A job that gets under their skin

SUN JOURNAL

Taxidermy: The practitioners of this ancient craft are proud, and happy, to do work that would turn the stomachs of most people.

March 11, 2000|By Greg Dawson | Greg Dawson,ORLANDO SENTINEL

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Laws and sausage have traditionally ranked at the top of the gross-out scale for socially acceptable products. You don't want to watch either one being made, the old saying goes.

But the horrors of Capitol Hill and the Jimmy Dean factory seem as delicate and pristine as flower arranging next to the work Ron Morkel does to make an honest living.

Morkel is a taxidermist, the middleman between the dead moose on the car roof and the bright-eyed moose on the wall.

Most of us, to put it mildly, would rather not know the details of Morkel's craft. And he knows it.

"I understand that people are grossed out by taxidermy," Morkel says. "My stomach is the same as yours. I dislike the skinning process. But an animal has to be totally fresh to be brought in here."

Visitors to Morkel's shop near St. Cloud, Fla., will find little evidence of the "blood and guts" he says most people associate with his work.

His shop is situated, serendipitously, just up the road from the Reptile World Serpentarium.

"[My] fish parts and the deer remains go to the gator at the reptile place," Morkel says. "He's my buddy; I'm his buddy."

Despite pockets of queasiness -- a popular Central Florida restaurant had Morkel remove the animal heads from its walls because diners found them "unappetizing" -- taxidermy is a thriving industry.

The Yellow Pages for metro Orlando lists 14 taxidermists, and those are only the ones that advertise.

Many more do taxidermy part-time as a source of a second income or as a hobby that pays.

Even more than similar work such as auto repair and upholstery (its first cousin), taxidermy is very much a word-of-mouth cottage industry.

"It's kind of like restaurants," says Gregory Crain, executive director of the National Taxidermy Association in Slidell, La. "If you do good work and the customers are happy, you know they're going to tell their friends."

As a group, taxidermists have a much lower profile than their handiwork -- the shiny stuffed marlin on the office wall, the mounted deer head and antlers above the fireplace that demand our attention.

Crain puts the number of taxidermists in the United States at between 75,000 and 100,000, but only about 2,500 show up on association membership rolls. Steve Stock of Deltona, president of the Florida Taxidermists Association, guesses that there are 1,000 people in Florida doing taxidermy -- but the state association has just 100 members.

An even smaller number claim official certification as taxidermists -- perhaps 150 in the country. This doesn't mean the others are practicing taxidermy without a license. The industry is totally unregulated. In most places, the only requirement for opening a taxidermy shop is a local business license, the same one needed to sell bagels or repair shoes. No proof of training or expertise is required.

Taxidermy also is one of the last great outposts of apprentice training in a credential-crazy society.

Most successful taxidermists, such as Morkel and Drew Beline, who has worked out of the same shop in east Orlando for 23 years, learned by doing.

At age 13, Beline got a part-time job cleaning hides for L. H. Weise, the godfather of Central Florida taxidermists.

"It's kind of like the only thing I know," he says, as he whittles a block of plastic foam into a fish shape that will fit inside the skin of a big bass.

Sometimes necessity can be the mother of careers. Morkel grew up on a 30,000-acre ranch in Rhodesia before it became Zimbabwe.

"My dad, my brother and I lived out in the middle of the bush," he says. "We didn't have refrigeration, and we had to have fresh meat."

Young Morkel apprenticed with local taxidermists in his homeland and specializes in African game.

What sort of person finds happiness as a taxidermist? Spending his days gutting fish, skinning gator heads and turning leopards into living-room adornments?

Someone who loves animals, of course.

"What we're doing is preserving what we love through a technical craft," says Mike Kirkhart, owner of New Wave Taxidermy in Stuart and president of the National Taxidermy Association.

If there's any predictor of future taxidermists, it's a childhood love of hunting and fishing.

"I went duck hunting with my grandfather and thought I'd like to do some of my own ducks," says Beline, 51. "My father got me a home [taxidermy] kit from Omaha, and I started with birds."

Weise, retired and living in Georgia, says he learned taxidermy from the ground up, literally.

"When I was 8 or 9 years old, I shot bullfrogs with a BB gun," he says. "If you slit 'em down each side of the mouth, you could slip the whole skin off. I took clay from the bottom of a ditch and got it soft enough to work into the skin. It was kind of like pottery clay.

"Some of those frogs lasted 30 years before they broke."

No one uses ditch clay today. Contrary to the common belief that mounted animals are "stuffed," most trophies are created by fitting the skin or hide over a form made of polyurethane or plastic foam.

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