WANT A MOOSE IN YOUR PARLOR?
Then just ask taxidermist Clifford McCutcheon. Wacky or weird, there’s nothing left that surprises him. He’s been asked to mount a two-inch perch and a human head, change a carp into a bass and gift-stuff a skunk. It’s got so he wouldn’t bat an eye at a wambeezle
IN THE basement of a small building in down town Toronto, Clifford McCutcheon, with two men and a boy to help him, is now busy in a welter of fur, blood, feathers, entrails, arsenic, excelsior and glass eyes. He is creating a lifeless beauty from hunters' autumn bags of geese, ducks, deer, moose, bears, owls, squirrels and rabbits. 1~•~~
From his shop, known to hunters and anglers from coast to coast as Oliver Spanner & Co. Ltd., the products of this taxidermist’s skill will go into hundreds of dens and rumpus rooms where proud hunters may spend the winter evenings gazing on their prizes, catching again the faintly spicy smell of the duck marsh or seeing once more the glories of the northern bush.
While they are admiring their trophies t hey may reflect that these are symbols of a craft which was once common and is now rare.
There are fewer than two dozen, full-time licensed taxidermists in Canada. At the beginning of the century, when Canada’s population was half what it is now, there were more than two thousand. That was when no parlor was thought to be properly
furnished without its dome-topped glass cases from which owls gazed in calm wisdom and in which squirrels crouched on fragments of tree limbs and song birds perched in mute immobility amid their little cluster of fake foliage. Beside the front door was a deer or moose head, as necessary an exterior furnishing as the creaking, willow verandah chairs and the bamboo screen. In those days taxidermists were almost as numerous as cobblers, but tastes have changed and stuffed fauna have gone the way of burnt-leather Indian-head cushions.
But if Clifford McCutcheon has become an anachronism in his own time, he has no intention of admitting it. He is sure there will always be hunters and anglers lots of them—who will want to have trophies of their more successful expeditions preserved. And they will always find a place to display them in their homes no matter what the arbiters of home furnishing and decoration have to say. It is significant that of McCutcheon’s three helpers, one, George Atkinson, is a youth who is staking his future on a continuing demand for the lifelike re-creations of the craft.
These are by no means lean days lor a good taxidermist. The Spanner firm mounts about a hundred and fifty deer and moose heads a year at a $25 minimum for deer and $85 for moose. It stuffs two hundred and fift y birds at an average $15 each and an equal number of fish at a dollar an inch, with a minimum charge for fish of $18. It tans twenty-five hundred deer hides a year at $3.95 each, and makes more than two hundred bear skins into rugs at around $75 each. And there is the occasional bear to be stuffed at $100 to $1.85, as well as four or five hundred other mountings of miscellaneous kinds. All this amounts to a respectable gross income for a small firm.
Oliver Spanner, who started the business in 1887, was one of the best-known taxidermists on the continent. His speed and skill were unmatched. Once he did a complete job on a great horned owl in an hour and a half; another time he mounted eight birds in a day. Birds seem to have been his specialty, for it was in that division that he won first prize at the first World’s Fair in Chicago
in 1893. A bass mounted
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by Spanner in 1889 was returned to the shop this year for repairs. A small crack had appeared in the lower jaw. Apart from that it was still in perfect condition.
Douglas Spanner, a grandson of the founder, is now head of the firm. He has developed a wood-working branch of the business and McCuteheon, who three years ago became a partner, runs the raxidermy end.
Clifford McCuteheon started his career as a taxidermist in 1940 by clipping a coupon in a pulp magazine front an ad for the Northwestern School of Taxidermy at Omaha, Nebraska. He was fifteen at the time, working in a chocolate factory in his native Toronto. He paid ten dollars for the complete course of five lessons. For the next four years he spent his spare time shooting starlings with an air gun, roaming the highways on a borrowed bicycle in search of rabbits, squirrels and birds killed by cars, or combing Toronto’s beaches for dead ducks and gulls. Each find was hustled back to the bench he had set up in his cellar and mounted.
