“I could love a duck!” the American poet Theodore Roethke wrote hyperbolically, manically, in one of an astonishing series of longish poems usually referred to as “The Lost Son” poems. I’ve always liked ducks myself — for lots of reasons. First of all, it’s a funny word: “duck.” “Quack” is a funny word. I read somewhere that all words with the letter k in them are inherently funny. This doesn't test out 100 percent, however. Ku Klux Klan would be an example. Also, ducks are the long-distance birds, the ones that fly (and they fly so high!) in giant arrowheads each spring and fall. Huey, Dewey, Louie,
Donald, Unca Scrooge, Daffy — ducks who forgot their pants. I left out Daisy deliberately. In duckdom (as in most bird species) it’s a drake’s world; they get the color. There is something about ducks’ feet and ducks’ bills that, frankly, fills me with joy. One of the worst things I’ve ever smelled: rotten duck eggs. A duck’s feces are among the most repellent I’ve seen: green and white and slimy. One of the funniest duck stories I personally witnessed: early ’70s, somebody in my crowd is flush, and we all (five or six) go to a French restaurant. One of our party, never having tasted duck à l’orange, is urged to order it. When it arrives he doesn’t notice the waiter lighting the cognac and, upon seeing the flames, jumps up and begins beating them out with his napkin. This is the class of people I hung around with as a youth. I like ducks because they look a little funny, but I know they are savvy, strong, and indefatigable and make oddly plaintive noises. As a teenager I did some bird-hunting but never got a shot off at a duck except once, when in frustration, about 100 yards out of range, I let go both barrels of my 16-gauge side-by-side. I swear that several of the ducks on the closer side of the V lifted up their tails, as Daffy or Bugs might do if Elmer took a shot at them: their way of flipping me the bird.
I wanted to know more about ducks — wild ducks, waterfowl — and I was interested in the art of taxidermy. Of all the taxidermied creatures I’ve looked at, I think it’s the birds, and particularly waterfowl, that look the most natural or alive. You can get a close and accurate look at their colors, which are spectacular in range and hue and pattern, iridescences found nowhere else, and all contained in the miraculous and primordial invention of nature called feathers.
Very few full-time taxidermists work in San Diego, and probably the only one who specializes in waterfowl is Kevin Moreau, just turned 40, whose taxidermy business is called KWest Taxidermy. When I first talk to him on the phone, I sense that he is passionate not only about his work but about waterfowl in general. We arrange to meet when I get to San Diego a few days later. He calls back the next day to cancel. He’s decided against being interviewed. He says he’s gotten harassing phone calls a few times. People who think he stuffs animals gun-crazed hunters have slaughtered. His first priority is providing for his family (he and his wife have six sons between them), and his second priority is honoring the creatures he loves. His respect for these creatures goes well beyond his taxidermy work, as you will see. He doesn’t want phone calls or even the possibility thereof interfering with his work. It takes some talking, but I talk him out of not talking to me.
I go to see him. Kevin Moreau is a native San Diegan, growing up in Fletcher Hills and graduating from Grossmont High. He tells me he was a decent student and went to college for a few semesters, but in the classroom he was always either looking out the window or wanting to: “to see what birds I could see, which birds they were, and what they were doing.” His father was an art teacher, and it was from him that Kevin learned a great deal of his craft — drafting abilities, drawing and painting skills, a sense of color and line. He’s about 5 feet 11 and built like a bull — his chest and shoulders are solid, and his forearms and hands are massive. He was a drummer in a rock band in his youth, and it’s to that that he attributes his strong forearms. Maybe so, but he works still with great muscular concentration in his hands and arms. Somebody told me once that thoracic surgeons need very strong hands and forearms — to pry open our chests for surgery. I asked a brain surgeon whom I happened to have access to about this. He said that nowadays they have surgical jaws-of-life tools to do that work for them. I wasn’t sure if he was just telling me the facts or if there was a touch of surgeon rivalry involved. Moreau has not only the strong hands of a thoracic surgeon but also the delicate touch of a brain surgeon.
He and his family live in a modest ranch house in a quiet neighborhood. When you walk in the front door, however, you enter another world. What was originally meant to be a living room is now his showroom/office and is filled with many mounted ducks and other birds, some fish, and three or four stunning tableaux/dioramas (as one might see in a natural history museum) combining sculpture and taxidermy. Each creates — simultaneously — under- and above-water scenes: lots of ducks dive and many fish leap. There’s a case filled with ribbons, most of them blue: from competitions he’s entered. To remind one that a large family lives here as well: a huge bucket filled with shoes. To the left is the kitchen, dominated by two huge freezers where all the birds and fish waiting to be mounted are kept. Business is pretty good — he’s about six months behind with his jobs. Off the kitchen is the living room (which was probably meant to be a dining room). It, too, contains elements of his work, in this case a desk in the corner where he does most of the brush (as opposed to airbrush) painting of his show decoys — more about them later. In his dusty back yard he has two other work spaces: a canvas carport structure where he airbrushes and carves his decoys, and a small shack where he mounts birds and fish. It’s a humble operation: he’s not getting rich stuffing dead animals. He does it to preserve creatures he reveres, respects, and protects. He does it to earn a living. He’s one of the blessed: he gets to earn his living doing something he loves.