process of being fit to its form.
This bear was old and probably glad to see a hunter. If you played his life back, like in a movie, you would see a lot of fights. His ears should be farther back on his head, so we will have to split it and re-sew.
For a large animal like this, there may be only a few form sizes, and sometimes you do alterations to make it fit. We hand-sew them right on the form.
After the fitting comes the detail work.
You can have quality or crap. Sometimes the details can take as long as the mounting. You can have a little white of the eye showing, especially if the animal is bugling. The ears, the claws, the nostrils, and the habitat.
While I have seen many of the animals in Forrest’s repertoire darting across a country road, there are also some more exotic beasts.
We get all kinds of famous knot heads, like Ted Nugent, Huey Lewis, Metallica. Some will spend $25,000 to go on a hunt in Africa, and then they ship home the head and the horns. You have to leave your animal in most places for a while — in Africa it’s 90 days before it gets customs clearance. You can have it done there, but most people send them back here because their taxidermy is far inferior.
The deer and elk are the bread and butter, but the African animals are where the money is, because hunters come home with a collection.
The strangeness of the African animals in this Northern California farmhouse is remarkable, but no more so than the differences that begin to emerge in the more mundane trophies: the proportions of ears to nose on a mule deer or an axis deer.
The taxidermist takes one animal that we would normally see as an anonymous member of a group and turns it into an individual, like the living bobcat that Forrest has been trying to trap on his land.
He’s after our chickens. I let the chickens out every day, because I like things free. He’ll be going on a mount.
MARISSA GUGGIANA is the President of Sonoma Direct Sustainable Meats and a co-founder of the Secret Eating Society. This is her third issue as an editor of Meatpaper. When she is not hanging out with taxidermists and carcasses, you can find her writing aout taxidermists and carcasses.
When he's not photographing meat and meat lovers, JULIO DUFFOO spends his time traveling and photographing landscapes and almost anyone who will stand in front of his lens. A Peruvian native, he was riased in Brooklyn and lives in San Francisco.
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Eight.