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Northwest School of Taxidermy


May 30, 2002|By AL KALIN, Staff Columnist

Any former Cub Scout or Boy Scout who subscribed to Boy's Life 40 years ago will remember the Northwest School of Taxidermy ad. You could find the ad in Field & Stream, Sports Afield and Outdoor Life as well. And every time I turned a page and saw it I was sucked in like a moth to a flame as I read the ad from start to finish looking at the pictures of the wild game that had been mounted by the graduates.

It wasn't an impressive ad but boy did it hook young teen-agers like me. I was trapped by age 12 and after mowing many yards, turning in hundreds of soda pop bottles for the refund and trapping every muskrat in the Tamarack Canal, I had enough money to sign up for the correspondence course.

What probably only took a few weeks seemed like months before the mailman finally delivered the official Northwest School of Taxidermy kit to the front door. I set the textbooks aside and zeroed in on the goody — the tools of the taxidermist and the taxidermy catalog.


Each tool gleamed a dull silver color, nestled in its own pouch sewn from coarse green canvas. I recognized the different types of tweezers, saws and scalpels but the brain scoop and fat scrapers were new ones. Small little picks, similar to what my dentist used, also were in the kit along with various needles and different sizes of thread. The kit also contained bottles of chemicals used to preserve the specimens. I have a feeling most of the powders and liquids would be against the law to purchase nowadays.

The catalog was awesome as I perused the pages of tools and supplies I never knew existed. The section on eyeballs kept me riveted for hours. There were moose eyes, mouse eyes and mallard eyes as well as frog eyes, snake eyes, turkey eyes and leopard eyes in every size and color imaginable. I ordered a set of grizzly bear eyes to have in stock in case they were needed.

A few weeks later, under the stern guidance of my grandmother, we made our way to the Victorville ranch for the summer. I hated the arriving part because Grandma forbade any running and playing until every cobweb, every speck of dust and every mouse dropping had been removed, the windows cleaned and the rugs beat. The whole process seemed to take weeks to complete.

The first day we discovered a woodpecker, known as a flicker, had bored a hole into our attic and was getting ready to set up shop. His progress was halted abruptly when Grandma blew his head off with my .22 rifle loaded with long rifle hollow points. Thanks to Grandma I had my first specimen to work on, but she put the bird in the freezer until the house cleaning was completed. My work ethic improved immediately.

I searched my Northwest School of Taxidermy textbook for hints on what to do when heads were missing but found nothing. There was a whole chapter on patching bullet holes but nothing on replacing heads. The catalog was no help either. It contained flicker eyes but no flicker heads. However, in the back of the textbook, a pair of wings were shown mounted on a varnished board and my dilemma was solved.

As luck would have it, the underside of a flicker's wing is a beautiful bright orange and, with a little help from a ranch hand, I soon had a mounting board made from plywood and stained a deep walnut color and coated with extra glossy varnish.

Following instructions, I removed the beautiful wings and scraped all the fat away with the fat scraper and removed most of the muscle, while coating everything liberally with alum.

Small brass tacks were used to mount the wings to the dark walnut stained board and bright gold decal letters, found at the Victorville hardware store, proclaimed the wings to be those of a flicker. A wall in the TV room was chosen as the ideal place to display my first work of art and a small brass chain was attached to hang it.

The wings hung there for almost a week while I admired them, but with every passing day more big green flies seemed to admire them as much as I did. Grandma cleaned out the closet, next to the wings, looking for a dead mouse and the next day while sweeping found maggots under my beautiful work of art. Its new display location became the cottonwood tree outside. That night a raccoon found my masterpiece and tore the wings off the board while looking for the major wing muscles I had neglected to remove.

My textbook disappeared the following week when I announced I was going to mount a ground squirrel. Ruthie Mae, our housekeeper, wouldn't look me in the eye when I asked her where my textbook was. Instead she kept glancing up at the ceiling and then at Grandma. Looking back now I realize Grandma would have made a hell of a poker player.

>> Outdoor Tales writer, Al Kalin, can be reached on the Internet at

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