WAKEFIELD — The use of dead cats isn’t an indicator for the quality of most jobs.
However, most jobs aren’t taxidermy.
“If they can do a good cat,they’re a pretty talented taxidermist,” Clint Bowman said.
Clint is in the business of recreation. The art of taxidermy takes a dead animal and turns it into a memorial of its days among the living.
“Growing up hunting and fishing, you can bring stuff back to life basically by capturing the memory,” he said.
By Clint’s estimation, Tom’s Taxidermy has at least a couple hundred captured memories in its showroom in Wakefield.
Some of the animals on display include deer, bear, turkey, zebra, giraffe, tiger, leopard, warthog and an Australian possum.
“You name it, I’ve probably had my hands on it at one time or another,” Clint said.
The business is named after Clint’s father, Tom.
Tom, who worked as a biologist for Kansas Wildlife and Parks for 33 years, started the business in 1977 as a part-time business. He switched to full-time once he took early retirement.
Tom said it’s a sixdays- a-week type of business most of the time. Around this time, it turns into seven days a week with firearm hunting season.
“Quality takes time,” Tom said.
Like his dad, Clint was also a biologist for Kansas Wildlife and Parks, working with the department for 10 years.
“He’s wanting to eventually retire from this in another year or so, so I left that job and came here full time,” he said.
Clint grew up in taxidermy. “He didn’t have any choice,” Tom joked. “I needed help.”
Tom helped Clint create his first piece — a squirrel — at 10 or 12 years old.
“I’m 35 now, so it’s been quite a long time,” he said.
Clint said there are schools to learn taxidermy now, but his dad taught himself at a time when there weren’t any schools.
“I was taught from him and self-taught through trial and error, which is a harder way to go,” he said. “It takes a lot longer. We’re constantly learning new stuff all the time.”
Clint said his work requires knowledge of each animal.
“I get to work on all kinds of different critters from around the world,” he said. “To me, it’s a form of 3-D art. You have to be pretty skilled at it. You have to know about the critters and their anatomy.”
Clint said a deer head, which is the “bread and butter” of the company, takes about nine and a half hours of labor, including the skinning and mounting process.
“The skin and antlers on a deer are the only thing that’s going to be real,” he said. “Everything else is fake.”
Clint explained part of the process for create a deer head:
• Send the skin to get commercially tanned. “We don’t tan anything ourselves. The longevity is a lot better.”
• Select mannequin head. There’s usually a pre-made form for an animal, but Clint said he sometimes has to improvise; for instance, he used a foam pool noodle to create an albino python.
• Rehydrate the skin and mount it on the styrofoam mannequin by any means: needle and thread, glue, pin or staple. “It’s not really stuffing. Stuffing is for carnival animals.”
• Use the right glass eye. “They’re made specifically for each individual animal. You can buy a deer eye or a bobcat eye or a peasant eye.” Clint said the business does about 400 to 500 pieces a year for its customers. This includes being the only place in Kansas that can handle African wildlife. International animals have to go through the U.S. Department of Agriculture before being sent off. Clint said Tom’s Taxidermy is the only taxidermy business in Kansas with a permit to receive international animals from the USDA.
He said there’s only one taxidermy business in Colorado and Missouri that receive those animals and none in Nebraska or Oklahoma.
Clint lives in Manhattan, but he plans on keeping Tom’s Taxidermy in Wakefield for the time being even when he officially takes over for his father. Tom said he won’t completely walk away — his house is next door — but the business will be in good hands. “He’s come right along and is at the top of his class now,” he said. “I’m ready to start slowing down,and it’s worked out good for both of us.”