Story Of A... Taxidermist
John Pyles, 50, of Orlando, has crafted a career out of living the still life.
“Sometimes my wife catches me looking at our cat and says, ‘Don’t you get any ideas,’ but that’s how I am inspired. Looking at how live animals move—their stance, the curls of their feet. This allows me to make them much more realistic.”
Pyles has been a taxidermist for 35 years. He started at age 15 as a protégé of famed taxidermist L.H. Weise, from whom he learned the ropes—or should we say, hides.
“My clients, mostly hunters, give me their hides and antlers. I send the skins to a tannery, and we refrigerate them when they come back. The next step is to purchase a mold. I place the skin over the mold like a mask, mount the antlers and finish up with the eyes—they are the hardest part.”
The eyes are made of glass and purchased from a third-party vendor. Pyles crafts the facial expression by using a puttylike substance around the eyelids. The emotion of these departed animals is what makes them realistic.
Pyles deals with the emotional connections of his clients as well. “I’ve done domestic pets—cats and dogs. Pets are like family members to them. Clients will come in with an old picture, but it’s hard to match it with an older or damaged hide. Their pets will never look exactly like they did in the picture. They usually want their pets in a lying-down position.”
Pets aren’t typical. In his studio, off Silver Star Road, he is surrounded by white-tailed deer, an Alaskan moose, an African water buck, impalas, a caracal, a zebra, and warthogs—just to name a few animals.
The largest job he’s ever done: the head from a 15,000-pound elephant for a retired basketball player. “We had to hang it on a massive wall with structures around it to keep it sturdy as we mounted it. The elephant was from a safari trip and cost around $18,000 to do.”
Pyles has done work for politicians and celebrities from all over, but his main business comes from hunters and museums. You can check out some of his work in the middle of the Orlando Science Center. Look for the birds, the ones that don’t fly.
“I’ve been flown down to a Puerto Rican zoo to take a look at a request to do a chimpanzee. The chimp had died, but lived at that zoo for a long time. The zoo wanted to honor him. Unfortunately, the hide of the chimp wasn’t taken care of, so it couldn’t be done.”
“Some people say it’s horrible to stuff animals. I don’t think that’s true. It’s a way to honor them. It also can be a reminder, where families can relive hunting trips with loved ones. Once, I was eating at a restaurant with a couple of people. One of them questioned what I did with dead animals as he ate his chicken wings. How ironic is that?”