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From porcupines to giraffes: Kaycee taxidermist mounting decades of memories

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Tim Peterson is the owner of Hawk Creek Taxidermy

Tim Peterson is the owner of Hawk Creek Taxidermy, a taxidermy shop located in Kaycee next to Invasion Bar. After moving to Wyoming from Minnesota, this space became not only his work place but his home as well. While living in his shop isn’t what Tim hoped for, he enjoys the perks of lower overhead and no commute. He hopes to one day live in a separate space but for now continues to utilize this multipurpose space to literally live at work.

The shelves of Tim Peterson’s workshop are lined with an eclectic assortment of tools. Canisters of hair mousse are stacked next to industrial-sized jugs of Gorilla Glue; tiny painter’s brushes and jagged saws hang over drawers of glass eyes and plastic tongues.

For Peterson, there’s nothing strange about it. These are all part of an average day’s work at Hawk Creek Taxidermy.

Peterson’s taxidermy education began with a pigeon and ended with a steer’s head, the last assignment he had to complete to get his degree. He walked 2 miles to a local plant to fetch a freshly butchered Charolais, dripping blood all the way back to his house as he hauled the 40-pound head behind him.

He boiled out the skull, then re-attached the treated hide to clean bone. That steer head still lives on in ceremonial honor with the American-International Charolais Association, where it is passed with the inauguration of each new president.

A few decades later, Peterson’s taxidermy looks quite different from those early attempts. 

Tim got his first taxidermy book at age 14

Tim got his first taxidermy book at age 14 and he has held on to it ever since. What was then a hobby quickly became a favorite pastime, a side business and ultimately a career. This book was the first of a series that was sent with work materials. Each book walked you through the steps to taxidermying a different animal. The first animal Tim ever worked on was a pigeon as the book taught.

Tim enjoys working in many of the industries surrounding taxidermy like outfitting and hunting

Tim enjoys working in many of the industries surrounding taxidermy like outfitting and hunting. Originally from Minnesota, Tim first came to Johnson County to hunt. After several trips back he started working for a local outfitter and eventually moved to Kaycee to open his taxidermy business full time in Wyoming. Tim still sneaks out to hunt whenever he can spare the time - mostly archery and sometimes rifle. The wall of photos above his desk features images of past trophies and hunting trips. Tim killed this deer in Minnesota in 1996 - now the deer is permanently jumping over a log in the show area of Tim’s shop as an example of his work.

Keen attention to detail is a necessity in taxidermy

In the final stages of the taxidermy process, a keen attention to detail is a necessity. When working around the eyes, nose and mouth, the fine tuning and little touches are what makes the animals come to life. These touches include cleaning and painting the edges of the eyes and nostrils. Other details include clay moulding and sewing to repair hides. “You’ve gotta know how to fix stuff,” Tim said of taxidermy work and the creative fixes required.

His Kaycee workshop is lined with crouching wolves and leaping white-tailed deer. An elk flares its nostrils; a massive bull moose stands tall, its antlers nearly scraping the ceiling. For the sake of practicality and convenience, these all are made of hides glued to lightweight molds. Most of the bases and antlers are detachable, so that unlike Peterson’s first bone-heavy mount, the trophies are portable.

Past the gauntlet of antlers, hooves and plastic fangs sits a closet where the taxidermy process begins. Sent to Kaycee from a tannery in Michigan, hides of everything from caribou to mountain lions to antelope hang in neat rows.

Once a hide is brought out of the closet, it’s soaked in salt water and stretched before Peterson pores over the skin, sewing bullet holes or cut marks and massaging hair mousse into the fur until it shines. Then the hide is carefully draped over a glue-slathered mold.

Tim moves from his back work table to his kitchen table

As stages are finished, Tim moves from his back work table to his dual purpose kitchen and work table to appropriately update name tags. The hides, horns and antlers that Tim works with are labeled at all times to make sure that every client’s materials are well marked. From when they are dropped off all the way through to the completed project, everything is labeled.

Tim balances himself and the bear with a gentle finger on the nose

Tim balances himself and the bear with a gentle finger on the nose as works to adjust the edges of the snout. The snout of the bear is replaced for the final mount in order to make long term preservation possible. After the piece sets, a combination of clay and paint can be added around the edges to add to the realism of the piece.

They may be stored along the walls or in the show area

If mounts cannot be picked up right away by their owners, they may be stored along the walls or in the show area of Tim’s building. Once finished, this bear was added beneath a wolf and between Tim’s closet and pack saddle, and a stack of elk racks. In an effort to add to the realism of his work, Tim likes to have his figures mounted with a natural looking scene. These scenes are made from varying types plants, sticks and logs. Most of the materials are real like sage and the wood, however sometimes the fake materials for things like green ferns make for better long-term decorations.

Detail work on each animal can take hours. Peterson carefully ruffles the fur along the neck and hunching shoulders to simulate the way live skin moves over muscle. He cuts slices of plastic out of an old coffee lid and traces delicate veins into the canthus of the staring glass eye.

Sometimes, damage to the hide requires improvisation on Peterson’s part. One bobcat hide was sent back from the tannery with all of its whiskers missing from one side.

Peterson was stumped. Then he noticed that his then-wife’s housecat had the same color whiskers.

“I took it to the shop, and I carefully cut the whiskers all off the side,” Peterson said. “Then I took (the bobcat) and poked a hole and just slipped them in there. … It worked. You’d never even know it.”

