Taxidermy: It's all in the eyes

MIKE WATSON
Last updated 05:00 29/04/2013
Taxidermist Vern Pearson, of Taupo, has turned his hobby into a fulltime career, with much of his business coming in from overseas customers.
MAURICE COSTELLO/Fairfax NZ

LIFE-LIKE: Taxidermist Vern Pearson, of Taupo, has turned his hobby into a fulltime career, with much of his business coming in from overseas customers.

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The call of the wild, and a painstaking attention to detail, has helped turn an after-hours hobby into the largest taxidermy in the North Island for a Taupo businessman.

Vern Pearson, of Sika Country Taxidermy Ltd, initially trained as a radio technician with the Defence Force, contracting his skills to possum farming and forestry owners.

But it was the lure of wild game - trout, deer, goats and pigs - which eventually helped set up the successful business based on a farmlet 15 kilometres from Taupo.

What was once a closely guarded skill is now openly shared among taxidermists, said Pearson, the current national taxidermy association president.

The keen hunter originally taught himself to mount and stuff animals and fish he had shot or caught.

Word spread of Pearson's handiwork and the after-work hobby became a fulltime job in 1990, he said.

Overseas customers now account for 40 per cent of the business.

Tens of multi-pointed deer antlers hang from the rafters in the workshop ready to be processed.

Through the door into the display room a ferocious-looking Cape Town baboon bares its fangs.

Around the walls heads of red, sika and fallow deer, thar, chamois, African wildebeest and a peacock, perched majestically with its magnificent turquoise sheen feathered tail, follow the visitor's gaze.

Among the more exotic wildlife mounted in the past have been elephant feet, sent to him by an overseas client to be modelled into footstools, Tibetan gazelle and blue sheep from China.

Pearson counts a leopard mount as the most challenging project so far.

Google searches and photographic reference books, with close-up head shots, are frequently used to find how the animal would look in the wild, he said.

"It's all about preserving how the animal looked in the wild as close to life-like as possible."

The business is registered with NZ Food and Safety, and all wildlife from overseas has to pass inspection under the CITES endangered animals list, and proven to have been legally hunted, he said.

Any wild animal is mounted but the line was drawn on family pets, he said.

Last year 250 animal heads were processed, ranging in price from $4000 for a wild pig to $1000-$1200 for red deer.

With the annual "roar" now in full swing, Pearson has 12 months work ahead.

A New Caledonia hunter, with a trophy room of 200 "heads" from around the world, is a regular customer.

"It started as a hobby but I am very conscious of it being a fulltime job and being regimented with work hours."

Attention to facial detail was crucial, particularly with glass eyes which are used.

Predators' eyes will look different from the eyes of a prey.

"The key is to get the eye colour just right otherwise the whole head won't look right."

For a mounted deer the process began with the antlers, and small skull section, fixed on to a polyurethane mannikin of a deer's head and body.

The skin, previously tanned by Trevor Chappell, of Taupo, is tumbled in wet sawdust to soften and clean excess natural oils, before being glued damp on to the mould.

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Silicon, car bog, hair gel and airbrushing all combine to produce the lifelike finishing effect.

The skins can sometimes be stiff from salting and the process described as like putting a cardboard box around a ball, said wife Louise. Bullet holes on the skin are sewn shut while antlers are removed for easier shipping overseas.

Next month Pearson and Louise will compete in the World Taxidermy Championships in Illinois. Louise gained a silver medal with her peacock entry in the competition two years ago.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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