Not just stuffing animals: Cheak says Good taxidermy about respecting animal
Published 2:05 pm Monday, March 27, 2017
When the dart landed on Talbott Avenue, William Cheak was chatting with a regular customer at Mid State Taxidermy.
Cheak began working at Mid State in the early 2000s, when it was owned by Don Lee. Cheak partnered with Lee in the business after working for another taxidermy shop in Lexington for about eight years, where he studied the trade.
“I paid someone to teach me, and I stayed there for eight years,” he said.
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When Lee decided to pursue other business ventures, Cheak decided to buy the business, he said.
Cheak said his interest in taxidermy spans back to his childhood.
“My dad and grandpa were both avid hunters,” Cheak said. “I’ve been hunting and fishing my entire life as far back as I can remember. I was always interested in helping to skin the animals.”
Cheak said he’s always had an admiration for animals, which drives his passion to do good taxidermy.
“Bad taxidermy is just a let down,” he said. “It’s disrespectful to the animal. It’s just unsightly. It demeans the animal in my view.”
Growing up, Cheak said he knew he either wanted to be a butcher or a taxidermist.
He paid to be professionally trained and said even after 20 years, he still learns something new about his trade every day.
“A lot of schools out there claim they can make a taxidermist in six weeks,” he said. “I just don’t think that’s possible. To learn to do deer, small game, fish, elk all in six weeks — no way.”
Cheak said the process starts when a hunter takes down an animal.
“So, if someone kills a deer, they take them to the processor or skin it themselves and then bring me the head and hide,” he said. “I skin it down as close as I can on the head. I take the skin off all the way to the skull.”
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The skin must then go through a tanning process, which Cheak describes as a “pickling,” to preserve the skin.
“A good tanning helps with the longevity of the mount,” he said. “I have mounts from 2004 hanging in my shop that look like I just did them yesterday.”
Cheaks said despite what many think, taxidermy is much more than stuffing an animal.
“It’s not stuffing an animal,” he said. “It’s mounting an animal on a foam form.”
Cheaks said to properly mount a deer, for example, he takes a precise measurement from the corner of the eye to the tip of the nose and then of the circumference of the neck at the first vertebrae, which allows him to pick a properly-sized form.
“The trade has come so far, you can find a form for just about any size,” he said.
Cheak said he mounts a wide variety of animals, including multiple species of deer, elk, moose, caribou, bears, ducks, bison, wild hogs, turkeys and fish.
He said his favorite mounts are “mammals in general.”
“There’s not one that seems particularly harder than another,” he said. “When you do it correctly, it’s all hard.”
Cheak said about 14 hours of work goes into the average mount, but the whole process takes multiple days, including tanning, washing, fitting and hand sewing.
His busiest months are during deer hunting season — September through December.
“I take in all work that will take at least the next year to get out,” he said.
He said he works late evenings during the season because the deer must be skinned and in the freezer before he can go home that night.
“That reduces the chance of decay, because there’s only X number of hours before the animal starts to stink and rot and the hair begins to fall out.”
He said he doesn’t get any negative backlash for his job.
“Most people are really interested in what I do,” he said. “The others are kind of ignorant to the process. Maybe they’re against hunting, but for the most part hunters respect the animals. I hunt and then eat that meat for the rest of year, not needing to buy anything else, really.
“Hunting is more a way of life than it is a sport. There are some people out there to kill a trophy, but that’s the far end of the spectrum.”