“Finally he arrives at your door and you carefully usher him inside to the honored place you have reserved especially for him.
And one night at 3:00 a.m. you get up and wander down the hall. You are still half asleep and for the moment you might have forgotten he is there.
Then suddenly he appears from the darkness, just as he appeared when you first saw him and you stop and are suddenly back there with him once more.
And you smile and know deep down you have made the right choice. With your own Personal Taxidermist, the Original Jonas Brothers of Colorado.”
– From Your Trophy’s Journey Home at jonastaxidermy.com. Jonas Brothers has been a leader in taxidermy in Denver (and worldwide) for more than 100 years. There are few taxidermists in Colorado who have not been influenced in some way by the iconic studio.
Armed with cameras and a voice recorder in a rented Chrysler minivan with Texas plates (my vehicle, in the shop, on life support), I was on the hunt for a taxidermist off a dirt road between Durango and Pagosa Springs. Not in the market for taxidermy, I just wanted to talk about taxidermy. The austere dusty sign on the side of the residential house that sat above the rural dirt road said ‘Mountainaire Taxidermy.’ I could see the studio way in the back. It looked shuttered. My assumption was that there was not a taxidermist in town willing to chat up a journalist armed with cameras, but I mustered the courage to knock on the door, side-saddled with some firm stereotypes — I was fully prepared for somebody with a sawed-off shotgun to come out and tell me to get the hell off his property. But Mike Francavilla came out to the deck armed with nothing but a welcome. Gray ponytail and long beard. Plaid shirt. Camo baseball cap. And a lanky gait leftover from a time when he was obviously much taller. “What can I do for ya buddy?” It was like he was happy to see this stranger in the minivan. I told him I wanted to talk to a taxidermist. I wanted to learn about the craft. The what and the why. I wanted to understand the motivation with no agenda despite being perplexed by any hunter’s motivation to hang a dead animal’s head in their den. “When would you like to do that?” Mike said. I said, “Anytime you can.” He said, “How about next Wednesday?” And I said, “Perfect.”
Taxidermy is experiencing somewhat of a renaissance. It is more popular than ever. There are those who get it and those who don’t, and there is no bridging that gap. The quip above from the Jonas Brothers website may best describe the motivation behind mounting the hunt. It’s a memory. A trophy. A welcomed and needed reminder of a cherished experience. And an heirloom to be passed through the generations.
Taxidermy is not the process of stuffing an animal (although it used to be in the early 20th century). In fact, be forewarned, don’t ever say ‘stuffed’ to a taxidermist. “I hate that,” said John Gardner of Wildlife Expressions in Durango. The complete works are called mounts. The mounts are made from the hide of the animal. The hide is tanned (a process that essentially turns the skin to preserved leather) and is then shaped around a form produced by several companies in every conceivable shape and size, except, it often seems, the shape and size that the taxidermist needs or wants. This is where a good portion of the artistry comes in: Reshaping the form to make it fit a specific animal’s size and nuances. The form is made from solid polyurethane foam making it easy to alter by cutting and shaving. Clay and fiberglass are also applied by hand to enhance the animal’s muscle tone and overall authenticity. So are liquid tears to make the lids look more lifelike and deodorizers to keep your indoors from smelling like the outdoors. You can buy anything from an elephant form to a trout form. A big elk. Or a small elk. Half for a wall mount. Or whole, for an entire diorama (like those you saw the last time your were in the natural history museum). Dioramas (for private customers) are currently the hottest thing in the taxidermy market. The eyes, which may seem like a mystery, are glass and a crucial element to the overall success of the mount. There are seemingly unlimited choices by several eye artists in this category, including multiple versions of baboon eyes, two prominent options for elk eyes, as well as two distinct versions of jack rabbit eyes. Fish mounts are a specialty. A handful of taxidermists still mount using the real skin of the fish, including Mike Francavilla at Mountainaire Taxidermy. But many fish are just replicated using a 3D caste that is later painted with painstaking detail by the taxidermist. A taxidermist’s main goal is to replicate the animal in the wild. It has to look real, “or you’re spinning your wheels,” Francavilla said. To do this requires the hand sewing skills of a seasoned seamstress, as well as the carving skills of a sculptor to modify the form to fit the piece they are working on. A specialized glue, which can be temperamental, and needs to be carefully tended to over several days secures the hide to the form. There are two general styles of mounts: American, which is the good old head and hide on the wall, or a version thereof and European (think Game Of Thrones), which is simply the skull and rack (if applicable) mounted to a plaque.
The following interviews are with a few of Southwest Colorado’s busier taxidermists. Award winners and lovers of the craft, all of them.
I worked for the highway department in Denver. I got on the department in 1973, and then within ten years I had two back surgeries so they had to retire me, but offered to retrain me in something else. So I picked taxidermy. I wanted to be a TV camera man, but they said there were too many of those already. I said, “How about a baseball umpire?” And they said no, so I said, “What about taxidermy?” It was a ten-week program in Phoenix at the Mountain Valley School of Taxidermy. I guess I had a knack for it, because they offered me the advanced course and after that, they offered me the opportunity to teach the incoming class. So I got thirty weeks of training instead of the regular ten. I did a wolverine in school and we took him to a show in Atlanta where I entered him in the professional category. There were 200 guys that entered mounts, and I won third place. And I was still in school! After that contest in Atlanta, I didn’t pursue any more contests. Those ribbons don’t mean anything to me. I let my work speak for itself. I try to get everyone like it is going to a show. I want everything to be perfect for these people. I have been doing it for thirty-four years now, and I pretty much know what my animals should look like by now. If it has fur or fins, I will mount it. The only thing I don’t do is birds. As for fish, I do real skin mounts. Now that is a dying art.
