The lion was big; that much was clear. He stood off about 200 yards in a scour between miles of unbroken savanna, tawny from the season’s drought. A fair breeze lifted the big cat’s mane. His nostrils flared, straining to catch a scent.
Bill Fuchs and his wife, Linda, had come to Tanzania with their daughter to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. And while the trip to the game-rich East African nation was nearly a month long, all of it pointed to this moment: A trophy lion was in Bill’s sights, and the trip’s $40,000 price tag may as well have hung from it. Fuchs had one shot. His trigger finger moved through its narrow arc. There was the report of the rifle, a kick to the shoulder, the tang of gunpowder on the air.
“I shot him dead through the lungs,” Bill recalls. “I was sure I got him.” But the lion didn’t drop. Instead he vanished, leaving nothing but the breeze and the swish of the tall grass.
Against their better judgment, Fuchs and his fellow hunters climbed out of their vehicle and paced around, looking for signs: a dribble of blood, tracks, a telltale rustle of vegetation, a distant wheeze or roar. Nothing.
“So I’m in the middle of this shit,” says Fuchs, “and I’m asking, ‘What the hell—did I hit him?’ I felt sure I hit him. I was dead on the money when I squeezed the trigger.”
The men returned to the vehicle, where Bill, Linda and a friend climbed to the top and crouched on a hunting platform, hoping to catch sight of the lion. Their daughter was in the front seat. “I figured we could still get him on the way out,” Fuchs explains. “So I told Bradsmith to load another round. Well, I had no sooner than gotten that last syllable out of my mouth when I heard this panting. And like that, he was right there on the bumper. We fired simultaneously, point blank. I promise if we hadn’t gotten him, someone would have been scratched.”
Today, the lion—the fifth biggest ever recorded—commands a hallway at the Fuchses’ business, Wilderness Taxidermy & Outfitters in Franklin. The lion’s mouth is slack in a half-yawn, but his eyes are alert, as if focused on distant prey. Above and around him are examples of pretty much any animal one would care to name, and Fuchs has an observation to go with each. There’s a giraffe (“Not a glamour animal to shoot—he just stands there and looks at you”), a zebra (“You gut a zebra and there’s two gallons of worms that comes out of it—nasty as hell”), a hippopotamus (“You can hear ‘em a mile away when they fight”), a wart hog (“Look how that tail sticks straight up—gave rise to the saying “high-tailing”), a kudu (“best-eating animal in Africa”), an impala (“beautiful lines”), a Grant’s gazelle, an eland, a moose, a black bear, a grizzly bear, an opossum.
But that isn’t all of it: A portion of the floor is taken up by several head mounts of Cape buffalos awaiting pickup. “This is why professional hunters say they never retire,” notes Fuchs, wagging a finger at one of them. “They call them ‘The Black Death.’ Because when you’re tracking wounded buffalo, they will just kill you. They’ll hammer you.”
Mounted, however, “The Black Death” looks strangely mild; pleading, even. Ignoring the thick sweep of horns, it looks no more threatening than a cow in clover—“until he’s standing there and you’ve shot him in the lungs,” says Fuchs. “Until his throat cavity is full of blood, and he’s standing there looking at you and the blood is just blowing. And then he charges.”
When he was 9 years old, Bill Fuchs ran across an ad in the back pages of Field & Stream magazine encouraging readers to learn taxidermy “for fun and profit.” He mailed the requisite $5 for the course, which arrived a few weeks later in an oversized envelope.
At first taxidermy was more hobby than job, learned mostly by hit or miss, and the results showed it. By Jim’s own admission, early efforts were “half-assed.”
After he and Linda married in 1973, they converted a chicken coop beside their Mobile, Ala., home into a taxidermy studio. Linda was working as a dental hygienist; Bill taught biology part time at a local preparatory school. One day, they decided to quit their jobs, pack up and move to Western North Carolina. They brought with them about $1,000, a store of ambition and little else. Near Franklin, they built a post-and-beam cabin, using plans they found in one of the Foxfire books.
They started farming, raising turnip and collard greens, potatoes and a smattering of other vegetables on four acres of bottomland. A roadside honor stand displayed baskets of produce and a cash box. The money came in at a trickle: $2, $6, sometimes as much as $10.
