Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He couldn't afford to be a vet

Taxidermy next best bet for animal lover

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Jim Baxter was 14 when he decided taxidermy would be an interesting hobby.

This isn't one of those creepy stories where the neighbourhood cats started to disappear and no one noticed little Timmy was missing until it was too late.

The teenager signed up for correspondence classes. He bought books and studied techniques. He purchased pigeons for practice. Young Baxter soon discovered he had a knack.

"People would ask me to try a small bird for them," says Baxter, 69. "It was something very interesting."

He loved animals and wanted to be a veterinarian.

"I was one of 10 kids and there wasn't money for education. Since I couldn't work on live animals I decided to work on dead ones."

He got his first job at 20. Eventually, he ended up buying Telesky Taxidermy on Arlington Street. The main working space is cavernous. Some large special orders are done in a former garage. There's a walk-in freezer in another outbuilding.

Baxter's studio is filled with animal pelts, bear rugs in progress, completed mounts and a few animals Baxter is still finishing. A wolf head leers upwards, its plastic tongue lolling. The taxidermist has carefully selected eerily authentic glass eyes to put in the empty sockets.

Dusty, uneven stairs lead down to the basement. In places, the ceiling is too low for a tall person to stand straight. The rooms are unfinished and piled high with the tools of the trade.

A series of animal forms are stacked on rough shelves. The shaved Styrofoam gives the bird or animal shape without weight. Many of them are made on site. You can order them from a catalogue but Baxter is old school.

In another corner, there's a large tank with fish dangling from strings into a chemical soup. Antlers are stacked against a wall, the skulls bleached white.

The stench is overwhelming, a sort of Silence of the Lambs mixed with what you'd imagine a morgue would smell like.

The smell gets to Baxter, too. He says the best part of his job is when he gets to go home. Fifty years into it, the eye-watering combinations still bother him.

He says there's not a lot of money in taxidermy. A person's lucky to make $20 an hour. Some jobs, like the massive Atlantic walrus Baxter has in the back building, will cost its new owners nearly $20,000 in mounting fees. It took 28 hours to take the fat off the hide, a few days to make the form and more time to paint over any imperfections. You can't make mistakes in this line of work.

The finished product, accompanied by two smaller specimens, is going to a museum in Poland.

Much of his work goes to museums, especially in Europe. The taxidermy community is relatively small and Baxter's got a good reputation.

"It's something you do because you like it. You have to love animals."

He says you need a good eye and artistic ability.

"Look at the ears on that wolf. You look at the ear, you draw it, you figure out how to make it look right. Can you look at the hide and know what it's going to look like when it's finished? You have to be able to do that."

The job has had its thrills.

"Early on, I got to mount an elk head that went to Prince Phillip at Buckingham Palace."

While he used to mount huge numbers of fish, some 1,800 a year, he's now down to about 300. As conservation efforts grow, fishing lodges want their clients to practise catch and release.

He's doing more replicas now.

"We do virtually anything and everything," he says.

The only thing he won't mount is a pet.

"You just can't capture the character. With any other animal that doesn't really matter. But a pet, you want that to look like you remember it."

His biggest markets are hunters, fishermen and lodge owners. He winces when he recalls an early job that had him pilloried in the taxidermy community. A lodge owner wanted a bear mounted, one paw on top of a case of beer, another paw clutching a beer.

He has regretted doing the job ever since.

"Everyone looked at it as you're defiling the animal. They were pretty upset with me."

Baxter used to hunt but he doesn't anymore.

"I won't hunt anything I won't eat. After a while you get sick of it."

The strangest thing Baxter has mounted in his shop? That would be a shark tail.

"A friend went sport fishing and they caught the shark. They gave him the jaw and the tail. I don't know who got the meat."

Like everything else in his shop, the shark is the one that didn't get away.

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2010 B1

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About Lindor Reynolds

National Newspaper Award winner Lindor Reynolds began work at the Free Press as a 17-year-old proofreader. It was a rough introduction to the news business.

Many years later, armed with a university education and a portfolio of published work, she was hired as a Free Press columnist. During her 20-plus years on the job she has written for every section in the paper, with the exception of Business. She’ll get around to them some day.

Lindor has received considerable recognition for her writing. Her awards include the Will Rogers Humanitarian Award, the National Society of Newspaper Columnists’ general interest award and the North American Travel Journalists Association top prize.
Her work on Internet luring led to an amendment to the Criminal Code of Canada and her coverage of the child welfare system prompted a change to Manitoba Child and Family Services Act to make the safety of children paramount.

She has earned three citations of merit for the Michener Award for Meritorious Public Service in Journalism and has been awarded a Distinguished Alumni commendation from the University of Winnipeg. Lindor was also named a YMCA/YWCA  Woman of Distinction.

She is married with four daughters. If her house was on fire and the kids and dog were safe, she’d grab her passport.
 
lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

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