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A Breed Apart Taxidermists Breathe New Life Into Shapeless Animal Skins, Preserve Hunters’ Adventures

Dan Beyer knows what it’s like to play god.

His job is to take the empty, shapeless skins of animals and resurrect them.

Beyer, owner of Second Nature Taxidermy, can make creatures alert or sleepy, majestic or coy, but his goal is to give the appearance of life to the dead.

If he’s not a god, Beyer is an artist - and more. He’s a game warden who makes sure each animal was legally captured. He’s a surgeon with the delicate task of skinning the pelt off a deer. He’s a biologist who has to know the anatomy and muscle structure of each animal he mounts. He’s a small business owner and a nature enthusiast.

Nonetheless, he still feels the need to apologize for his vocation.

Perhaps it’s the common image of a taxidermist huddled in some dark room stitching the remains of an animal.

Perhaps it’s because at parties his friends introduce him as “Dan the taxidermist.”

“Why does that have to be the first thing they say?,” he asked.

Except for the deer and elk heads that Beyer quickly skins, his work is bloodless and gore-free.

He deals mostly with tanned hides that are supple and as clean as any leather, foam molds, nylon thread, glass eyes and plastic teeth.

While pop music plays from a workbench radio, Beyer works with glue and airbrush paints that tout names like warthog grey, antelope brown, strong flesh and mallard orange.

Occasionally, Beyer does grapple with gore. Especially this time of year as hunting season winds down. He gets deer heads every day. Before noon last Monday, he had five to skin. “It kind of buries me,” he said.

A deer head is not something you want to leave sitting around. Though it’s a messy task, Beyer usually skins the animals the day they come in.

“I really wouldn’t feel bad if I didn’t have to skin out another deer,” he said. He dons rubber gloves and a blue surgical apron and arms himself with an Exacto knife for the job.

“It’s kind of like taking a shirt off or taking a sock off,” he said as he rolled the skin back, deftly slicing it from the animal’s neck.

When Beyer was a teen he saw taxidermy specimens at hunting expositions. He found everything he could about the subject and taught himself the art by setting up shop in the garage and stuffing ground squirrels and grouse that he captured. His family supported the hobby. “I read up on it and just practiced and practiced,” he said. “Nobody ever thought I was a weirdo.”

After an effort at interior design, he moved to Reno and worked for several taxidermists, perfecting his skills. He came to Spokane in 1994 to start his business.

“It was hard,” he said. “I advertised in a lot of different places: hunting books, the yellow pages, game shows. When you’re a new guy, people don’t know who you are.”

After the first year, business picked up. Now Beyer has regular customers including one who commissions about $40,000 worth of work a year.

His price list reads like a what’s what in the animal kingdom: Antelope, $400; elk, $685; moose $1,050, African warthog, $685; and zebra, $725.

And those are just the shoulder mount prices.

For life-size mounts for anything larger than a badger or fox, the prices start at $1,200 for a lynx, between $2,500 and $3,500 for black bears and caribou and $7,500 for cape buffalo.

“I really like doing African because I like doing exotic animals,” he said. In building a mount, particularly an exotic one, Beyer studies photographs and anatomical drawings of the live creatures to capture the right stance and musculature to make the animal look lifelike.

Then he sands down the foam shapes already made in the image of the animal, to give them better definition.

“The forms are the artists’ interpretation of the animal,” he said. “Usually I try to buy the best ones I can, then try to make them right.”

He paints a coat of glue on the form, then covers it with the hide that he’s made supple by soaking in water.

From there it’s craftsmanship, giving the form the right tilt, bending the neck, adjusting the eyes just right, setting the lids over them, adjusting the ears, puttying the skin and painting the lips, mouth and nose.

Though he likes the challenge of mounting different types of animals, Beyer will not do pets. “It’s too weird,” he said. “It’s like having your mother or sister mounted.”

Beyer’s clients run the spectrum, but nearly all share a love of the outdoors.

When Rex Irvine lugged in his white tail buck head, he couldn’t stop talking about the hunt. “You can see where he’s been fighting,” he said, pointing to the marks on the antlers. He stroked the head. “He’s a pretty buck … There’s just something about a whitetail that’s beautiful.”

Irvine hunts for the pleasure of being in nature. “It’s not getting the animal, it’s getting out in the woods,” he said. Often he’ll pass up a chance to shoot a deer because he’s in no hurry to kill something. He waits until nearly the end of the season before he gets serious about bagging a deer.

The hunter stroked the white neck of the buck that he took about 40 miles north of Spokane a day before the season ended. “He’s not huge, but he’s sure almost perfect, isn’t he?” he said. “That’s why I want to have him mounted.”

With nearly every commission Beyer gets a story. It’s part of the job.

“That’s a reason you didn’t get your work done,” said John Lamers, a taxidermist who ran All Trophy Taxidermy for 13 years until he closed the business last year. “There’s just an awful lot of gabbing that went on.”

Lamers liked his clients, but he was tired of taxidermy. “It’s such a hard way to make a meager living,” he said. “It’s very time-consuming and people don’t want to pay for what you really want to put out. It’s just a really tough way to make a living.”

During his 13 years, he endured 13-hour-days in his shop struggling to keep up with the orders. “You don’t have time to do anything and you don’t make a lot for the amount of hours you have to put in,” he said.

While the number of licensed taxidermists in Washington has grown to 165 this year compared with 126 ten years ago, the number in the region seems to be dropping.

“It’s not like it used to be,” said John McColgin, a Washington State Fish and Wildlife officer. “There’s fewer and fewer doing it and there just isn’t as much demand for it anymore.”

When his wife’s gift-shop business took off, Lamers quit taxidermy. “It’s the difference between day and night,” he said. “It’s totally different work and you’re able to move a lot more retail merchandise than you’re able to produce in taxidermy.”

Still there are people out there hunting for a few good taxidermists.

At the home of Rod Plese, one of Lamers’ former clients and a hunter who takes at least two expeditions a year, a 10-foot-high brown bear looms over the front entry. The walls in his office are covered with trophies from his trips.

“It isn’t getting the animal,” said Plese, a real estate broker. “It’s the fun and friendships and camaraderies you make on the trip. Each hunt has a story of own.”

For Plese, the mounts are threedimensional memories from his adventures. They are important to him and he’s careful about choosing a taxidermist.

“When you’re through with the hunt, you want to make sure you take the trophy animal to an artist who will do the job right,” he said, looking up at the wall behind his desk. “Think of all the workmanship that went into those animals.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)

The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Hannelore Sudermann Staff writer

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