“It was a horrible, painful process of making a buck,” remembers Bill. “Here I’ve got a bachelor of science degree in chemistry and environmental science, and Linda’s a dental hygienist, and we’re selling vegetables from a stand on the side of the road. Hard times.”
But Bill’s love of taxidermy persisted, and one day Linda told him she wanted to help him make a business of it. Their first client brought them a squirrel. Early work tended to be domestic, including deer, raccoons, rattlesnakes, bass, trout and possums.
In 1976, Bill and Linda traveled to Atlanta for the National Taxidermists Association’s first annual competition. Their entry was a mallard duck that Bill had mounted in flight, as if it were rising from a break or small pond. What he hadn’t thought to do was put eyes on both sides of its head. “I walked in with it and they just laughed at me,” he recalls. “And here we thought we were doing things right.” Apparently the disgrace didn’t hold him back; 20 years later, Fuchs was asked to be master of ceremonies at the event.
Along the way, the couple’s client base expanded considerably, and has come to include celebrities such as Delta Burke and her husband, Gerald McRaney; Team Ferrari racecar driver Jay Cochran; Gen. William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. ground forces in Vietnam; and, most recently, Donald Trump Jr., who last fall sent the Fuchs two Cape buffalo from his first African safari.
“We’ve got clients who are spending over $100,000 just to go get their trophies, and another $100,000 to get them mounted. It’s amazing,” says Bill. “But whether it’s that guy or the guy next door who just ran over his first squirrel, it’s all the same to us. We mount ‘em and make ‘em happy.”
“Business is like kudzu,” he adds. “It starts and grows and before you know, you’ve got a lot of it. And the business is fun, because it’s always different. We’re not uncrating eggs and putting them on a counter; this is not mining coal in Ohio. This is a pretty damn entertaining business. We all meet in the morning and say, ‘Well, we’ve got this bear—what will it take? Will we turn him this way or that way?’ We share ideas; we always get the chance to be creative.”
Life on display
Humans have long relied on animal parts to get by, whether they’re jaws or antlers or bearskin rugs. The Egyptians, though, were perhaps the first to raise the preservation of flesh to the level of art—though theirs was geared more toward religious purposes than impressing guests over cigars and brandy.
In Renaissance and Baroque Europe, displaying preserved and mounted animals became something of a fad among the nobility. Along with pressed flowers, strands of coral, rare minerals, shells, specimen jars and other exotica, owners displayed whole preserved animals—some assembled from parts of unrelated beasts—which they hung from walls and ceilings. The exploration and subsequent plunder of the New World added new dimensions to these collections.
Early taxidermy relied on crude materials, toxic compounds such as arsenic, and a good measure of skill. Wooden forms, wire armatures, cotton batting, wool fluff, string, straw and excelsior were the stock-in-trade. The animals’ eyes tended to be dull, and the mounts were static, with little to suggest the animal’s natural surroundings.
The Victorian period was taxidermy’s second golden age. British collectors traveled to the farthest reaches of the empire to kill big game, and trophy rooms dedicated entirely to mounted animals became de rigueur among the very wealthy. (The trophy room is coming back, Bill notes, in places like WNC’s Highlands, Cashiers, and yes, even Asheville, “where there are a lot of high rollers.”)
In the U.S., the first books on taxidermy were published near the end of the Civil War. But well into the 20th century the methodology remained crude, and animals were often “stuffed” for novelty’s sake. In his early-20th-century guide, Home Taxidermy for Pleasure and Profit, Albert Farnham listed the uses to which preserved animals could be put. “Match safes, candle holders, and similar things are made from the heads of fish and ducks with metal containers fastened in their open mouths,” he wrote. “Monkeys, bear cubs and alligators mounted erect with card trays are quite striking, while foxes or raccoons peering over the edge of umbrella jars or waste baskets are equally so.”
Taxidermy’s journey to modernity made the greatest strides in the 1970s, when national and international competitions were revived. Molded plastic forms replaced wood, wire and straw. The growing scarcity of big game also meant that specimens were handled with new respect.
In the basement
“I definitely want to show you what we do downstairs,” says Bill. The basement of Wilderness Taxidermy & Outfitters is accessed through the studio, an open room in which the sides are lined with sinks, benches, stainless steel trays and surgical-grade implements. Wooden stairs lead down to a low-ceilinged room with a concrete floor.
