"A good friend of mine got an Eagle Scout award,” says Paul Eichberger, as he pulls a Red Head duck’s neck inside out to get at the skull. “The scoutmaster took him by the shoulders and said, ‘There’s the world; it’s yours. You can be anything you want. Anything.’ Then his mother said, ‘Well he can’t be a taxidermist!’ ”
Eichberger, 17, rolls back his blond head and horse-laughs through pimple-rimmed lips. He graduates from high school this month and aims to do then just what he’s doing now — stuffing and mounting birds at Lyons and O’Haver Taxidermy in La Mesa.
“You know why people make jokes about taxidermy?” he asks, scraping the meat out of the inside of his limp duck.
“Jealousy. Because they can’t do it.” What most people can’t do, Eichberger is getting very good at. In a little under nine hours he takes a dead bird from a clear plastic bag in which it may have been frozen months ago, does things to it that would be unspeakable at the dinner table, and ends up with a static, mute, but life-like effigy of it.
“It’s like being a doctor for the dead,” says Eichberger’s colleague, Gary McCoy, who is working on a mallard duck at the same bench, “except after you get through with it, it’s still dead.” McCoy, mustachioed and bedecked in a Disneyland sweatshirt, struggles with the first stages of mounting a bird — skinning it out. He makes a short, three-inch incision from the anus up the belly, then begins separating the flesh from the meat. His fingers work their way around the carcass with gentle adroitness. “Look at this,’’ he says in, mock disgust. “This thing’s been dead so long it won’t even bleed. How’d you like to have to face this right after two eggs, sunny-side up?”
Meanwhile, Eichberger’s pliers gnaw at the Red Head’s skull, extracting as much bone and tissue as possible. He scrapes at two growths of flesh on top of the duck’s head. “All diving ducks have this little extra bit of meat on top of the skull,” he explains. “It allows them to dive deep by taking the place of sinuses.”
Eichberger picks and wipes, clearing every bit of organic material from inside the animal. With a scraping tool he opens all the grease, sacks in the skin, where the feathers are connected. Borax powder is sprinkled on the skin to absorb the grease and oils. He’s merciless on the minutest speck of meat.
“The important thing in taxidermy is to have thumb nails, so you can dig out meat and stuff,” he says.
After the skin is as bare and clean as possible, it is washed with soap and water. The feathers remain intact and are not damaged. The skin then goes into a solvent tank and on into a drum, where it is tumbled slowly in a drying powder which also moth-proofs it.
Eichberger grabs a handful of excelsior, long curling strips of shredded wood, and wraps it with string. He gradually builds up an armature with the exact dimensions of the lump of meat that used to be inside the bird. To this new body he attaches a neck of the same material and then inserts wires where the wings and legs will be. The lower bones of the wings and legs have been left in the duck and will receive the wires. The armature is placed inside the skin, which is pulled tight and then sewn up. Up to this point, almost anyone with a strong stomach could do a decent job. The taxidermist’s art is in positioning.
McCoy is demonstrating the art with another bird, a hooded merganser, trying to make it look like it’s flying. He’s pinned cardboard to the bottom of the outstretched wings so they’ll spread and bend just so. He has placed the feathers on the leading edge of the wing into flying position and covered them with gauze. “When a duck flies, the feathers puff up a little on top of the wing, and depending on what he’s doing in the air, the feathers on the back of the wing spread out slightly,” he says.
McCoy confronts the duck in a stable, ponderous stance, his feet spread, the knees bent, the head jerking laterally. His fingers clamped together, whispering over the feathers, he smooths the long neck, puffs up the little breast. The feathers seem to respond to the arcing static electricity from his palms. The duck looks like it would glide if you dropped it from the roof.
Birds are not the only animals mounted here. Fish dangle from the rafters. Bears stand erect, mouths agape, claws extended. They also spread flat on the showroom floor with other rugs: lion, zebra, gazelle. Game heads protrude from the walls and antlers straddle the roof beams. African horns, hides, and heads mingle with their North American counterparts in a circus of silent, glassy-eyed, frozen motion.
Even though several animals are being worked on at the same time, the assembly line is as distant as the Serenghetti Plain. This is a place of craftsmanship, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. In the early Sixties, when porpoise research was just blossoming, the Navy brought several of the animals here because they needed precise and minute detail in the mounted specimens. Engineers have been called in more than once to design the base and armature to hold leaping lions so only their hind feet are earthbound. Back when licenses were available to take hummingbirds, they were mounted here without ever being touched by human hands — it had to be done with tweezers, otherwise the feathers would have fallen out. Craftsmanship as well as the fauna of the planet are being preserved within these walls.
In the game head area there is a large tank called a deepsink. Soaking in it now are the heads of several Long Horn steers. They are from a herd of eighty-seven cattle used in Hollywood westerns. The owner of the herd, which became old and unused in recent years, is having all eighty-seven heads mounted to give to his friends. Jaimie Lyons, 24, son of one of the shop owners, is stitching a Long Horn hide down the back of the neck, pulling it tight as he goes. The horns, with about a four-foot spread, have already been bolted to the lop of the polyurethane form which acts as the head. These hard foam forms, produced out behind the plant, come in standard sizes and shapes for each different species of animal. Steer, deer, moose, and most other common animals have their own forms. They are extremely accurate in musculature and anatomy, Lyons says. He goes on to explain how the horns are mounted. “First, we hammer them off the core, which runs out to within a foot of the tip. Then these cores are cut off, because they’re alive and can attract pests. We leave about a foot of the core on the bottom, poison it, boil the horns, and then slip them back on.”
