Trophy life After stuffing and mounting a menagerie of wildlife, Telesky Taxidermist's owner is giving up the dying art

Three creatures are in the workshop: a muskox, a walrus and the only one who’s still breathing, a 72-year-old man by the name of David Baxter.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 08/03/2021 (702 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Three creatures are in the workshop: a muskox, a walrus and the only one who’s still breathing, a 72-year-old man by the name of David Baxter.

Stooped over an ancient workbench, his hoodie, Wrangler jeans and the floor are covered in an aromatic dandruff of sawdust, with the massive animals watching him through glass eyes he carefully placed in their empty orbital cavities weeks before.

To most, the sight — a walrus plunked on the concrete floor like an arctic bean-bag chair, the muskox parked in the corner like a sedan in a garage — is mystifying and somewhat unbelievable. To Baxter, the owner of Telesky Taxidermist Ltd. and a taxidermist since the age of 17, it’s routine: preserving dead animals is his life’s work.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Dave Baxter, 72, has been a taxidermist since he was 17. During his time with Telesky Taxidermist, he has seen business dwindle, largely because of modifications to hunting permits and a shift in attitudes toward hunting.

Since the late Ron Telesky opened his little shop on Arlington Street in 1969, thousands of bears and birds and deer and trout have come through the doors to be cleaned, fleshed, stuffed, painted and mounted. The muskox and the walrus, both from Nunavut and bound to be shipped to China, are two of the last.

“We’re closing up, it’s true,” Baxter says, patting the walrus on the head.

For years, business was in decline, but the pandemic essentially eliminated the foreign tourism industry that connected outfitters to hunters, who then sent Telesky Taxidermist the animals. Without that channel of income, and with Baxter nearing retirement, shutting down the business and selling the land it sits on became the only feasible option, and now, a business built on preservation is nearing its final days.

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RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Three polar bears dominate the workspace in Telesky Taxidermist, a Winnipeg institution for more than 50 years, which Dave Baxter bought in 2012.

When Ron and Kathy Telesky started their business, taxidermy — from the Greek “taxis” meaning arrangement and “derma” meaning skin — was far from a dying art in Winnipeg.

There were several small shops, along with major ones like Hawkins Taxidermists Ltd. (which closed in 2008 after more than 100 years), doing brisk business. By all accounts, the Teleskys had ambitions of building a business that survived. Ron didn’t look like what you might expect, always sporting a dress shirt and dress pants under his smock. “His clothes were clean, but he wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty,” says Wes Wall, an employee in the 1980s.

He was heavily involved with virtually every game association or lodge in the province, and promoted his business with flair: he set up displays at shopping malls and trade shows. The front window was always stuffed with bucks and ducks, foxes and lynxes.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Since July 2020, the shop hasn’t taken any new commissions, and the last remaining employees are working to finish any projects left over while selling as much of the building’s contents as they can.

Once, Telesky parked his Ford pickup truck on Arlington with a roaring lion standing in the back, earning a photograph on the front page of the April 10, 1980, edition of the Free Press.

The shop’s reputation grew and it was soon bustling, with more than a dozen full-time employees working at once, recalls Wall, who specialized in fish and now runs a taxidermy outfit called Mr. Fish in Hazelridge. “I was painting 30 fish a week,” he says. “It was phenomenal what came in and went out that door.”

“There were years we’d do 1,800 fish, and two to three deer heads a day,” says Larry Moser, who worked at Telesky for 25 years.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS The taxidermy business was already struggling before the pandemic but now it is too challenging for Baxter to keep the business operating.

“Usually there were hundreds of fish hanging from the ceiling,” says Ron De Cruyenaere, another Telesky employee who now runs Creative Taxidermy in St. Adolphe. “You had to be careful or you’d smack your head.”

School and club tours came through. Generations of pedestrians and passersby marvelled at the window scenes, artfully laid out like a bestial Eaton’s Christmas display.

Over time, with legislations such as catch-and-release fishing coming in, tighter permit requirements and changing attitudes toward hunting, the pace slowed. In 1999, Telesky died at the age of 59. David Baxter’s older brother Jim bought the business, and in 2012, David bought it from Jim.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Baxter is selling off many of its tools and equipment

Nine years later, David Baxter and Sandra Hawryluk, who’s worked for the company for 45 years, are preparing to sell Telesky Taxidermist Ltd. one last time. Since July 2020, the shop hasn’t taken any new commissions, and the last remaining employees are working to finish any projects left over while selling as much of the building’s contents as they can.

Fellow taxidermist Paul Kayer, 50, stopped by the shop early in March, 35 years after he came in with his dad for the first time to get his first fish mounted. He bought an aged pinking machine and a pair of pliers from Baxter, and couldn’t help but feel like it was the end of an era.

“When you thought taxidermy, you thought Telesky,” said Kayer, who runs a small shop of his own out of his home. “Competition or not, it’s very sad to see it go.”

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RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS When Ron and Kathy Telesky started their business, taxidermy — from the Greek "taxis" meaning arrangement and "derma" meaning skin — was far from a dying art in Winnipeg.

Inside the shop, two female polar bears hold court at the massive work table, and one male towers above Baxter at more than 2.2 metres tall.

Baxter fields a phone call, stroking one bear’s head. “We’re asking $65 on it,” he says, negotiating a deal on an item in the shop.

The next day, the bear was to be loaded up in a crate and, assuming permits were granted and the provincial veterinarian approved, would eventually be shipped to Costa Rica to a hunter who contracted Baxter to preserve the animal nearly 20 months ago, before the pandemic even began. The walrus and the muskox await a similar exodus.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Baxter with a walrus he will ship out to China before closing his Arlington Street shop for good.

Baxter is sad that the circumstances of the business’s end weren’t entirely up to him, though he was already considering a long-awaited retirement. “I’m worn out of seeing dead animals,” he says.

With growing interest in the property, time is of the essence, and Baxter and Hawryluk are taking stock of everything that needs to be sold: the caribou standing in the corner, the black bear rug on the table, the tools and dyes, all the eyeballs in the eyeball cabinet, from coyote to elk.

Everything must go, Baxter says, and with the lot zoned as residential, it’s likely the building itself, constructed in 1912, will soon go too, says Baxter.

Even in taxidermy, nothing lasts forever.

ben.waldman@freepress.mb.ca

Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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