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A Dying Art

Joe Thomas remembers more than 50 years of taxidermy

Michelle Gienow
Joe Thomas shows off a deer form in his basement workshop.

By Andrea Appleton | Posted 2/17/2010

It's the time of year when Joe Thomas eats a lot of deer meat. Spaghetti and deer meatballs, deer liver and onions, deer steaks. Maryland's hunting season just ended, and, at 82, Thomas still has a firm trigger finger. He also uses those steady hands to bring dead animals back to life, or at least the appearance of it. He's stuffed heads, shined noses, painted fins, and poised legs in the taxidermy shop at the front of his Fells Point home since 1954. As he's gotten older, many of his friends have died --as have his enemies, he likes to point out--but he remains surrounded by familiar furry faces.

A-1 Taxidermist Thomas--formerly known as Thomas Taxidermist, until its owner noticed he wasn't getting top billing in the Yellow Pages--occupies a small storefront on Eastern Avenue, catty-corner to Patterson Park. Ring the bell and Thomas, a plainspoken man in oversized glasses and a plaid shirt, shuffles to the door. Inside, you're greeted by a glassy-eyed audience of deer, squirrels with nuts in their mouths, pheasants, fish of all varieties, and a number of crows with Baltimore Ravens stickers affixed to their outstretched wings. (Under a federal migratory bird act, it's illegal to hunt or sell ravens.) Seashells, butterflies, and numerous skulls line the walls, as do less orthodox artifacts, such as a lamp with a base made of deer hooves, an enormous stuffed (fake) gorilla, and a heart-shaped painting of a buck in a field flanked by the two mounted halves of a doe's head.

Thomas himself is gruff and to the point with strangers, but get him talking and the imp emerges. He's fond of jokes, particularly about the odds he'll outlive his children. And his stories tend to turn on outrageous pranks he's pulled off. (Like the time he retaliated against loud neighbors by installing giant speakers in the walls and blasting polka music for 24 hours straight. His young daughters slept with earplugs and earmuffs.)

But his work life has been a little dull lately. Last year was the slowest he's ever had.

"Everybody's not working, they're unemployed and all," Thomas says. "It's been real tight." Some regular customers have called to tell him they're putting their deer heads in the freezer until they have the money--about $400 for a shoulder mount.

Thomas doesn't care much about the recent drop in revenue. He put in 42 years at Baltimore Specialty Steels and has the retirement benefits to show for it. (His wife Lucille, who passed away in 2000, tended the shop when he was at the mill.) But he likes to keep busy, and with only about a dozen mounts to do a month, he's restless.

Still, there are entertaining moments. One day, while Thomas was chatting with a reporter, the phone rang. Thomas picked up the receiver.

"What kinda cat?" he asked after a pause. "Is it mounted or freeze-dried or something?" Another pause. "Oh I don't wanna fool with that. You're gonna have all kind of carpet beetles."

He hung up. "Well that was a first," he says. Turns out that the woman on the phone had a pet cat, and she was very fond of this cat. She was so fond of this cat that she'd held on to it after it died. It had mummified all by itself, but now its ears had broken off and she was wondering if Thomas might be able to help.

It's not the weirdest request Thomas has ever received. He claims he's fielded calls from people wanting to preserve dead babies. "I told 'em, 'No, that's illegal,'" he says. "Any kind of human bones, they're protected."

He does have a photo album full of unusual mounts, including a number of full-size dogs--and one head of a bulldog, fastened to a wooden plaque--as well as peacocks, ocelots, spider monkeys, greater kudus, buffaloes, bears, parrots, and one stillborn llama. (And then there are the novelty pieces he's done upon customer request, like the two-headed squirrel and the mouse holding a cat on a leash.)

Thomas flips through the album and stops at a faded picture of a smiling young man holding a mounted shark. The fish is standing on end, and towers over him. "That's a 9-foot mako shark from Ocean City," Thomas says. "The whole neighborhood had shark steak."

The young man in the photo is Thomas' son John at 23 years old, and it is the last picture that was ever taken of him. He was murdered hours later, in a bar down the street. "That's a skin mount Johnny did," says Thomas, rubbing the photo with his thumb. "People don't do that anymore. It's all fiberglass now."

Thomas first became enamored with fish, fur, and fiberglass during World War II. In 1945--long before he'd stuffed his first squirrel--he was drafted. To his surprise, the Army sent him to Newfoundland. His job was to travel from one Army post to the next with a movie projector and a pair of scissors. "I traveled on this one-track train from one end of the island to the next, stopping at each outpost, showing 'em a movie and cutting their hair," he says. "It was one of the best jobs on the island."

