It occurred to me this morning that I do not know how to dress for a visit to the taxidermist.
The taxidermist with whom I am slated to speak is named Sam and one of my childhood best friends (who happens to be a veterinarian, intrigued by my morning meeting, dead animal talk, and caffeine) is coming along as I join Sam for some obligatory java and a trip to a local 3 bay garage where the magic happens; and by "magic" I mean the inimitable artwork that has become the hallmark of Naturally Wild Taxidermy, recently landing here in Queensbury, fresh from Alaska, en route to its Fall 2021 final destination of North Creek, New York.
Pulling on my jean shorts and ball cap, I picture a middle-aged guy knee deep in animal skins...you know, Sam the taxidermist from Alaska. Burly dude with a scraggly beard, right? Probably will order black coffee. Definitely gonna be wearing boots and a flannel. Really rough hands that smell like chemicals. Absolutely arriving in a pickup truck. But our Sam is actually "Samantha" who is sporting a sparkly diamond nose piercing, a clean black tshirt advertising her successful business, smooth soled running sneakers, beautiful jewelry, and who, stepping up to the coffee counter, confidently asks for a frothy coffee drink complete with a mountain of whipped cream.
Well, I was right about the pickup, but not much else.
Full disclosure, I knew Sam was a female. In preparation for today's sit down we exchanged blogs and brief niceties. I took a gander at a couple of her photos and was ready with some prepared questions but what I did not anticipate, what struck me as most sublime, and what was so pleasantly unexpected was not only how well a woman is flourishing, triumphing and carving out an incredible niche for herself in this field, but also our instant connection, driven in part by her warmth, cordial nature and effusiveness. Although her life's work is essentially working with and honoring the dead, she is very much alive.
Immediately in synch, the veterinarian and I grab an outdoor table and we sit with Sam on the street. Together we are a triangle of chatterboxes, completely unfazed by the clatter and bang of two separate buildings in extremely close proximity to us undergoing major construction. The irony of brownstones being gutted, sandblasted and, then ultimately expertly preserved all around us does not escape me and I thank the universe for this fine parallel as I smile and bring out my notebook. We begin to laugh, learn, and launch ourselves a veritable taxidermy hootenanny.
After admitting that she had her black coffee already (and me confessing to guiltily stereotyping taxidermists as drinkers of the thickest, crudest joe ), Sam first reports that the unofficial favorite beverage of taxidermists is Dr. Pepper, though really, any ridiculously overcaffeinated drink will do. Then, she begins to tell us the story of how she became one of the most highly regarded persons in her craft within the entire state of Alaska, what she is up to presently, and how she is looking ardently and eagerly toward the future.
Samantha grew up in a hunting family, with an abiding love for the Adirondacks passed down by her father. At the ripe old age of six, on land which was leased to her family by International Paper Company, Sam and her dad would hole up in an Airstream trailer affectionately called "Twinkie", sustained by food affectionately prepared and packed by her mother. After switching leases and locations numerous times, the family eventually built a hunting camp which became the getaway of choice for Sam's father, a hard working, self-employed kitchen and bath businessman. Sam wistfully recalls the forays, a perennial favorite place to go. A video camera from dad was the first way she "shot" or "captured" animals, mostly deer, during pre-hunting seasons, but once she turned fourteen and was gripped by the enthusiasm associated with being legally able to enter the woods by herself with a license to pursue and harvest wild game, her hobby really started becoming more of an ingrained lifestyle pursuit. Her first time alone on a trail, with her father nearby but not at her side, Sam crossed paths with a large deer and found herself perfectly still, unwilling to draw back the bow. Wholly fascinated by how the creature stood, moved, and dwelled in its habitat, she let the buck forage and walk away. Because her father witnessed the intentional miss, the moment has become folklore in Sam's family, the story of Sam's first "hunt" told again and again.
"All she wants to do is talk to the animals, " Sam chides, recalling the words of her family, and it's clear that her willingness and desire to observe and memorize the habits and manners of animals in nature is a seriously vital piece of the taxidermy puzzle.
"People have a vision of what they want," she says. Listening intently to the hunters whose prize trophies she's artfully preserving and mounting and knowing precisely how to showcase the creature, distinctly as it appeared in nature, right down to the kind of rock or bush it was standing upon at impact, is only possible because she's been there. She's seen it. She bears witness to the wild. It's a part of her body and soul.
I notice she has a wolf tattoo. The wolf is a shape shifter in the totem world and I sense that Sam has the ability to multidimensionally feel these situations from the hunter's perspective as well as the perspective of the animal. Coming home to write this after seeing her personal body art, I do a little research and learn that Native Americans wear wolf pelts when they are summoning strength. In doing so, they are called "skin walkers". To me the vision of Sam and wolves and the skins of animals swims in my brain like a symbiotic soup, a confluence of ideas, a packed blend of energy and rawness. It's like hearing the life story of an elder, but she's young; and for such a young person, Sam has charted quite a fascinating course.
Her road from high school graduate to professional taxidermist presents sort of like a Candyland game board full of loopy roads and forests with twists and turns. She is a lifeguard with safety officer training, who begged for and received, in young adulthood, a one way ticket to Alaska where she: resurrected a long-defunct Boy's and Girl's club (which still exists); worked in a women's prison; acted as a psychiatric treatment counselor; and did a stint in animal control before ultimately befriending a woman with an animal skin "rugging business" which inspired her. Living in mainland Alaska where there happened to be a plethora of taxidermy businesses, she made the brave decision to pursue it professionally.
