Taxidermy: An Exacting Craft

By Willa Wick in Animals & Nature, Arts & Music, Community, People

He’s made trophies out of everything from a celebrity groundhog to a two-headed calf, but don’t expect to just walk into his shop, hand him a critter, and expect him to “stuff it” in a couple of weeks.
Sorry, it just doesn’t work that easily, or that fast.
John Wesselink has been doing taxidermy in Palmerston since the late ‘70s. As a young man in Burnaby, British Columbia, he was always interested in hunting and fishing. He became friends with, and eventually worked for, a taxidermist there. The dream of having his own shop never left, and after settling in Palmerston he purchased the Prestige Taxidermy building from George Atkinson. The trade was already well established so it continued under the same name. The business was in a building one street off Main, while his home was a few blocks away.
In the early ‘90s, when the building’s main supporting beam broke. Wesselink was left with two options – major and expensive repair work to replace the beam and renovate the shed, or “go up.” The decision was made to go up, and the Wesselinks now have the perfect combination, living quarters above the workshop.
One of the first big animals John worked on was a Texas Long-Horn. This head went to the Ridgetown Agricultural College as the customer was associated with that farm. He also did an oddity – a two headed calf from the Listowel area.
In the early days Wesselink mounted 150 – 200 fish a year, but he does very little of that anymore. When I asked why it had slacked off there was a simple answer, a grin, and “how many stuffed fish does one angler need?”
At any given time there will be several works on the go. Procedures such as skinning, tanning, making forms, sewing etc all take time. Multi-tasking with projects at various stages of completion keeps the work from being boring or routine,
Hunting fur-bearing animals requires a license from the Ministry of Natural Resources. If an animal comes to the taxidermist it must be accompanied by the original MNR tag. The customer must also have obtained a tanning license from MNR before the taxidermist may even start.
Fur bearing animals include beaver, coyote, ermine, fishers, fox, lynx, mink, muskrat, otter, opossum, raccoon, sable, squirrel, wolf, skunk and bear.
A personally-owned animal such as a private zoo zebra, or a favorite farm bull, does not require a tanning license.
There are no hunting permits for owls, hawks, osprey, eagles etc, but if one is found dead as a result of an accident (i.e. hit by a vehicle), it may be taken to a taxidermist – after receiving a tanning permit from MNR. Owls, hawks etc must have a Provincial license while migratory birds (ducks, Canada Geese, songbirds) require a Federal permit.
Wesselink also works with NAFA (North American Fur Auction). His route is all of Southern Ontario where he picks up the pelts from trappers and delivers them to the NAFA storage facility in Toronto. He has met all kinds of extraordinary people on his five-day collection trips around the southern part of the province.
At the main depot the furs are catalogued and assigned to whatever purpose (coats, rugs, hats etc). NAFA personnel laughingly refer to him as their Coureurs de Bois.
Stuffed animals are used in museum displays and at conservation areas, and these critters are all done with proper taxidermy methods and procedures. Some of the Palmerston work is featured at the Children’s Museum in London. Wiarton Willie is also Wesselink’s work.
He was also approached to assist with a TV commercial for rat poison. The process was completed on several rats, and with John’s ingenuity metal was imbedded in their bodies. The rats were placed on a painted piece of plexi-glass, and when the cameras rolled someone hidden beneath the props zipped the animals around the set with magnets.
The largest animal Wesselink has performed his magic on was a full mounted bison, the smallest were mice for a display.
The job is never easy and it can’t be rushed. There are too many things that can go wrong. It’s a constant-learning process with new chemicals and methods continually being developed.
There are three rooms to the building – the show room, workshop, and storage. In the storage area are molds for every type of animal and bird imaginable, multiple sizes of deer/caribou/elk/moose antlers, tanned hides and leathers, and a grand array of pelts.
Before anything is done with a specimen, accurate measurements are taken. For a deer head, that means from the base of the antler to the tip of the nose, from the left and right points to the nose and the placement of the eyes and ears. The taxidermist must ascertain from the customer what pose is desired (head straight ahead, angled to the side, nose toward the ground etc).
There is a standard deer head form that Wesselink constructed himself. It’s a two-part fiberglass form originally sand and Plaster of Paris cast from an actual head. This finished mold has all the contours and markings required for reproduction. The two fiberglass molds are sprayed with a non-stick aerosol and then filled with liquid polyurethane foam (similar to spray cans of the yellow foam that can be purchased at the hardware store for filling cracks). Because of the expansion factor, specific calculations have to be taken for the size of the mold.
When filled, the molds have to harden for at least 24 hours before releasing. Inserted at the top of the head and back of the neck are pieces of plywood. These are necessary for holding the weight of the antlers, and the backing for securing the fur plus hook for hanging.
Meanwhile the fur and antlers have been removed and the skin tanned.
It’s a myth that you can tell the age of a deer by its antlers. The rack is lost every fall and has to re-grow each year. The only way to tell the age of a deer is by its teeth.
Eyes are hand painted glass (you wouldn’t believe the stock of colors and sizes that have to be on hand). Feet, hooves, claws and tails are all original. Tongues are pink rubber hand-tinted to match the specimen. If the customer wants the real teeth John obliges, but they will crack and chip over time so he prefers to use plastic reproductions.
Ears have to be split and the cartilage removed. A type of soft, yet rigid, plastic is used as a replacement and is cut to shape and then formed. At times Wesselink recycles plastic milk, vinegar or bleach jugs to make some of the small cartilage appendages.
The deer form is mounted on a swivel stand so that it can be turned to any angle as the professional works. After the tanning is completed the skin is stretched over the form, pinned into all the contours, and fastened behind the backing board (the introduction of the small automatic nail guns made this process much faster and easier).
As you view Wesselink’s showroom you might assume the many heads and full animals are for sale – but they’re not. Everything in view is either John’s own, or a model waiting for the customer to pick up.
So ask him to “stuff it” if you will, but rest assured that taxidermy is a long, slow process and an exacting craft.

 

John Wesselink taking fiberglass form from deer head. Willa Wick photo

John Wesselink taking fiberglass form from deer head. Willa Wick photo

Completed trophies ready for pick-up. Willa Wick photo

Completed trophies ready for pick-up. Willa Wick photo

Deer head form on swivel stand for ease of working. Willa Wick photo

Deer head form on swivel stand for ease of working. Willa Wick photo

John Wesselink with pelts he has acquired over the years  (left) tiger, white tiger, and Lion in his right hand. Willa Wick photo

John Wesselink with pelts he has acquired over the years (left) tiger, white tiger, and Lion in his right hand. Willa Wick photo