The smell isn’t bad, exactly, but it’s not good either. It’s akin to forcing your face into the pocket of a new baseball glove and leaving it there. Taxidermy begins here, in a pile of salt. When a fresh pelt arrives, it’s buried in the crystals, which draw out blood, water and lymph and arrest spoilage. Dry-salted, a pelt can last six months or more with no additional treatment.
Fuchs leans over, shoves an arm into the salt, and pulls out a pelt. “Coyote,” he says, running a hand along it. “It’s doing pretty good. Could use a little more salt on the head, though.” He lays down the pelt and uses a shovel to bury it again.
Domestic animals get the salt treatment here; foreign kills are salted and dried in their country of origin. All are eventually sent to a tannery in Raleigh for preservation.
At one end of the basement is a receiving area for exotic game. Wooden crates sitting side by side bear packing slips and stickers reading SOUTH AFRICA, THIS SIDE UP, FRAGILE, TANZANIA. “Here’s a crateload of elephant skins,” says Fuchs. “Go ahead: Reach a hand in there and feel.” Other crates hold everything from New Zealand red stag pelts to African springbok and Lord Derby eland skulls, whose long, black horns coil up and out.
“It’s almost scary,” says Bill. “Some people have to have the best golf clubs or the best Bose speakers. These people want to shoot animals.”
On the floor between two pillars rests a 13-foot crocodile skin. Removed from an animal killed in the Kilombero River in southwestern Tanzania, the hide is fated to be made into a rug. Next to it stands a chest-high pile of plastic forms, the color of butter. A leopard, baboon and badger are easily distinguishable. Their eyes are shallow depressions; they look spooky, stricken.
“We use thousands of these every year,” Bill explains. “They make a mannequin for every damn thing. But they’ve got to be on the money. If you have a half-assed mannequin, you get a half-assed mount. It’s like that saying, ‘You can’t make ice cream out of horseshit.’”
At nearly 60 years old, Bill Fuchs has the strapping build and self-possession of a high-school football coach, a full head of hair and a dense, gray mustache. He speaks in a torrent, with a faintly husky voice that’s reminiscent of former President Bill Clinton’s (though he would likely bridle at the comparison). One of Fuchs’ hands was reduced to a claw by an accident when he was a senior in college. He was snorkeling off the Florida coast with his brother, Richard, hunting sharks. Bill was holding an improvised “bang stick” (a wooden rod with a 16-gauge shotgun shell attached to one end).
“I was putting the shell in, and whooom! Home on spring break and I blew my damn left hand up—which has made it a challenge to do what I do. But believe me: The body will adapt.” He shrugs. “I have a hat that says, ‘Scars are tattoos with better stories.’”
Along with their taxidermy work, Bill and Linda also lead safaris to destinations including several African countries, Canada, Brazil and Costa Rica. Recently they returned from a grizzly-hunting trip to Siberia. The safaris also help support the studio. “One year we booked probably 30 or 40 safaris, and all that work comes back to us,” notes Linda.
Finished work may be shipped almost anywhere; recent jobs have gone to collectors in Mexico and Botswana. Pointing to a full-body mount of a black bear, Fuchs reveals: “It’s supposed to go to a doctor in Sweden, but we’re having some trouble with remittance, and by that I mean him paying us. Until he coughs up, we don’t ship.”
In the studio upstairs, a black bear is heaped up on a counter, blood streaming from it. The carcass is rolled up into a dark mass the size of a yoga ball; “There’s a head in there somewhere,” says Zach Vaughn, the Fuchses’ youngest employee.
But the bear can wait; Vaughn is absorbed in “fleshing” a white-tailed deer—scraping off whatever muscle and fat still cling to the dressed hide. He holds the deer’s head, whose pink tongue dangles limply as Vaughn takes up a scalpel and begins making deft cuts.
“The majority of it’s fine,” he explains, “but once you get into the delicate areas like the eyelids—you get a hole in there and you can’t cover it up. There’s the tear duct down there, and it’s really easy to mess up in there because that skin is really thin, almost like a membrane. Once you get down there, you’ve got to dig it out.”
Across the room, Steve Gatling has one arm up a bear’s head. After working a fist-sized ball of Bondo—more typically used to patch auto bodies—into the little pouch that was the bear’s ear, he molds it into the proper shape. An ersatz beaver tail made of injection-molded plastic hangs from a pegboard on the wall above Gatling’s head.