"Often I’d be up till two or three in the morning,” he recalls. "I must have stuffed about three hundred starlings in that period, besides any other dead birds or animals I could find.”
McCuteheon, a tall, slim, darkhaired young man approaching his thirtieth birthday, says taxidermy is "a messy job, but it pays and it’s fun.” To be a good taxidermist, he says, one must have manual skill and the faculty of never being surprised at anything or anybody. The latter quality is frequently given severe tests.
Not long ago a man came in and rolled two shrunken human heads from a paper bag onto the counter. He said they had come from South America and, except for that information, was evasive about the whole business. The
heads were becoming shapeless, and the stitching was loose. McCuteheon found that his jungle colleagues had cut and skinned their trophies exactly the way a taxidermist skins a deer or moose head—with a Y cut up the back of the neck and out to each ear (or antler, in the case of a deer or moose). His job was to soak the heads in water to restore malleability, replace the stuffing and reshape the heads and faces to their original firmness.
It may have been the novelty of the thing, but he charged only four dollars a head—about one quarter the price for stuffing a duck.
A man slapped a dead skunk down on McCutcheon’s counter one day and asked to have it mounted with one paw holding its nose, as though repelled by its own odor. Told it would be a fifty-dollar job, he grimly replied, "Hang the expense. I’m going to give it to my wife.”
The deceitful side of human nature is often revealed to the taxidermist by things like fish containing sinkers and stones to tip the scales beyond the actual weight of the catch. Early this summer a man brought in a lake trout with the spurious ballast still in it —two cold chisels, a coil of heavy wire, part of a half-inch iron rod and a handful of stones. When he called later for the mounted fish he unblushingly asked for the chisels.
McCuteheon is sometimes asked to stretch a fish skin as much as he can when mounting it. He points out that every inch costs a dollar ($1.10 for trout because of the delicate hues which have to be reproduced with the paint brush), hut the customer always waves that aside. Costs are trivial compared with the added length his catch may gain.
Several years ago a quiet little man came in, hugging a large, moist, brownpaper parcel. He made highly flattering remarks about the skill and artistry shown in the specimens on display. Having buttered McCuteheon up for some minutes, the little man unwrapped his parcel. It was a twelvepound carp. With his eyes pleading for help, he asked if the carp couldn’t
be made to look like a bass. McCutcheon said he would see what he could do. At that time the firm was at another location which it shared with a large rat. That night the rat got at the carp and chewed off most of its scales. McCutcheon carefully fastened them all back and put the skin in what he thought was a safe place, on a high shelf. The next night the rat climbed the wall to the shelf and again removed the scales. "Next morning they were lying all over the place, like shingles,” McCutcheon recalls. And so, a living form of nature
conspired to forestall an attempted deceit.
Fish and wild animals are not the only creatures brought to a taxidermist. Many people bring dead pets, from dogs to hamsters. But there is a risk in that branch of the business—the customer doesn’t always come back to pick up and pay for the finished job.
"People are all cut up when they have lost a pet,” says McCutcheon. "But it takes from a month to three months to complete a job, depending on the amount of work on hand and the nature of the job itself. By that
time a pet owner may have replaced his loss with another clog or cat or whatever it is, and the new pet has replaced the dead one in his affections. So he doesn’t want to bother about the one waiting here in the shop.” The company has been stuck with so many stuffed pets that its policy now is to collect a substantial deposit before starting to stuff them.
Parental pride throws business the taxidermist’s way. Small fish and animals caught or killed by a family’s budding hunter are often brought to McCutcheon by a doting father. This
summer the record was reached when a man brought in a six-inch perch caught by his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter. He was glad to pay the eighteen-dollar minimum to have it preserved for posterity. It was the smallest fish ever handled by the firm in its sixty-eight-year history. The only thing smaller ever mounted by Spanner’s was a humming bird.
