A Youthful Interest In Taxidermy Is Full-Time Career

By Iris Taylor
CHARLOTTESVILLE, VA–Vibrant fall leaves rustled in the trees and fluttered onto the roadway along the winding stretch of Mill Road in Powhatan County leading to Whistling Wings Farm.

Jason Barham and his father, Frankie Barham, run a taxidermy business in the basement of a white house on that road off Judes Ferry near Huguenot Trail. Most days, if they’re not out hunting, they’re in their cramped little shop transforming wildlife into works of art.  We aren’t talking moose heads on a plaque.

Jason has frozen in time and flight a quail caught in the paw of a bobcat. He won three awards for it at a taxidermy show. A rattlesnake sits coiled in a corner. A boar hunted in North Carolina appears ready to bolt.

On the wall, floor, shelves and tables–nearly everywhere–eyes peer, beaks preen, feathers puff, and bodies twist, crouch, leap or pose in grandeur. Deer, fox, bobcat, black bear, fish, ducks, even a cricket, sit frozen possibly in their final pose.

This rapidly growing little business in the middle of nowhere is one of an estimated 75,000 to 100,000 taxidermists in the U.S., according to the National Taxidermists Association in Louisiana. After nearly 3-1/2 years, the Barhams are trying to figure out how to expand it.

Word of mouth, repeat customers, the telephone book and displays of their wildlife mounts at sporting goods stores, hunting shows and Mast Meats, an Amelia meat processing plant, helped the business grow. Mostly, though, it’s the detail and quality of their work, they said.

“Detail is everything in this business,” Jason said. “We really excel at our eyes, nose and ear work,” Frankie said. “We use competition eyes because we believe it makes a difference. You can actually see the veins in the eyes.”

Frankie is an avid hunter who spent a number of years carving decoys, but he has no formal training in taxidermy. He recently took early retirement from Alcoa Inc. in Richmond to help his son develop the business.

Jason early on showed an interest in taxidermy. “When he was young and I came home with a turkey or a duck, he would take coat hangers or toothpicks to prop it up,” Frankie said.

He took an interest in shooting at around 9 years old, Frankie said. In 2002 while in high school, Jason and his father were mounting game as a hobby and getting paid for it. In the summer of 2003, after Jason graduated from high school, the Barhams were required to get a county business license because they were making enough money to pay taxes.

It wasn’t until after Jason started taking general business classes at John Tyler Community College in fall 2003 that he and Frankie decided to pursue taxidermy as a business. Frankie figured that taxidermy was a way to help pay the tuition. Until that point, “it was a hobby,” Jason said.

Jason is fascinated with taxidermy, which he works at full time now and no longer attends college. It’s a form of art, he said. It wasn’t always, though. “If you look at older mounts, they all look petrified like a mummy from Egypt,” Frankie said. “Technology has improved,” and “you try to give action to the mount so it looks alive. You try to tell a story about the animal,” Jason said.

He apprenticed with Gene Smith, a taxidermist for 21 years. He’s the owner of Wildlife Specialties Inc. in Louisville, GA. Smith said he met Jason at a Virginia State Taxidermy Association convention in March 2004. Jason spent two weeks in Smith’s home learning to mount a deer.

“He was interested in doing some one-on-one training and had approached me and inquired about doing a class,” Smith said. “He was a very good student. He was very inquisitive on certain things that most people wouldn’t even ask.”

Hunting season is the Barhams busy cycle. “Right around Thanksgiving, you don’t have a life,” Jason said. By summer, they will have freezers full of all kinds of wildlife to mount. Only if it rains a lot of Saturdays during hunting season will their business slow down because hunters won’t go out. Or, if there’s not an abundance of animals. Several years ago, disease wiped out a lot of deer, Frankie said. If the economy is bad, that affects business, too, he said.

Doling out $425 to mount a deer, $200 to $225 for ducks, $250 for a fox or bobcat, $550 for a Black Bear or $500 for a Wild Boar is a luxury. The Barhams’ goal this year is to mount 150 deer. “That is as much as we can handle,” Frankie said. The shop is small. “You get 18 deer on the floor and it gets a little packed,” Jason said.

That is why they’re trying to figure out how to get a bigger shop with a showroom, maybe even a mobile one. “That is what’s hurting us now,” Jason said. “We don’t have a showroom.”

But, that’s going to cost about $35,000, they figure. So, they are waiting to see if the business will justify the expense. Meanwhile, the business will turn a profit this year for the first time, Frankie said.

“It is looking very optimistic,” Jason said. “But, like anything, you shouldn’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: For more information contact the Barhams at www. whistlingwingstaxidermy.com