“Most of the bears you see in here I’ve mounted,” he says. “Usually when we find something we’re good at, we stay with it.” Gatling was a taxidermist in Georgia for five years before running across the Fuchses’ Web site. “I called them up and said, ‘Hey, do y’all need an employee?’ ‘Well, actually, we do,’ they said. So I brought some of my work up here, and next thing I knew I had a job.”
At the next table over, Thomas Stanfield is fitting a bear pelt to a full-size mount. “We’ve got to add some width to the form,” he explains. “Widen his hips out. Bears are a lot like humans—you get skinny ones and fat ones, short ones and tall ones.”
Stanfield, the senior member of the full-time staff of four, came to work for the Fuchses when he was 15.
During peak season—fall and winter, when local hunters bring in their deer—the business hires temporary workers to help meet the demand.
“There’s this one local guy who’s sort of a deer collector,” says Linda. “We’d mounted his fifth deer, and we said, ‘Well, we’ll just bring it up to you—you’ve been a good customer.’ And we went up and we saw his trailer and thought, ‘My god, where is he going to put this deer?’ And when we walked in, he had them lined up. And he said: ‘Well, someday I’m going to build a house—someday. But right now, I’m collecting my deer.’”
In a typical year, Wilderness Taxidermy & Outfitters mounts 400 African trophy animals, 200 white-tail deer and 25 whole bears, and makes a dozen or more animal-pelt rugs. The roster of fauna they’ve been asked to mount includes gaurs, gorals, markhors, tahrs and turs, and things even more exotic.
“We’ve actually had people call us about getting people mounted,” Bill says. “One guy called us about his grandma. He was serious. He wasn’t bright, but he was serious. And I told him that we weren’t authorized by law to do that. And he said, ‘What if I get papers?’ Phew! I don’t think he was on the level.”
Pets pose their own challenges. “Dogs have facial expressions,” notes Bill. “And this is where you get into real problems, ‘cause I don’t know how Foo-Foo looked when he was sad, happy, pissed off or indifferent. But they do. So you want to get all your money up front on pets. Because [the owners] come in and they may not be happy.”
One of the stranger requests came from a distraught Georgia woman who called the shop. “She’s crying and says, ‘I need my dog mounted,’” Bill recalls. “Well, it was July, and I said, ‘Shit—he’s going to spoil. You have got to get your dog in a garbage bag and drop him in the freezer.’ And she just insisted, ‘I can’t do it.’ I said, ‘Why?’ And she said: ‘He’s not dead. He just doesn’t feel real good.’ Turns out she was just calling for an estimate.”
A peaceable kingdom
One side of the Fuchses’ studio is set aside as a “museum” where visitors can admire the couple’s art. At the far end of the room, a shelf of artificial rock rises toward the ceiling, supporting a scene that is rarely, if ever, encountered in nature. A mountain lion tears the haunches from a pronghorn antelope; right next to it are a sow bear and a baby (“brought to us by the Wildlife Resources Commission—he’d been run over by a vehicle”), who’s up a tree, batting at a hornet’s nest. On a precipice above are mountain goats, bighorn sheep, a lynx, a mule deer, a white-tail deer and a raccoon, washing its paws. Off to one side is a wild boar—Russian by way of Cherokee County. Apart from the mountain lion and the pronghorn, they all seem to be getting along.
“I think that’s the underlying part of this art form that we’re involved with,” Fuchs observes. “We take dead animals and bring them back to life. And, I mean, there can be nothing—that I know of—more satisfying than that. When these things come in—like that bear in the back that’s in a ball—they’re stinky, they’re nasty, they’re bloody. They’re going to rot. So we work within the time frame and within the artistic realm of what that animal can possibly do. You can’t make it jump through fiery hoops, but you sure as hell can make that wild boar look like it’s alive.”
His monologue continues, gathering steam. “My advice? Don’t ever get comfortable in life. I don’t give a shit if you’re Pelé kicking a soccerball or Dr. Kevorkian putting people to sleep: Be good at it. And get better all the time.”
Linda looks up at him with an expression blending tenderness and exasperation. She pats him on the arm. “He’s full of it,” she says.