A Taxidermy Anomaly

I do not know how to shoot a gun, and I don’t have a license to shoot one either. This, of course, makes my experiential hunting blog difficult (and illegal). So, instead I experienced the closest thing I could think of – taxidermy.

J.R. Taxidermy is tucked away on a road with a missing street sign. When looking for the building, I accidentally passed it…twice. Eventually, I found my way into the tiny parking lot and sat in my car, staring at the building. I envisioned the interior: a cold, hard warehouse with animal heads plastered to the wall, eyes following me as I walked through the sour scented room. I imagined the owner to be a domineering, burly man – the kind that’s all business and no fun. My assumptions could not have been any more wrong.

The lighting in the building was warm and soft from the woodstove in the corner of the room. Dozens of animals were posed in various habitats: a deer leaping over brush, a curious black squirrel perched on a gnarled log, a poised and regal bobcat. On the wood paneled walls were shimmering and colorful fish. To the left of the showroom was the counter, and behind it was the J.R. of J.R. taxidermy – Julie Roberts.

After realizing her career as a vet tech was no longer viable, Roberts took a leap of faith and decided to turn her hobby of taxidermy into a career. “My mom thought it was crazy. She always says that never in a million years did she think I’d be this busy. Neither did I,” says Roberts. She has been a part-time taxidermist for 15 years and full time taxidermist for seven. Her passion for taxidermy started when she decided that she would mount the first buck she “took” while hunting. Although she has scrapped most of her earlier work, she still has her first buck mounted in her work room.

Often referred to as “the lady taxidermist,” Roberts is a bit of an anomaly in the taxidermy world. At Northwood Institute of Taxidermy, she was the only female in her class, and she intentionally named her business in a way that did not reveal her gender. “How many hunters are gonna come to a girl?” Roberts asked, knowing that most of her clients were men. But as long as she could get them into the store to see her work, she knew she’d have business.

A glimpse inside Julie Roberts’ store!

Roberts shared a story with me about a time when she was at a fair, selling her work. “I was wearing my J.R. Taxidermy shirt, and my boyfriend was sitting next to me,” she says. Every single person that approached the stand addressed her boyfriend first with the assumption that he was the owner – everyone except one woman. “I asked her why she knew I was the owner, and the woman said, ‘there’s no way a man would do this.’” The woman was referring to the unique way Roberts presents her animals. The animals Roberts creates are not simply displayed on a log or a rock, as many other taxidermists show their work. She goes all out, creating intricate and artful habitats for the animals. “I like to make it look like it belongs,” she says. This is also why she doesn’t like giving animals fierce expressions. “I don’t like doing things mean,” Roberts says. “Normally you don’t see that in the woods.” One can truly see the realism that she strives for in her work, from the dew drops on the bottom of the deer’s noses to their glossy tear ducts. “The eyes on the animal are what makes the animal,” Roberts says.

Not only is Roberts an incredibly talented taxidermist, but the way she runs her business makes her invaluable to her community. According to Roberts, her customers are “almost like an extended family.” Despite the fact that her work is sold at other locations for three times the original price, she doesn’t wish to move locations and hasn’t increased her prices. “I want to make it affordable for people here who still want that first buck mounted.”

Julie Roberts is a brave and skilled business owner with an immense amount of commitment to her craft. Regardless of how you feel about taxidermy, one step into her shop will convince you that, when done right, taxidermy is an art form. “You gotta love what you’re doing when it comes to this otherwise it becomes a job,” she says. For Roberts, taxidermy is anything but a job. It’s her “hobby turned into a passion.”

Hunting for Numbers

$5 billion is a lot. Let’s put that into perspective. If you made a dollar a second starting from birth, you would not reach $5 billion until age 158 ½. Jason Kemper, a member of the NYS Conservation Fund Advisory Board and an avid hunter, stated that $5 billion is also the total amount of consumer spending done by hunters and fishers in the state of New York. Shocked by this statistic, I dug through surveys and reports to confirm. What I discovered was a passable amount of state-by-state data and an utter lack of regional data, which needs to be collected and analyzed before we can draw conclusions about the influence of hunting on the Adirondack economy.

The 2015 NYS Comptrollers Report corroborates Kemper’s $5 billion estimate, and the figures it uses come from a 2011 US Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife Associated Recreation. The largest portion, 53%, is spent on travel, food, and lodging – expenditures which help to boost local economies. Equipment, licensing, and permits comprise the remainder of the $5 billion. As Kemper said, “yeah, it’s a big business.”

Not only is the money from hunting and fishing aiding local businesses, but the purchasing of licenses “supports the operation of the State’s 12 fish hatcheries, the assessment of game fish and animal populations, the creation of fishing access sites and the enforcement of fish and game laws,” according to the Comptroller’s Report. The report goes on to explain that funding extends beyond the protection of game species, and is also allocated to the “protection of endangered species, protection of wetlands, wildlife pathology, biodiversity mapping and assessment of threats to aquatic habitats.” Kemper refers to hunters as “the original conservationists of the country.” Whether or not hunters and fishers realize it today, their license purchases ensure that the link between conservation and hunting remains.

