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Taxidermist's business stems from nearly lifelong interest

By DAVID TEWES
May 17, 2010 at 12:17 a.m.
Updated May 19, 2010 at 12:19 a.m.


BEST OF THE BEST

Voters in the Advocate's Best-of-the-Best contest said it doesn't matter if it's a whitetail deer or an exotic African kill, Saski's Taxidermy and Hunting Service at 1311 S.W. Moody St. ranks No. 1 with them.

Others that earned votes were No. 2 Wild Woods Taxidermy, 338 Nursery Road, and No. 3 Jeff Massey's in Yorktown.

You won't see much activity going on around the plain brown building with a tin roof and metal siding near the Guadalupe River on Southwest Moody Street.

It has been a hardware store, a carpet business and even a beer distributorship.

But these days, you're more likely to find deer inside instead of beer.

Owners Roger and Joni Saski operate Saski's Taxidermy and Hunting Service from the structure, and deer are probably the most common animals they're asked to mount.

And it's an occupation both take pride in, opting to turn down business sometimes rather that rush through a job and produce a second-rate product.

"I treat it as if it was mine," said Roger, 48. "It's got our name on it."

Joni, 43, said when she gets a call from a customer asking how long it takes to get a, mount completed, she's honest with them. It's going to take longer than most other taxidermists in town, she said.

"But just go visit their shops, see what you're getting, see what it looks like and ask a few questions about how they get you there," she said. "If you're satisfied, then you make your choice."

Joni said she and Roger would like to think that customers will notice enough of a difference that the customers will want to pay $50 or $75 more and wait a few extra months.

Roger said the extra care that he takes includes using everything from a quality tanning process for the hide, to airbrushing some of the color lost during the processing.

The cost of getting an animal mounted depends on the type of animal. It's not unusual for customers to run up bills of $400 or more.

"There are a lot of things that determine the total costs," Roger said. "A hog hide is so much thicker, it costs a whole lot more just to get a hog hide tanned than a deer skin."

A shoulder mount for a whitetail deer might cost $550, while a hog would cost $725.

They charge by the inch for fish. "If you give a set price, you could lose money because they vary so much in size," Roger said.

Alligators - well, they can be rather pricey, costing up to $500 a foot. Roger said he did a 12-foot alligator once for a doctor in El Campo.

Joni grew up on a 100-acre ranch in Victoria County, raising livestock and other farm animals for food. That's why she had never been deer hunting nor had she ever eaten deer.

Getting into the taxidermy business was an easy decision she made because she married Roger in 1990. But it wasn't necessarily an easy change of lifestyle.

"It was a big change," she said. "It was different because he was making art out of animals instead of eating them."

Roger's interest stems back to when he was 9 and developed as he grew older.

"I got interested when I was a little kid and my dad shot a deer," he said. "We actually both shot at the deer, but he actually ended up getting the buck."

They took it to a local taxidermy to be mounted and the owner showed Roger around the operation. Over the years, he ordered books trying to learn the art, but Roger said it's difficult to grasp without hands-on experience.

He was later injured in a motorcycle crash that required him to get therapy in Corpus Christi, where he rented a room. While there, he looked up the taxidermy shops and decided to visit the first one in the phonebook and met the owner.

"We hit it off really well," he said. "I had a pretty good idea I was wanting to do something like that and he was fixing to start his class in a few months."

Roger said he took a four-month crash course in the summer of 1986. After learning the business and the fundamentals of taxidermy, he bought surplus equipment and opened his first shop at the corner of Bridge and Red River streets.

To help boost business, he would organize packaged hunts in hopes of getting mounts from his customers. He had about 12 people on the first one.

"They all killed really nice trophy sheep and I got the mounts from that," Roger said. "That kind of got me going."

Roger said after he and Joni got married, they decided that a more visible location would help business. That's when they moved to their current location in 1990.

He did about 25 whitetail the first season at the new location. Now he does more than 200 mounts a year, of all kinds.

"There's really never a slow season," Roger said. "By the time the stuff gets back from the tannery, it's almost time for another season already."

He said probably the most unusual animal he's received is a baboon killed in Africa by a customer in Houston. It was his first primate, but Roger said it wasn't that difficult to prepare.

"They're so vicious looking with their big teeth," he said. "But I just did a bunch of research on it and I even went to the Victoria zoo and studied them down there."

There are certain animals he will not take. That includes skunks and armadillos, some of which carry leprosy.

"I did a skunk once and I'll never do another one," he said. "For four or five days I smelled like a skunk and everything I ate and drank smelled like a skunk."

Joni said they've tried doing pets, but it's difficult to satisfy customers who were intimate with the same animals they'd like to preserve for posterity. She said there's no way to bring back the pet's personality or exact appearance.

Roger said he works eight to 12 hours a day most days and some of those days can be frustrating, although he still enjoys his work. But he also finds a little irony in what he does.

"I got into the business to hunt and fish and now I can't go because I'm always so busy," he said. "I kind of shot my self in the foot."

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