Thomas met many locals as he traveled. Once he tacked eight white sheets to the side of a barn in a rural village and projected a documentary about trains. "They showed the train coming out on the screen and the first three rows of kids took off running because they thought the train was gonna run 'em over," Thomas says. "They'd never seen a movie before."

And then, he met a Newfoundland man who was a taxidermist; he showed Thomas a beautiful snowy owl that he'd mounted. Thomas was intrigued. After the war, he came home to Baltimore and met Lucille Drymala, his wife-to-be, at a candy store. They were married not long after, and Thomas signed up for a correspondence course in taxidermy. The extra money grew increasingly necessary as the Thomas family expanded; the couple eventually had eight children, four boys and four girls. At first, Thomas practiced his art on squirrels and other small animals.

One early practice mount was a dead cat he spotted on the street and paid a boy 10 cents to retrieve. "The kids used to play with it," he says. "And the insurance man, he says, 'Man, that's a good cat. I come here and it's always sittin' still.' He thought it was alive."

Thomas gradually built up a steady business, mounting animals in the hours he wasn't at the steel mill. Some of those early customers have stayed with him. He hunts on a dairy farm in Baltimore County, and has done taxidermy for the farmer's family for decades.

Curtis Childs is part of that extended family. "The Thomases take good care of us," Childs says. "I know guys who have waited a year and a half [to get a deer mount back]. I'm looking at one I have hanging on my wall that I shot in November, and I have it back already."

But taxidermy, like hunting, isn't as popular as it once was, and many of the exotic animals Thomas once worked with now have protected status. Thomas gave up larger projects, like full bear mounts, about a decade ago, and the slack economy has diminished the deer shoulder mounts--his bread and butter. But he still does full-size mounts of smaller mammals, and those can be lucrative. He charges $450 for a beaver, $120 for a gray squirrel, and $275 for a wild rabbit. Rabbit skin is particularly thin, and it's difficult to clean out those big ears, Thomas says. He inserts a plastic ear liner into the original ear once it's been scraped clean, in effect replacing the cartilage.

His basement workshop is a fascinating jumble. Styrofoam deer forms hang along one wall, bulging with faux muscle and tendon. Dozens of spools of thread in earthy shades hang in rows from the low ceiling, over neat tiers of tools. Lengths of stainless steel wire for supporting and positioning delicate parts, like bird legs, are clustered in a row of cubbyholes. The room is full of cabinets with tiny drawers, each with its own label: fox eyes, squirrel eyes, tusks, teeth.

Thomas opens a chest freezer and pulls out a large piece of cardboard with a flat beaver skin frozen to it. Its front legs are hidden underneath, its back paws splayed behind. Its thick brown fur glistens with ice crystals, and its tail is missing. Thomas arranges a Styrofoam form of an upright beaver, a baggie of yellow plastic beaver teeth, and a dense brown foam tail on his workbench. A pair of yellow glass eyes sits in a nearby drawer. But first, the pelt must thaw for a few hours. Thomas slowly makes his way back up the stairs.

Despite his age, Thomas has no intention of retiring. "I can't just sit around," he says. And he has a lot of help, just as he's always had. He put his children to work at an early age. On a shelf near his front desk sits a small ruddy duck his oldest boy, Joseph Leo, mounted at the age of six.

"We all had a hand in it," says daughter Carol Thomas, 52. During summer vacation, she remembers, the Thomas kids had to make hollow papier-mâché forms for mounting deer and fox heads. They lined the two halves of a mold with paste and paper, let them dry and joined the halves together.

"We'd put them on broomsticks and set them out in the yard to dry," she says. (These days, Thomas mounts animal hides over pre-made Styrofoam forms. The forms come in a variety of species and sizes, and can be trimmed down if necessary.)

The younger Joe, now 59, still helps out around the shop, as does Michael, 58, who mounts all the fish. But most of the fish on the shop's walls were done decades ago by the late John Thomas, including three tiny guppies. They are "skin mounts," a challenging method in which the actual fish is used in creating the mount, rather than a fiberglass replica.

Nearly 60 years of working with dead animals has left Thomas with a macabre sense of humor. Some years back, he took it upon himself to arrange and pay for his funeral. He chose a coffin, and somehow convinced the staff at the funeral home to let him lie down in it for a photo. "It was comfortable," he says, laughing. "But when you lay in there, they got those bubbles from the plastic, and they were popping under me."

Thomas hopes that when he dies his kids will remember his coffin stunt and feel better. In one picture, his eyes are closed and he's lying still, decked out in an elegant suit. In another, he's laughing and waving a white cloth at the camera. "Here I'm a holding a handkerchief out for my kids to cry," he says. "The reason I did that is the kids are so close to me. To make it easy, that's what I always tell 'em."

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