On this West Virginia Morning, many schools in rural areas of West Virginia have closed – leaving vacant buildings. When a community in eastern Boone County lost its elementary school, it became a community center. Briana Heaney has the story.
I felt a little apprehensive as I walked up to Amy Ritchie’s workshop in Hamptonville, North Carolina. Especially after hearing the message on her voicemail.
Ritchie’s confident voice was bright and clear on the recording. “Hi! You’ve reached Amy of Amy’s Animal Arts. I’m probably skinning a bobcat or sewing up the neck of a giraffe. Please leave me a message, and I’ll call you back as soon as I can stop and pull off the rubber gloves.”
Ritchie is an award-winning taxidermist. Her studio is located in her four-bay garage. It’s large, bright and airy…with about 150 deer antlers hanging from the high ceilings. Everything is neatly organized. On one side, power tools hang on a wall next to shelves filled with paints and adhesives.
The other side of the studio is a veritable zoo. A few giraffes, lions, armadillos, bears, coyotes and foxes in suspended motion. They seem so vital, I couldn’t help but reach out and touch them. They felt soft and real.
“I’m really passionate about taxidermy,” Ritchie said. “I think at my core, I just love it. It’s what I was meant to do.”
Ritchie grew up in rural North Carolina, homeschooled by her mom. She said that gave her plenty of time to follow her interests.
That included animals… particularly dead ones.
“When I was 13, I found a roadkill snake and wanted to turn it into a belt,” she said. “I asked mom if I could have a knife from the kitchen to skin the snake and she said, ‘Just please wear gloves so you don’t get a disease.’”
It was a king snake with a white-chain pattern.Ritchie taught herself how to skin and tan it.
“I was able to find the information online, how to use glycerin and some different products from just the pharmacy to be able to tan that…And there I was… [wearing a] snakeskin belt,” she said.
Ritchie admitted she was an unusual child with unusual interests.
“I like being unique. I mean, why be like everyone else? And I never have been.”
Ritchie said her dad also supported her interest in taxidermy. He had a second job delivering newspapers early in the morning.
“He would find all the fresh roadkill,” Ritchie said. “So that’s how he would bring home raccoons and possums and things for me to practice skinning.”
When she was 16, Ritchie’s dad encouraged her to enter a national taxidermy competition. Her entry was a red squirrel mounted on a bed of leaves as if it was sleeping. Ritchie competed in the open division. And even though she was a novice, she walked away with third place.
She’s gone on to win many awards over the years. Now at 36, she’s a highly skilled taxidermist in demand. She makes her living mounting animals for hunters and collectors.
Ritchie continued our tour. She showed me what she was working on.
”We got some of the actual messy stuff going on. This is a wild boar someone brought in just yesterday.”
The bones and bulk of the meat had already been removed. Ritchie started by preparing and tanning the hide. She grabbed a knife.
“We have to take this meat off. And so I’ll hold the knife and work it. Down like this… it’s fascinating and kind of satisfying to slowly shave this off,” she said.
Ritchie is small, just over five feet tall. She wrapped the exposed hide tightly on the edge of her work bench and scraped the knife along the boar’s hide in rhythmic motion.
“I have to press down with this knife and shave this down,” she explained. “So, big job right here.”
At this stage, the hide was stiff and unwieldy.
“It’s hard. I can’t even fold the hide. By the time I’m done, it’ll be soft and I can. It will not take up as much space in my freezer.”
The freezer. It’s the part of the tour I was most curious about. Ritchie has seven chest freezers. She opened a freezer lid, and I pulled out one of about 50 gallon-sized Ziploc bags. Inside was something called a deer cape. It was compact. It felt like a frozen roast.
“Yeah, it’s just the skin, and it’s the head and the shoulders of the deer and wrapped up really tight.”
After Ritchie treats the hide, she crafts the animal shape. She carves muscles, veins and bone mass out of a foam mold like a sculptor. She sands the mold, applies adhesives and wraps the skin around it. Then she smooths out irregularities before sewing it up with artfully hidden stitches. She uses glass eyes.
“You got to detail the eyes so that they look realistic,” Ritchie said. “So they have expression… those things that separate, you know, just hide a similar from an artistic taxidermist.”
Ritchiesays when she was starting out, she didn’t know many other women in the field. But she says that’s changed in the past few years. And she’s helping to train a new generation through her Facebook page and YouTube channel.
Ritchie is also training a new generation through an apprenticeship. Ritchie introduced me to her first apprentice, Mariah Petrea as she helped Petrea carve a foam mold with a deer mount. They’ll sand and apply adhesives before pulling a deer cape onto the form.
Petrea started out as a customer. She came to Ritchie’s workshop a couple of years ago to drop off a deer to be mounted and the two hit it off. Mariah was a little uneasy with the work at first.
“Being an animal person myself, I was like, ‘Oh, my heart’s going to get in the way. Will I be able to clean this cat? Because it looks like my pet cat in a way just a little bit bigger,’ and you get to come to terms with things,” Petrea said. “What’s lying there, it can’t feel anything. And after you do it once, it’s just a motion you go through.”
Now Petrea works part-time with Ritchie and hopes to start her own taxidermy business. She says her favorite part is breathing life into her subjects.
“It has been amazing how you can make a piece of foam with some clay look realistic,” Petrea said. “And that is the start of everything, just taking something that looks lifeless and making it look realistic. When you saw it out in the woods or a picture.”
Like Mariah, most of Ritchie’s clients are hunters who bring in deer trophies or bobcats.Ritchiesays she rarely hunts — though she doesn’t have a problem with it as long as the animals are legally obtained.
“I’m here in the South where really, if you haven’t seen a deer head or know what taxidermy is, you know, how are you even a Southerner?”
ButRitchie’s most prized mounts are from a trip she made to Africa. It includes the head and neck of an adult giraffe looming over ten feet tall in her studio.
Hunting giraffes is controversial. Ritchie says the animal was an older male that was beyond breeding age and had been attacking younger giraffes. She also has a mother and baby giraffe that were donated by a zoo after they died of natural causes.
Ritchie enjoys sharing her collection with others, especially kids.
“They come in here and they’re like wow, mom and dad, what’s that? What’s that? And I love to tell them, it’s, you know, this animal that you’ve never seen before,” Ritchie said. “And it really gets you more up close than you would even in most zoos… And how many kids get to pet a baby giraffe?”
Ritchie says she’s constantly looking for new ways to expand her craft. More active poses, more detailed scenery. She says part of the pleasure for her is the transformation. Like when she turned that snakeskin she found on the side of the road into an eye-catching belt.
“I think the fascination with just thinking, wow, that would have just been thrown away. And I have done something with something that would have rotted. And maybe that’s why I like taxidermy so much,” she said. “The idea that you can make something from nothing.”
For Ritchie, it’s more than just preserving animals. She enjoys sharing this art form… whether it’s with her clients or with people who just stop by to marvel at her studio.
The Folkways Reporting Project is made possible in part with support from Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies to the West Virginia Public Broadcasting Foundation. Subscribe to the podcast to hear more stories of Appalachian folklife, arts and culture.
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