It takes about a day to mount a game head, Lyons says. The hide is wet when stretched onto the form, which already has the glass eyes in place. Concave areas in the form are coated with glue, and after the hide is sewn, the skin is pinned to these places. The natural wrinkles in the animal’s throat are made, and then the head is allowed to dry. The nose and portions of the eyelids are then painted, and the horns are polished.
Mike O’Haver, one of the owners, is working next to Lyons on a longhorn steer head. Like most taxidermists, and indeed everyone in the forward end of the shop, O’Haver is a hunter and animal lover. He is forty-five, looks about thirty, with brown hair and eyes and a voice so soft you almost have to read his lips.
“We don’t mount pets,” he says, putting down a wet hide in order to talk. “We don’t feel it’s ethical. They can be mounted to look exactly like they were, but there’s one thing you can’t reproduce — the personality in a pet. People are expecting you to put the thing back alive so they can play with it.
“We also don’t work on endangered animals,” he adds. “You know, of course, the animals’ biggest problem is encroachment, not hunting. The countries in Africa with the best animal populations are the ones that cull the herds, thin them out.”
O’Haver’s partner, Hughie Lyons, walks in from the back of the plant, the fish section. He is short, ruddy, full of verve and know-how. “We used to have coyotes, quail, fox — all kinds of animals right here,” he says, motioning to the area surrounding the building. “That was fifteen, twenty years ago. People have just pushed them out of the way.”
The conversation turns back to hunting and the taking of animals’ lives.
“Once in a while someone will come in, look around, and ask, ‘How can you kill all these things?’ ” says Lyons, shaking his head. “Well I just tell ’em that McDonald’s hamburger they’re eating wasn’t born in a bun. They’re just letting somebody else do their killing. Now, a true vegetarian has something to talk about. It’s his way of life; he’s got his privileges and I can respect that ”
“It’s funny that people differentiate between wild and domestic animals, like cattle,” says O’Haver. “They say, ‘Well that’s what they’re raised for, to be slaughtered and eaten.’ But the poor cow doesn’t feel any different about it. He sees the cow in front of him being shot, and he doesn’t have any idea he’s being raised for that.”
Personification of terrestrial animals is one reason people are sometimes disturbed by taxidermy, but taxidermists hear few complaints about the mounting of fish. More than half of O’Haver and Lyons’ plant is tooled for the mounting and painting of fish, but it is fundamentally different from the other half: it is set up to produce a fiber glass replica of the animal, not to preserve its real skin.
Fish skin, Lyons explains, is very difficult to preserve. It takes so much binder and other chemicals to hold it together that almost all of the fine detail is lost. And it still must be painted. For that reason, only a few of the larger sailfish and marlin are “skinmounts.” All other fish are thrown away or returned to the owners after a plaster mold has been made of them. The only real part used is the large teeth of some fish.
From the plaster mold a fiber glass replica is cast in two halves. These are joined, using auto body filler to shore up the joint. Holes are drilled for the pectoral and anal fins, which were cut off the fish and cast with the body. These are glued in place. For fish with tiny, jagged teeth, a gelatinous resin is spread along the lower lip and chopped with a table knife, forming tiny, jagged teeth. The final step before painting is the application of a silver undercoat.
The most important and guarded information in the plant is contained in the files on the painting of fish. This is even more of an art than positioning. The files are kept locked up in a cement vault which is everything-proof. Almost every kind of game fish in the world has its own file with photos, detailed diagrams, color-mixing information, and step-by-step instructions. Hughie Lyons says thirty years of catching fish, studying, and photographing them are locked in that vault. He is the chief fish painter. It is all done with airbrushes.
“We have air guns you could paint the tip of a pin with,” he says, standing before a rack lined with a dozen airbrushes. They have to mix their own colors, which glow with the luminosity close to that produced by sunlight meeting the skin of a just-caught fish. The paint is pearlescent, which utilizes a by-product from fish scales. It was popular with hot rodders in the Sixties.
Lyons picks up an airbrush and adds a few finishing touches to an eight-foot marlin painted by his eighteen-year-old son, Lance. The colors of the fish melt into one another like the rainbows in an oil slick. They are too vibrant for just one sense; you smell and taste them as well as see them. Hemingway would have had trouble knocking their accuracy
But there’s something about a mounted fish, no matter how well done, that just doesn’t look right. They still give you a kind of out-of-kilter feeling. And therein lies taxidermy’s one drawback as well as its main purpose: At best a reproduction of a living thing is only a representation, a symbol, a mummified trophy . . . with the one thing of value, the thing that really counts, jettisoned like an empty fuel tank. You can stuff the daylights out of it, but you can’t stuff the life back into it.