Maryland hunters boost business of 35-year-old Hancock taxidermist

STUFFED ANIMALS IN SEASON

December 15, 1992|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,Staff Writer

HANCOCK -- The radio is tuned to a gospel station as Merle Trail fingers the antlers of the largest buck he's seen around these parts in many years.

The antlers are an impressive 24 1/4 inches wide. Until about three weeks ago they graced the head of a 154-pound, white-tailed deer. A 16-year-old boy killed the deer a half mile west of this western Washington County town the first day of the hunting season.

Now the antlers sit on Mr. Trail's work table, and the dead buck's hide is wrapped in plastic in Mr. Trail's freezer.

For Mr. Trail, a taxidermist, this is excitement.

"I'm going to do a competition-style, quality job on this one," says the low-key Mr. Trail in a voice as animated as it gets. "There's going to be some stories in those outdoor magazines about that buck. I'll get some publicity for this one."

Mr. Trail grins broadly as he stuffs his hands deeper into the front pockets of his jeans. He's got his Dan Chase Taxidermy Supply Co. cap pulled down tight. A boyish face makes him look even younger than his 35 years.

He is large, 6-foot-3 and 250 pounds, and he works by himself in the basement of his modest, secluded home well off the highway two miles east of Hancock. A small sign out front, which you barely see rounding a bend, is the only indication of the astounding scene inside.

Beyond Mr. Trail's work table and the newly dissevered 11-point rack, are more than 100 mounted hides of deer, elk, bear, fox, caribou, buffalo, gazelle, zebra, wildebeest and others.

Most are full-size in a "natural" setting of rocks and grasses. Some are mounted in action poses.

A wolf, its teeth bared, is about to pounce on a sprinting deer. A bobcat has just nailed a rooster. A fox is about to clamp onto a pheasant.

This is Mr. Trail's showroom, so to speak. It's a museum really, crammed into a windowless space the size of a recreation room and a garage.

"I'm not bragging myself up," Mr. Trail says, "but I've got more stuff here than 95 percent of the taxidermists anywhere."

No, Mr. Trail wouldn't brag himself up. He's a quiet, almost shy fellow reared in a strict, Christian home -- the next house down the hill.

"I had real godly parents," Mr. Trail says. "They never allowed TV in the house. And I still appreciate that. I appreciate that more now than I ever did."

His preacher father made sure young Merle did wholesome things like hunt and fish and learn carpentry and mechanical work. Merle Trail was 22 when he started dabbling in taxidermy.

He was good at it, and word spread among his buddies. Six years ago, Mr. Trail found he had enough business to quit his day job as a mechanic and become a full-time, licensed taxidermist.

He hardly advertises, but this hunting season in Maryland and elsewhere he already has 130 hides to mount. Mr. Trail charges $210 for the average deer shoulder mount.

"My prices are too low, I know that," he says. "But I like to give somebody more than what they pay for. I always said one good job will get you 10."

He likes even more to buy hides from mail-order companies and mount them full-size in realistic settings. He'd like one day to open a museum, with a wide show window, next to a busy roadway.

"What I'm doing is preserving the animals," he says. "I believe in the creator of these animals. I believe in God. I know God put animals here for man to have dominion over.

"The animals are going to die one way or another. If they're not killed by hunters, they'll die of starvation and overpopulation in the winter. What man doesn't take, nature will."

And what man does take often ends up on the table of a taxidermist.

Mr. Trail tans and processes the hide, and then glues it to mannequins he orders from catalogs. He uses strips of cardboard underneath the skin to accent veins and muscles. He paints and touches up around the eyelids, lips and nostrils.

That's the general process for a shoulder or full-size mount. He also mounts fish and birds.

For full-size mounts Mr. Trail charges $6 per inch for freshwater fish, $100 for a pheasant, $225 for a turkey or goose ($300 for a turkey strutting), $250 for a fox, raccoon, otter, bobcat or coyote, $800 for an average deer, $1,500 to $2,500 for an elk or caribou, and $140 per foot for a black bear, measured from the nose to the base of the tail.

"I don't do pets," Mr. Trail says. "I've had people call me about dogs. Everything I've ever read in taxidermy books tells you not to do pets.

"It might look good to me, but the customer won't be satisfied with the expression or the look on its face.

"About the only thing to do with pets is freeze-dry them. And freeze-dry taxidermy is something altogether different."

Mr. Trail owns three acres, most of it wooded and adjacent to deeper woods. Deer wander into his backyard nearly every day, except during the hunting season. But last Tuesday, around dusk, an unsuspecting buck stepped out of the trees into the taxidermist's yard. It was fine-looking, maybe 140 pounds, four-point rack -- a worthy museum piece.

Mr. Trail grabbed his .303 British Army rifle, stepped outside and killed that deer. He took the deer to a check-in station, then

brought it home and skinned it.

Its hide right now is cooling in Mr. Trail's freezer, soon to be processed, another deer preserved for the ages.

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