On the other end of the scale, the largest animal the firm has mounted was a sea lion, measuring twelve feet from nose to tail. In the same big league, polar bears have been prepared by Spanner’s in recent years for fur j company display purposes. A polar bear is the next largest quadruped on the continent to the Alaska brown bear and usually four hundred to five hundred pounds heavier than a grizzly.
Last summer a man asked if he could buy or rent a stuffed bear. "It’s like this,” he confided. "Up at the lake the guy in the next cottage and I play i jokes on each other—just for fun, j y’understand. Like he gets into our place and files all the barbs off my fish hooks; then I get his kid and get him to lie out flat on the dock while I pretend I’m working on him—artificial respiration. Gee, my neighbor and his wife come tearing out of the cottage and nearly go nuts. Well, I thought it would be a great joke to sneak a stuffed bear into their living room, just at dawn, prop it against their bedroom door and give a horrible roar, then hide.” He was disappointed, poor chap. There were no surplus bears on hand.
One of the trials of being a taxidermist is having to listen to the I stirring and usually fictitious tales hunters insist on telling him about their quarries. One day an elderly man brought in a polar-bear skin to be made into a rug. He wanted to talk and McCutcheon listened. The old fellow proceeded to give an exciting ! account of his stalking the beast, its final angry rush at him and the near terror which held him as bullet after bullet was pumped into the animal without apparently checking its murderous charge—until it dropped dead a few feet from the hunter. It was such a good story, McCutcheon almost believed him. But later, when the customer had left the shop, McCutcheon did some investigating. He soon located the Hudson’s Bay Co. stamp on the hide.
Having to listen politely to scores j of such tales, McCutcheon gets back at the customer when he can. For several years there has been a weird beast in the Ontario hinterlands known j as the wambeezle. It was dreamed up as a gag by the late Lou Marsh, sports editor of the Toronto Daily Star, back in 1931. The wambeezle, Marsh explained, was a rabbit, with horns and the dorsal fin of a pike. In the past few years it has changed to a groundhog with a twelve-inch spread of moose antlers, carved from balsam wood, which McCutcheon prepares for the Toronto Hunters and Anglers Association. It is presented to the member who has bagged the largest number of rabbits each year.
There are still many people unaware of the gag and when they see the wambeezle in Spanner’s shop, awaiting delivery, they ask questions. McCutcheon gravely explains that it is a hybrid found in the Holland Marsh, north of Toronto. More than one credulous hunter has swallowed the story and streaked for the marsh. One of them spent almost a week beating the district for the beast, then, puzzled and empty-handed, returned to McCutcheon for further information.
Since then, McCutcheon has added j an albino trout to the game. It is ' an unclaimed speckled trout painted
white, with pink eyes and a few red spots on the body. He hangs it in the shop once in a while and tells any enquirer that albino trout have been caught occasionally in a certain stream about fifty miles from Toronto. He explains that they have very weak eyes, sensitive to sunlight, and so they are active only at night. Worms are recommended as bait. Many a gullible listener has hit out for the magic stream.
This sort of thing could understandably set some customers, who know of McCutcheon’s stories, to wink knowingly when he begins talking about the splake. But the fact is, the splake is a real fish and Spanner’s claim to have mounted the first specimen ever caught, a nineteen incher. It’s a cross between a speckled trout and a lake trout, developed at a government hatchery for a speckled trout’s fight and a lake trout’s size.
Last fall a well-to-do customer who has given Spanner’s several game animals to mount, showed up with a brace of ordinary barnyard ducks from his farm near Toronto. He wanted to have them finished before mid-December, he said because they were to be Christmas presents to his two sisters. Even the imperturbable McCutcheon raised an eyebrow at that one.
"What else?” the man helplessly exclaimed. "They have everything.”
Many people have the idea that taxidermy is a matter of skinning an animal, then poking stuffing into it —like preparing the Christmas turkey —until it has been filled out to its proper shape and size. Actually, the technique—which is much the same for fish, animals and birds—demands more artistry than that.
All the Deer Squinted
Before the trophy is skinned, its measurements are taken and its general conformation is studied. The skin is removed and treated with arsenic to kill all vermin and prevent later attacks by pests which feed on dead tissue.