However, they say it’s an art but I don’t see it quite that way. I know what I need to do to my animals to make them work — to make it right. Some people say there is a lot of artistry in that, but I can’t draw nothing. But as far as my animals go, I know what I have to do to them.
They have to look life-like. If they don’t look life-like, you are spinning your wheels. It’s about the clay work. You have to add muscles to the face. Sculpt it. They say it’s an artist’s thing…I guess might have a little of that in me.
After thirty-five years, I still have a love for it. If I didn’t, I couldn’t turn the work out. It’s about the animal. It is the animal. It’s paying homage. The customer, we talk for fifteen minutes about the hunt, do the paperwork, and then they are gone. I don’t see them for a year until they come back and pick up their mount. What was your name again?
It’s more about the animal.
It takes me twelve to fourteen hours to put a head together. But all people look at is the rack. They don’t look at the mount. That is all they are interested in. There is a lot of bad. The work is all in the mount. The horns are nice. But the work isn’t in the horns, it is in getting the face to look like it is supposed to. That is where it counts. You have to use your clay. Shape the muscles. Shape the head. Shape the nose. You have to make it fit where it is supposed to.
I still enjoy it. I don’t know if you have been in Walmart down in town here, but they have an elk and two deer and a life-sized bear of mine in the sporting goods department. If you want to get a picture of that bear, he is a beautiful bear. I would love to have a trophy room.
But I say don’t shoot the damn thing if you’re not going to use it. There are people who just kill whatever they can. I don’t know what it is. I really don’t. You know? That is how I see it. I don’t want to kill nothing that I am not using. I see so much dead. Everything I get is dead. I love to see them walking. I really enjoy seeing them alive.
Cole’s Processing and Taxidermy, Pagosa Springs
Pretty much for me, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. So I had some friends moving to Denver. I am from Pagosa Springs, fourth generation, but I went with them. I went into Jonas Brothers Taxidermy studio because I knew how to skin because we had our own cattle ranch, and I learned about processing with my grandfather. So I knew how to do that. I started off at the very bottom. I was the grunt. I worked my way up. I would stay late and learn from the taxidermists. I was done at 3 p.m. and they worked until 6 p.m., so I would stick around and learn stuff. Then, I would go to their houses on the weekend and learn more. I stayed for ten years. I like to work with my hands and was always artistic…drawing and painting.
Taxidermy has definitely come a long way. The true artists are the guys who sculpt the forms. We clay our own eyes. Give them their own look. You have to know your muscles and bones and where the joints bend. I do my own habitat too for the dioramas.
It’s not work. I love doing this. I have a three-year backlog. It is an excellent trade to learn. It is fun. It is crafty. It can even be a hobby.
Taxidermy goes back to the Egyptians. They preserved their animals. They were ceremonial. People say that people who mount their animal are just trophy hunters. But a lot of the stuff I do is not the biggest. There are just people proud of providing for their family and the hunting story, and want to have it to remember it. And there are some beautiful stuff. People like to have the wild right there in their house.
But I honor the animal. I think if they are killing them, then everything should be used. Deer and elk are beautiful animals, and I want to make sure my work represents them.
Wildlife Expressions, Durango
I used to mess around with taxidermy when I was a kid, but I didn’t know what I was doing. I came from a hunting family so I always wanted to mount my own animals.
I didn’t know I would go into taxidermy. It kind of happened by evolution you might say. After college, I was guiding some hunters and I had a hunter who was a taxidermist, and he said, “Hey, go to work for me and I will teach you everything I know.” He was in Texas. I learned a lot of good things from him. He was a great businessman and a great storyteller and a great listener of stories from hunters, and I learned very early that this was very important.
So when I came back to Durango, Pat O’Niell, who used to own the Critters Meat Market in Durango for years and years, I went down to talk to him and asked him if I could hang a couple of mounts. l wanted to try to get going. He said, “I have a better idea, why don’t you come work for me and help me during hunting season, and you can take in all the mounts you can get.” I wish I kept better records. I think the first year, I got twelve mounts to do. The next year, I did three times that amount. And the next three times more. The year after that, Pat said, “Here, here is the meat market.” I bought it. I had it about four years and sold it. I couldn’t do both. That is when taxidermy came into a full time job.
I have a lot of customers who come in with a lot of questions. Should I do this? Shouldn’t I do this? And I say to them, “Honor the animal, but in the same token do it for your kids and your grandkids, because someday they are going to inherit that. Do it for them.”
But beauty is in the eye of the beholder. I guess when you put so much love and passion into it, it’s an artform. It’s not like I am sitting behind a canvas, but I am trying to bring something back to life and make it look as realistic as possible. And to put a smile on my customer’s face when they come in to pick it up. That is the best of all. When they walk out of here proud of what I did for them. 6