Profile of a Texarkana, Texas taxidermist
| The pungent odor of dead flesh fills the room as taxidermist Garth Stokes shaves leftover bits of meat off a deer hide.
"It gets it down to just the dermis," he said. He presses the deer hide against a shaver, a fine electric-powered round blade with guards on either side to keep him from cutting too much off. Leftover bits fall to the floor onto a foot-high pile of old skin.
Stokes runs Garth's Taxidermy from a 900 square feet shop behind his home on a dead-end road. After 34 years of taxidermy, his shop's characteristic scent doesn’t bother him.
"What smell?" he said. "You kind of get used to it. Come see me in November and December when they're red and bleeding everywhere. Then you have some good smells."
Stokes started in 1973 when a taxidermist moved down the street from his family. Throughout high school he played apprentice to his neighbor, and he was the only student practicing taxidermy in his school's vocational program. Under his neighbor's instruction, Stokes completed a Barbados sheep and then a large mouth bass that won him first place in state competition. After taking a correspondence course in taxidermy he opened his own shop.
"Taxidermy is a really good way to preserve animals so future generations can see them," he said. "It dates back to Egyptian days. In the pyramids, they've recovered preserved animals that have been mounted."
In his shop tagged and numbered antlers are jumbled into a pile on the floor and hanging from the rafters. Jars of chemicals crowd shelves - lacquer, primer, clear gloss and bird feet injection.
"You can't skin bird feet," he said. "You just have to inject them."
Halfway-finished jobs line the floor. A preserved gray fox perches on a deep freezer in one corner. Elk antlers dangle on the back of a chair, and a pair of Corsican ram antlers occupies floor space. On a workbench Stokes displays a peeling large mouth bass he said dates back to the '60s. A jug of Dawn dish soap doubles as hand soap because of its degreasing properties. And several freezers with rusty lids hug the walls. Layers of blood have dripped down their sides and hardened. Stokes points at the rust.
"That's how corrosive blood is," he said.
Stokes said when a customer brings him a deer, he takes measurements of its head so he can order a mannequin made of liquid foam. Then he skins the deer and cuts all the red meat and fat off.
"If you don't take it all off it turns into an acid, which will make it smell and make the hair fall off," he said.
The hide goes through a salt rub, a 12-hour soak in salt solution and then shaving. After shaving, Stokes rinses the hide and applies tanning cream. Five days later he can attach the skin to the mannequin and add details such as glass eyes and nose paint. He said he prepares most mounts this way, except waterfowl.
"Waterfowl are really greasy, really oily," he said. "They can't go through the abuse and the shaving. Their skin is already so thin you can read a newspaper through them."
Waterfowl have to be degreased in a tumbler full of ground corncob. Stokes said he can easily make $250 from a waterfowl, and it only takes two hours and $15 in supplies. His wife Stephanie said waterfowl offers an outlet for creativity.
“He has to airbrush color,” she said. “When he’s trying to hide flaws or accentuate muscles he has to use corrective colors. And he actually goes out and finds petrified wood for the mounts.”
Stokes said he has about 150 jobs left to do for his customers before he cuts back on the taxidermy business. After those mounts are done he'll only take on big jobs such as multiple deer and waterfowl from clients he knows will pay him.
"It doesn't matter how fast you get jobs done," he said. "The economy is really hurting [customers]. People don't pay like they should. Taxidermists will all say the same thing."
New Boston taxidermist Tommy Harrison of the Roadkill Café said he agrees.
“That’s everywhere,” he said. “Oh yeah. I got a problem with it too. They bring their stuff, won’t put the deposit down. After it’s completed they won’t come get it.”
Up-front costs to run Stokes’ business used to be one third of his income, but with higher gas prices, he said they end up being half his income.
"I did it for 34 years, and it kept disappointing me every year in this town," he said. "In Dallas you can, but as far as a one-person operation? Eh. You need insurance, steady pay. You can't get that with a one-person operation."
After a few decades of taxidermy, Stokes quit hunting.
"I'm not really into hunting anymore," he said. "I kind of started feeling sorry for them."
One day Stokes got a call from a hunter who said he'd dropped off an antelope at his shop. When Stokes got home, he went to attend to the antelope and was shocked to find it still alive.
"He had his head up and was looking around," he said. "I just shot him again to put him out quick. I didn't want him to suffer anymore."
Stokes said he respects what groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals are trying to do even though they don't understand nature.
"They think we're inhumane, but they never put Mother Nature on the stand, and let me tell you, she's not very kind," he said. "She'll kill off a whole population of animals. Shooting one with a rifle is better than what Mother Nature would do."
And though his business is preparing dead animals for display, Stokes said he isn’t a mortician.
"It's not really the same thing - it's just the skin," he said. "Morticians get to bury their mistakes. I don't."
Instead, Stokes' work goes on display, adorning shelves and walls in his customers' homes and offices. His work isn't limited to deer, ducks and fish - he has preserved some interesting specimens in the last 34 years.
"The weirdest I've done is an iguana, people's pets, a monkey," he said. "The monkey, when I skinned it, the carcass looked like a little baby lying there, with the little hands. I'll never do another."
His wealthy customers sometimes bring animals they've killed on safari - wildebeests, warthogs, zebras, gazelles, meerkats, water buffalo, African lions and Siberian tigers.
"I wouldn't mind doing a big old giraffe," he said.
He has even preserved insects to set the scene on certain mounts.
"I had a baby deer to do, and on the end of his nose I did a butterfly," he said. "It was like the Disney movie. That's what the lady wanted."
But there are certain animals that law dictates he cannot mount, such as hawks, owls, eagles and alligators.
"Anything you can't legally kill," he said. However, if an employee at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Wright Patman Lake finds one of the forbidden animals dead, he'll call Stokes to mount it. It will then go on display at their office near the spillway.
Stokes estimated he's done more than ten thousand mounts during his career, and he's helped his competition along the way. He taught adult education classes at Arkansas High School, and he ran an 8-week course at his own shop, which produced several competitors.
Stokes’ relationship with dead animals hasn’t impaired his human relationships, though his wife said she almost bolted on their first date. She and her sons joined Stokes at his house for barbecue, and he prepared chicken.
“He told the boys how he pulled the heads off the chickens and plucked the feathers,” she said. “At that moment I put my plate down and wanted to run. I buy all our meat now.”
One of the best job benefits, Stokes said, has been free meat.
"I always had an overflow of meat - deer, hogs," he said. "My favorite is fried deer meat. The weirdest is beaver - it's very, very lean, but it makes the best jerky you'll ever eat. I've had fried armadillo, too."