Unique commissions require unique solutions. North American porcupines have around 30,000 barbed quills bristling on their backs, more than a few of which ended up embedded in Peterson’s hands after one particularly prickly taxidermy.

“I hope I never do another one,” Peterson said. “I was cussing. I can’t count how many times I was bleeding from them.”

Tim is able to work right up until lunch

Because he shares his work space with his home, Tim is able to work right up until lunch, or even start cooking while he finishes up a project. Even on the long days, he tries to set aside an hour for lunch and for dinner. With the taco meat already heating on the hot plate, Tim was able to go straight from work to retrieving his various toppings from the fridge. Tim’s kitchen includes a shelf pantry, fridge, microwave, tabletop electric oven and a hotplate - and of course, a coffee pot.

Earlier in life Tim worked as a rodeo cowboy

Earlier in life Tim worked as a rodeo cowboy, mostly riding broncs. Eventually giving it up, signs of rodeo remain present in his life with pictures of his rides hanging along the edge of the TV stand. Paintings and photographs decorate the rest of the living area of the shop that includes his gun case and TV. The TV runs for a good chunk of the day, playing country music just loud enough to offer background entertainment while Tim works in the back of the room.

Many of Tim’s clients are from out of state

Many of Tim’s clients are from out of state but hunt annually in Johnson County, allowing them to leave their harvested hides and horns behind one year and pick them up when they return to hunt the next. One customer called to check his pick up date for an antelope he killed last hunting season.

The list of animals Peterson has immortalized gets even stranger once it extends outside North America. One client sent Peterson the hide of a giraffe from a hunting trip in Africa.

The animal was massive, standing at over 12 feet from its hooves to its ossicones, the tufted cartilage jutting from its forehead like horns. It was too tall to stand in Peterson’s workshop, so he created the mold in parts, painstakingly poring over every detail from its tail to its eyelashes with only Google Images as a reference.

He planned on putting together the finished product outside of his client’s house. Then, disaster struck in the form of a snowstorm.

“We had a blizzard,” Peterson said. “So I hauled it in, and the first time I put it together was at his house. I was nervous. But I was pretty positive it was all going to work out.”

Peterson sticks to mostly hunting trophies. Occasionally, he will hand-paint a trout mold, scale by scale, at a fisherman’s request. But he stays away from housepets. They would require a custom-made mold, which would make the taxidermy’s price point skyrocket. He generally directs interested clients to a company that will gut and freeze-dry the animal instead.

“I try to talk people out of it, because if they had a dog for 15 years and it’s like their kid, then you know that dog really well,” Peterson. “Whoever does this dog, it’s not going to have the same expression.”

The head has to be level so that the eyes can be level

In order to make the final mounts look realistic, the head has to be level so that the eyes can, in turn, be level. The eyes of an antelope and deer automatically level with the area around them so the eyes need to sit level to be realistic. The hides and horns are placed on top of forms designed for each animal species specifically and then Tim adapts the form to his liking when need be. The horns are attached first, then the eyes and finally the hide.

Tim’s closet is stuffed full of the customer hides

In the back of the shop, Tim’s closet is stuffed full of the customer hides he has to mount. Tim does not tan the hides himself but rather works with a tannery that he likes. Because of COVID-19, the tannery was forced to shut down this spring which forced a delay for Tim as he waited for the hides to be returned.

Most of Peterson’s commissions come from out-of-state hunters who bring in the white-tailed deer or antelope they shoot on hunting trips. At times, they’ll request a more complicated tableau, like a litter of coyote pups peeping out of a den or a wolf closing its jaws around the haunch of a squealing musk ox.

For lifelike recreations of such scenes, it helps to have a lifetime of experience prowling through the backwoods of the American Midwest. After growing up hunting in Minnesota, Peterson came to Wyoming to guide hunting expeditions through the Bighorn Mountains before returning to taxidermy full time. 

Usually, Peterson tells clients to expect a turnaround time of about 10 to 14 months on each order. But the pandemic closed the tannery Peterson uses for two and a half months this spring, creating a backlog of hides ready to be stretched and mounted. That means Peterson has even less time to do what he truly loves: walking up through the mountains with a bow in his hand and a quiver on his back.

“I’ve been hunting since I was a little kid,” Peterson said. “It definitely tweaked my interest in doing this …, but it kind of takes a lot of time away from my hunting nowadays.”

Tim does some clay work around the eyes

Before adding the hides to the molds, Tim does some clay work around the eyes to make what he sees as a more realistic head shape. He uses a two part apoxie to sculpt and model the eye lids and top of the eyes. Working late nights is rather common for Tim now as he continues receiving new carcasses and completing other pieces daily. He joked that his whiskey was his “energy drink” when working late - another perk of working and living in the same space.

Because Tim is so busy this time of year he works extended hours

Because Tim is so busy this time of year he works extended hours many days of the week, generally beginning around 5:30 a.m. and finishing up around 10 p.m. With hides in the closet, Tim expects to be staying busy for quite some time. In addition to the lower overhead, working and living in the same building avoids any wasted time on commuting. At the end of the night after he cleans up, Tim can simply pull down his blinds and close his curtains to draw in the privacy of home.

Photojournalist

Jessi Dodge joined the Bulletin as a photojournalist and a Report for America corp member in 2020. If you have ideas or comments, reach out at jessi@buffalobulletin.com.

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