DALLAS -- Situated among the wild game trophies that adorn Doug Kitchin's workshop in Dallas is the head of a small melanistic buck.
The rare, dark-colored deer could be considered a hunting memento -- or an example of how not to mount an animal, Kitchin said.
"I guess I wouldn't say it's bad taxidermy because it was done in 1983," Kitchin said, as he pokes and prods at the mount he paid to have done. "But I can push this hide in ... the mouth droops over.
"The ears," he continued, "they're like wilted lettuce."
It was a touch of the "if-you-want-something-done-right" cliche that led Kitchin into taxidermy 23 years ago. He's been honing his skills at it ever since.
His 26-by-36 foot shop is filled with realistic-looking deer and black bear trophy heads, stuffed bobcats, coyotes and turkeys. Paint, glue, scalpels, wire and other tools of the trade litter his tables and shelves.
Kitchin, 46, said it has taken a couple of decades to become confident in his work -- or enough so that last March he started his own home business, Tanglewood Taxidermy.
Reproducing animals for display is an art -- albeit one that often times only other hunters or sportsmen appreciate, Kitchin said.
"When somebody thinks of taxidermy, they think 'animal mortician,' and blood and guts," Kitchin said. "But that's a small part of it."
Taxidermists must be adept at painting, sculpture, upholstery and carving, and have a firm grasp of animal biology, in order to make a piece look lifelike, Kitchin said.
"I know people who are so good at this, if you saw one of their life-sized (stuffed) deer in the woods you wouldn't be able to tell it's not real," he said.
Kitchin, who holds a day job at Westview Products in Dallas, began taxidermy as a hobby in 1987. But he's been fascinated with the outdoors since his childhood near the foothills south of Dallas.
The son of a mill worker, Kitchin said he spent most of his youth exploring the woods, caves and surrounding terrain with his brother. When he was old enough, he started hunting.
"We didn't really have a choice," he chuckled. "That's how we got a lot of our meat."
Kitchin learned how to skin and tan rabbit, squirrel and small game hides when he was 8. After high school, he joined the Air Force and was eventually stationed in Italy.
It was there where he tried to mount his first animal, a silver fox.
"It didn't turn out so good," he admitted.
Once he returned to Oregon, he studied taxidermy through videos, books and trade magazines. He began mounting animals for himself, friends and family.
Though his shop would say otherwise, Kitchin said he doesn't consider himself a trophy hunter; he hunts mostly because he likes dining on deer and wild game.
"Me doing (taxidermy) seems weird," he said. "But it seemed like a waste to take the meat and throw away everything else ... to me, this is sort of like a tribute."
Kitchin said after a hide is tanned -- a two-day process -- it takes him about three days to mount a trophy deer head to his liking.
Most of his experience has been with deer, though basic concepts apply to any other critters. Birds are tricky because of the thinness of their skin. Bears, with their bushy coats, are more forgiving; their bushy coats minimize the need for body detail, Kitchin said.
Finish work -- painting or sculpting around mouths and eyes -- is key to creating a realistic trophy, Kitchin said. So is the freshness of the animal at the outset of the mounting process.
"It's best to start within 24 hours" of a kill, he said. "I did a head that had been laying around on a garage floor for three days ... after that, it gets a smell to it and hair starts to fall out."
Kitchin said when he describes taxidermy to non-hunters, people are either fascinated -- or "grossed out."
His wife, Cheryl, tolerates it. Half of Kitchin's shop is dedicated to her own home crafts. Doug said he set it up that way so the two of them could spend more time together.
"I do love how the finished product turns out," Cheryl said, though she adds with a laugh, "but I don't come out here for the whole process."
For more information on Tanglewood Taxidermy, call Doug Kitchin at 503-991-3707.
The art of taxidermy
Mounting a deer head involves skill, patience and a strong constitution.
Antlers are removed from the head and the hide is skinned and pulled, intact, from the skull.
Flesh, cartilage and membrane are scraped from the pelt, including around the nose, eye sockets and ears.
Next, the hide is tanned with chemicals to preserve it and lock in the fur. A foam or fiberglass mannequin head is carved in a manner to simulate the musculature in the face and neck. Clay or epoxy is used to create ear butts, glass eyes are installed and clay is molded around eye sockets.
The hide is then slipped over the paste-covered form like a mask, the antlers are fastened to the head, and incisions on the hide are stitched together. The head and face are then groomed and painted.