Excelsior is the commonest material used for stuffing. It is tightly worked into the shape of the animal, the shape being brought up by numerous tight windings of thread, string or heavy cord depending on the size of the subject. A good taxidermist can recreate the size and shape of an animal so accurately that when the last strand of string has been wound, the skin can be pulled over the form and fit as snugly as a shrunken sweater. Before stitching up, it is usually necessary to poke a few small wads of cotton into place here and there to give a natural puffy look and reach other spots which can’t be shaped as smoothly as necessary by string winding alone. Then the skin is stitched, the glass eyes are stuck in place and wire, in the case of birds and small animals, is forced through the legs to give support to the body.
Placing the eyes is quite a trick. They are what impart any lifelike appearance the mounting may have, and must be set accurately, just as nature had them in the first place. A few years ago Spanner’s had a taxidermist who was a whiz at all operations except setting the eyes. He had a slight squint himself and gave all his deer heads and other jobs a similar squint. He was such a good taxidermist in other respects that for years his fellow workers followed him from job to job, re-setting the eyes without his knowing it.
The principle of mounting is the same with large animals as with small but some of the materials are different. Por a bear, a centreboard of five-ply or five-eighths deal is fashioned into
a silhouette shape of the body. Pieces of two-by-four and iron rods are fixed to the centreboard at various places, so the stuffing will not sag or get lumpy. Excelsior is piled around this skeleton and finally wound with heavy cord until it is tightly packed in and the correct size and shape has been built up. The skin is pulled on, the finishing touches are poked in where needed, and the skin sewn up.
Repair work is a fairly steady and not too interesting phase of taxidermy. But last fall a deer head came in for repairs, and with it a chilling story.
The previous evening a man had entered the beverage room of a Toronto hotel, seated himself at a table near the wall and called for a beer. When the drink was placed on his table he surveyed the other patrons with the look of amiable approval with which anyone regards his fellow man just before quaffing the first after-work beer. Then he raised his glass and swallowed the beer in one draught. Something hard rattled against his teeth. He put the glass down and saw looking up at him from its bottom a large, moist brown eye.
After a violent session in the men’s room he was quietened down by the proprietor and shown that it wasn’t a glass eye from a human head, but one from a deer head on the wall above his table, which had fallen into his drink during that moment of pleasurable abstraction he had allowed himself.
McCutcheon started his taxidermy as a hobby. "I used to dream of having expensive rods and guns and doing a lot of fishing and hunting—then mounting my own trophies,” he says. "When I saw an ad in the paper for a taxidermist at Spanner’s, I applied
and got it.” That was nine years ago. Now, he has the equipment he dreamed of as a boy—five rods and reels, five rifles and guns, all of superior quality - but he seldom has time to use them. So far, his only mounted trophies are two ducks and a lake trout.
In the fall of 1954 McCutcheon managed to get three days away from the shop to go deer hunting. It rained most of the time and the only deer he saw was a buck standing on a path he was taking. The deer stood still, watching McCutcheon approach without any sign of fear. "You couldn’t
call yourself a sportsman and blast at a target like that,” McCutcheon explains. So he came back empty-handed.
There is an old saying that taxidermists never are lucky in the field. McCutcheon claims it’s quite true. As proof he cites a discouraging experience he had last spring.
He went out to a trout stream near Millbrook, Ont., one morning. After whipping the stream from early morning until noon with no results, he began to disassemble his rod and prepare for the trip home. Another angler happened along and asked McCutcheon
why he was leaving. "Because they aren’t biting—if there are any to bite,” he replied. The newcomer urged him to be patient a little longer, but McCutcheon had had it.
The next morning his first customer was the man from the trout stream —with a six-and-a-half-pound brown trout. As he entered the shop both men gazed at one another in slackjawed surprise. Then they simultaneously exclaimed, "You!”
"Landed it about twenty minutes after you left,” the customer said, as softly as he could. it