Shipping the kill

Big game a big win for local shippers, taxidermists

John Gardner, taxidermist, and owner of Wildlife Expressions in Durango, wraps up an elk horn mount inside of a wood frame he built before shipping it to Wyoming on Tuesday. It will be mailed in the clear plastic so the delivery service will know to handle it with care. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald-

John Gardner, taxidermist, and owner of Wildlife Expressions in Durango, wraps up an elk horn mount inside of a wood frame he built before shipping it to Wyoming on Tuesday. It will be mailed in the clear plastic so the delivery service will know to handle it with care.

In this shoulder season before the ascent of ski lifts, big-game hunting by tourists is like a shot in the arm, peppering the economy of La Plata County with $9 million, according to the most recent study by the state.

In turn, out-of-state hunters have become reliable prey for locals who make it their business to ship their trophies home, antlers and all. They know, literally, how the sausage gets made.

John Gardner, a taxidermist and owner of Wildlife Expressions near East Sixth Avenue and College Drive, “has people he mounts elk for every single year,” said his wife, Kathleen.

Sometimes she wonders where the elk are hung.

“There’s only one fireplace, right?” she asked.

Kathleen Gardner said they don’t keep any taxidermy in their house because it’s too small. “You need space. People build whole buildings for their taxidermy,” she said.

John Gardner said sometimes he must protect his artist studio from “people who try to drag bloody stuff in here. We’re like, ‘No, time out.’”

He has a specially equipped salt shack to prepare the animals for mounting.

Even if Gardner has to wash the hide “five or six times,” he prides himself that “these animals will look better than when they were alive.”

Shipping the prize home is not quite like Christmas season, but the Mail Room and Copy Center has built a thriving business from big game. With so many repeat customers, the Mail Room is not bashful about suggesting ways to save a few bucks, either.

“My husband in the early years talked to the hunters about sawing (a mounted head) in half because you could get it in a much smaller box, but a lot of hunters do not want to do that,” said Debbie Van Winkle, who owns the Mail Room with her husband, Lee.

The shippers pride themselves on the personal care they give to hunters. They top the tips of antlers with garden hose “because these guys have spent a lot of money and time. We do not want it damaged,” Van Winkle said.

Van Winkle and her manager, Dana Haug, will often drive out to the hunting camps and lodges to pick “up the head, the capes (skin), if we need to take them to the taxidermists, we’ll do all that.”

Sometimes, they will load up the back of their truck with a couple hundred pounds of meat, typically to be shipped that night.

Haug said she was once squeamish about handling the remains of the hunt, but she has gotten over it.

“We’ve had to salt down things that come in bloody,” Van Winkle said. “We’ve taken them out back. We just clean them out as much as we can. Of course, we have health rules (to follow) and stuff. It’s not something we do often. You don’t want the hunter to lose his mount or cape or anything like that.”

The Mail Room mostly ships home the meat, packing it in dry ice, appreciating that the hunters depend on it to feed their families. They make special arrangements for sausages, too.

“If they want sausages or something to be made, it has to be cured. So we don’t pick it up until the spring time,” Van Winkle said.

Sometimes, they will share the bounty with the community.

“If they want to take 50 pounds off because they don’t want to pay that much (for the shipping) then we will share the meat,” Van Winkle said. “We will call around. We don’t let the meat go to waste.”

Working with game has an enlightening effect.

Sara Swoboda, a 23-year-old art graduate of Fort Lewis College, wears a necklace with the elephant symbol for Ganesh, the overcomer of all obstacles and a popular deity of Hinduism, a religion that preaches nonviolence, often expressed through vegetarianism.

Swoboda said the job at Wildlife Expressions has changed her perspective on hunting and taxidermy.

“Sometimes, when people think of trophies, they see it as an abomination of the animal, but, in reality, for a lot of hunters, it’s a respect thing,” she said.

“I think if anything, this job has given me a greater appreciation for animals, the beauty of them, I understand their intricacies because I do a lot of their finishing work, figuring out how to make their mouth real, how their eyes set, I just look at them differently.”

The job is a good outlet for her creativity.

“I sew, I paint. I sculpt. This (job) encompasses all those things,” Swoboda said.

Swoboda gets a Noah’s Ark of opportunities to work with different kinds of animals because Wildlife Expressions has gone global, receiving prize game from the frozen tundra of Canada as well as the plains of Africa.

Gardner has mounted “leopards, lions, wildebeests, impalas, gemsbuck, all the plains game,” he said.

“I have done lots of zebras. I have done some rhinos, but I have not done any elephants. I just don’t have a big enough shop to do elephants.”

Obviously, “I have very wealthy clients. Two guys own their own oil companies, one in Dallas, one in Tulsa,” he said.

Other customers save up their money to spend it on hunting.

They’re such regular customers they often pick up last year’s trophies when they return to Durango in the fall and then drop off this year’s hunt to pick up next year, Gardner said.

Gardner was recently elected to the board of directors for Pope and Young, the conservation and charity organization of bow hunting.

He said he has become an accomplished bow hunter because he is too busy to hunt during rifle season.

jhaug@durangoherald.com

John Gardner, taxidermist, and owner of Wildlife Expressions in Durango, talks about how he will ship the trophy-class mule deer shoulder mount to Mississippi on Tuesday. His shop is a menagerie of mounted animals, including mountain goats and a grizzly bear from Alaska. Enlarge photo

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald

John Gardner, taxidermist, and owner of Wildlife Expressions in Durango, talks about how he will ship the trophy-class mule deer shoulder mount to Mississippi on Tuesday. His shop is a menagerie of mounted animals, including mountain goats and a grizzly bear from Alaska.

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