Needless to say, I was/am highly impressed by the economic and ecological impact of hunting and fishing in New York State. It wasn’t until speaking with Phil Terrie, board member of the environmentalist group Protect the Adirondacks, that I placed the economic impact within the scope of my Adirondack focused project. “Hunting is still a big business in NYS, but not in the Adirondacks,” Terrie says. He spoke of a decrease in revenue, licenses, and gear purchases over the last 20 years. This is where things get complicated. No such regional data exists – or at least that I can find/ have access to. This is a problem. It’s also a problem that a 2015 NYS Comptrollers Report needs to rely on data from a 2011 US Fish and Wildlife Service National Survey. In order to make the most informed policies and personal decisions, we need accurate and up-to-date data. If anyone has such a data set on the economics of Adirondack hunting and fishing, please share in the comments.

A List of Misconceptions

It’s a typical sleepover in my sleepy, rural Ohio town. I’m at a friend’s house and have been assigned the task of fetching ice cream from the garage. I push open the freezer chest and smell it before I see it. The scent is sour and vaguely metallic. The source: a dismembered deer carcass/definitely not ice cream. Hunting was not uncommon growing up. During school, the boys wore their camouflage hats and on walks in my backyard woods, I’d often find shotgun shells. In the spring, the sounds of lawn mowers and mail trucks were punctuated by my neighbor’s shotgun. Although I had never actually been hunting, I considered myself more knowledgeable than the average person on the matter. When I sat down with Rocci Aguirre and Emily Liebelt from Adirondack Council and avid hunter and Saratoga County Director of Planning Jason Kemper, I was overly confident of my baseline knowledge on the culture, rules, and appeal surrounding hunting. Here were my biggest misconceptions:

1.It’s just a leisure activity that people do for fun.

There is a cultural identity that is associated with hunting, particularly in a place like the Adirondacks that contains multigenerational hunting camps. “Hunting is a really important piece culturally for these rural communities,” says Aguirre. He labels people who identify a core cultural value with hunting as “lifestyle hunters.” Kemper shared similar views, calling hunting “a way of life.” This way of life tends to be passed from generation to generation. “Dad did it. Grandfather did it,” says Kemper. “Hunting camps are epicenters of coming of age,” says Liebelt. “It’s a glue for some of these families, and is bigger than just hunting.” The act of hunting, which sometimes involves literally sitting on a small square for eight hours, can foster a “real identity and bond of that shared experience. It’s camaraderie built through hardship,” says Aguirre.

It is true that not all hunters are “lifestyle hunters.” Aguirre and Liebelt use “forest to fork” hunters as an example of people who participate in the activity, but for perhaps different reasons. But as Liebelt describes, for many people in the Adirondacks, hunting can be used to understand and contextualize the world around them: “Hunting is their metaphor for life.”

2. It’s all about the kill.

I was surprised to hear from both Aguirre and Kemper that hunting, for them, is not centered around killing their prey. “For me, I just like being outside,” says Kemper. A lot of the time when he hunts, he doesn’t even end up killing an animal. For Aguirre, “it’s really about understanding the ever changing puzzle.” Aguirre explains the intense study of the natural world required for hunting. “You have to pay attention to wind to noise to weather. Hunting is not how much you take off the land, but how much you interface with the land.”

That being said, although for Kemper and Aguirre, bagging game isn’t the primary reason for hunting, Aguirre warns that ”the killing part should always be something you’re conscious of. I’m always grateful for the gifts that are given, and I take time out of the process to acknowledge the spirit of the thing I’m trying to harvest.”

3. Hunting in other places is the same as hunting in the Adirondacks.

Prior to speaking with Kemper and Aguirre, I had a singular vision of what hunting was: sitting in a tree stand, wearing camo, for hours upon hours. Yes, this sort of hunting does exist, but the Adirondacks are appealing for a totally different form of hunting. According to Aguirre, the low deer density due to the forest type in the Adirondacks promotes a rugged hunt that requires tracking and following deer. “If it snows, you’re tracking deer and carrying it out for miles.” This particular brand of hunting is “unique to the Adirondacks, and brings a lot more tourism than people think,” says Aguirre.

4. You just shoot it and take it home, no problem!

Wrong! “There are so many checks and balances in place,” says Kemper. First, you must have a hunting license, which requires not only an annual fee, but the passage of an educational course. There are additional permits and privileges that cost money, such as bow hunting and deer management permits. Once you have your license, there are limits on how much and when you can harvest. Kills must be reported to the DEC, or else you can lose your license. If you wish to sell a pelt, you need a DEC stamp approving it.

All of these regulations seem great, but I was curious as to whether hunters abide by them. Kemper informed me that violations occur everywhere, not just the Adirondacks. “A couple of bad apples ruin it and take away from the reputation of other hunters.” The same could be said of any form of recreation. “It’s no different than having a party on top of Marcy,” he says. Kemper also points out the fact that “the sporting community pays for the officers that patrol us.”

In conclusion, let’s be open!

During our conversation, Kemper mentioned problems facing hunting education courses. “We have the lowest hunting related incident rates in the nation,” he says. New York State puts so much emphasis on safety, and the courses are packed. However, anti-hunters will sign up for courses and not show up the day of the class, simply to prevent others from attending. To me, it’s sad that people seek to prevent adults and kids from safely learning about a culturally rich recreational activity that not only brings people into the outdoors, but teaches them to really observe and study the natural world around them. Kemper suspects that anti-hunters exist due to “a lack of understanding.” Aguirre says, “people always place their own value judgments on the act of hunting…and all that does is make you defensive.” I don’t think it’s possible to eliminate value judgments, but at the very least, we can gather information by listening openly to make the most informed decisions.