The Artistic School of Taxidermy in Idaho is where she was schooled and trained in a unique unison of art and science. After an investment of $40,000.00, time, and careful study using her love for animals, her capable hands and her aesthetic talents and skills, she emerged with a discriminating eye, a keen ability to do the work, a shrewdness about the business aspect of it, and a few amazing mounts which, upon graduation, she packed in her car and toted to the Great Alaskan Sportsman's Show for display.
She presented exceptionally and left the Show, returning to her Alaskan home with six month's worth of work and a belly full of anxiousness, sweating despite the cold and wondering if she could do it all...and do it really, really well.
Her first job was getting an alpaca tanned. Alongside the alpaca, she had a kalij bird mount that she'd agreed to do; a sort of pheasant from Hawaii. She finished both, and her clients were happy, but she admits to learning a ton more during those initially difficult processes.
"I'm a beautician, a carpenter, a seamstress, and a sculptor," she counts off on her fingers. Later in our conversation, she adds the term "business woman". I supplement that list, in all sincerity, with "politician" and/or "mediator", since she dealt formerly with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and currently with the NYS department of Environmental Conservation who check to see that her clients have proper tags for their animals in her possession and to whom she is a mandated reporter. She admits people have occasionally asked her to turn a blind eye to the "legality" of an animal they are bringing to her. It's upsetting and she describes it as the most controversial thing she has to contend with as a taxidermist. However, she assures us she is a rule follower to the 'enth degree and if someone has violated rules regarding the morals and guidelines of hunting animals, birds or fish, she will not hesitate to alert the proper authority.
Another unique controversy she brings up, though not illegal, is the notion of "rogue taxidermy", which the veterinarian misunderstands as "road taxidermy" and pictures Sam scraping flattened carcasses off the highway. But rogue taxidermy isn't about road kill, rogue taxidermy is the unholy (my word, not Sam's) act of piecing together parts of different animals to create something not found in nature for the purpose of oddity. She also mentions the pop art phenomenon of taxidermizing mice and putting them in outfits, mounted to wood wearing bathing caps or holding miniature pocketbooks. Competitions are common and well attended for this unconventional style of taxidermy. Quickly, upon seeing my reaction, she defends her fellow artists, noting that she respects each individual's need for expression and has no real beef with the idea of putting one animal's head on another animal's body with an altogether different tail or hanging mice on the wall dressed in mini bathrobes. I personally find it gross and say so. Sam bites her straw and bounces her foot up and down. I decide to move on to a lighter subject.
We talk about unusual requests. For example, she was commissioned to build a moose beard mobile to hang over an Alaskan baby's crib. She tanned the moose but someone else put the mobile together. She was asked to preserve possum feet, which she did, for a keychain artist who thought they were a nice alternative to the more traditional rabbit's foot keychain of old. She gets asked about family pets a lot, which she politely declines to take on. Lastly, she was once asked to freeze dry a human digit for a bar owner in Alaska who wanted to use it in a too crazy to be true cocktail, presumably as a replacement for another freeze-dried digit that went missing from his bar. I had to look it up to be sure she wasn't kidding.
She wasn't kidding.
She didn't do it.
Her biggest requests in Alaska were for caribou and bear; here in New York, it's deer, by far most popular, although she gets commissioned for fish taxidermy also. Limiting herself to five a year, fish replica is tedious work with every scale requiring hand painting, air brushing and shading. She can artfully plan the colorations in her mind with apparent ease but sitting down with them is terribly difficult work.
Whereas old school taxidermy, gaining in heightened popularity particularly during the 18th century, but with the earliest known specimen being a 16th century crocodile, was real skulls and bones, straw, clay, newspaper, sawdust, and arsenic to repel bugs, new school taxidermy is death casts (plaster casts of parts of the animal), perfect measurements taken from the animals themselves, beautifully and professionally sculpted foam forms, flesh eating beetles (to get the skulls thoroughly cleaned), climate controlled work areas, freeze drying velvet (from antlers), and a clever balance of timelines and asking the right questions, like, "Do you want this bear to look like Winnie the Pooh or the meanest grizzly ever?"
Silly old bear versus natural born killer is a pretty important distinction.
But you can rely on Sam to get it right, whether it's a mountain goat with a waterfall behind it or a buck with a son's memorial to his late father that'll make the toughest woodsman cry, reverently inscribed on the backside of the mount, she won't rest until it's done and done right.
"Right now, it's a 9 to 5 business, but come September, it's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week." She pauses. "By appointment only, of course." Sam and her husband are presently building a home and a shop on 156 acres in North Creek, along with completing all of the taxidermy jobs she started within the last year at her temporary Queensbury location. She's busy but I get the impression that's how she likes it.
If all goes according to plan, their cleverly named "On the Rocks Ranch", which she notes is due to the many boulders and a few beverages of choice, will be in a solid enough state so that her Naturally Wild Taxidermy business can begin operating there during the fall of 2021. Her love of homesteading and raising her own food; with a hobby farm populated by chickens and goats makes her giddy with anticipation. "I really like the idea of sitting on the porch at the end of the day," she laughs. I imagine her holding a cocktail surrounded by nature.
I also imagine a wolf nearby; a suitable helpmate, ready to howl at the blue corn moon.
You can visit Sam's website at https://naturallywildtaxidermy.com; she also has a Facebook page. All of the preceding photos above were taken with the veterinarian's and my cellphone, and I apologize that they are not stellar, professional quality. The photos below were taken, with permission, from Sam's website.