The Skin I’m In: Inside the Lives of Maine’s Master Taxidermists
December 17, 2012
“Did you ever have a cat?” Tom Berube asks as I sit next to him in his workshop in Poland, Maine. When I arrived at Tom’s Avian Taxidermy at around ten in the morning, Tom had a small red squirrel half skinned and hanging by its feet from hooks on a moveable arm. But now, less than thirty minutes into our first meeting, Tom has the squirrel’s skin completely separated from the body. The hide is turned inside out and pulled taught over a large flat wooden stick, while the squirrel’s carcass, red and sinewy, lies gleaming on top of the Sports section of the Lewiston Sun Journal.
At sixty-two, Tom Berube is five feet eight inches tall, slim, and balding. Under his formidably sized nose, he wears a snow-white mustache finely groomed downward into pointed tips. While Tom works, he looks intently through large aviator-shaped eyeglasses with amber-colored frames. The glasses magnify his small, pale blue eyes. He whistles intermittently to Celtic music as he scrapes away at the squirrel’s hide using a heavy metal “fleshing” tool. “Fleshing,” I am told, is an integral part of the taxidermy process; it involves stripping away the fat and muscle from an animal’s hide. Forget to “flesh” and your mount will start to smell, the excess tissue rotting slowly beneath the pelt. I watch as Tom carefully removes all traces of the squirrel’s flesh, leaving behind only the soft, buttery skin.
“Yes, I have a cat,” I say. “My family’s Persian is not much bigger than a Maine red squirrel,” I think but do not say out loud.
Tom looks at me mischievously, then continues. “You know how when you rub a cat sometimes you can see the muscle rippling underneath the skin?”
I try to remain detached. “Yes. Of course,” I answer.
“That’s what this is!” Tom explains. “Underneath the skin is where all the muscle and fat is. You want to get rid of it.”
It became obvious to me within the first thirty minutes of sitting in Tom’s Avian Taxidermy that if you ever had a dead bird worth remembering, you’d remember to bring it to Tom Berube. Tom has turned his workshop into a bit of an avian haven; it’s impossible to turn my head without being met by the marble-eyed stare of some woodpecker or loon. “I don’t know if I have a favorite bird,” Tom says. This seems like a valid statement considering the scenery—I count seventy-five different birds just within eyesight. They sit on shelves, within glass cases, or appear to be flying out of walls.
Despite today’s red squirrel, an unexpected gift he received from a thoughtful neighbor down the road, Tom is best known among Maine sportsmen for his finesse with fowl: crows, ducks, turkeys, geese, owls, quails, grouse, buffleheads, and many other species I have never heard of. The white sign that stands next to the mailbox in front of Tom’s home and taxidermy business, where he has lived with his second wife, Lynn, since 1985, advertises this fact plainly. It reads, “Master Bird Taxidermy,” in large black letters over the name of Tom’s shop.
“I’m not like other people. I’m different and I know it,” Tom tells me one afternoon in his workshop, a meticulously organized and well-lighted converted garage with two picture windows, which overlook the wooded backyard of Tom’s quaint country home. Tom always knows where his tools belong because he outlines them in permanent black marker against the slab of wood where they hang on nails. He has even taken the time to decorate: framed illustrations of natural scenes dress the baby blue walls, along with photographs of Tom with trophy turkeys, feather ornaments shaped like stars, a black-and-white anatomical bird poster, the American and Maine State flags, a rifle displayed above the door-frame, and a saved newspaper clipping announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden. “I’m proud to be an American,” Tom says.
Aside from being an expert taxidermist, Tom is one of those people brimming with random information, like what made the Gettysburg Address so successful, or how to measure the time to sunset using only your fingers and the horizon. “I’m full of all these little bits of knowledge that don’t mean shit,” he tells me. Tom is also a proud father, an even prouder grandfather, a retired metal factory manager, and a born and bred Mainer. His grandparents emigrated from Quebec to work in the shoe factories of Lewiston, where Tom was raised in the same neighborhood as his father. Ever since Tom can remember, he was always out playing in the woods, and to this day he prefers the solitude of rural settings to the bustle of urban life. “There’s certain things you can have control over in your life, and one of them is living in a big city,” Tom says. Some of the things that Tom couldn’t control, however, include watching his mother die from emphysema, losing custody of his two daughters to his first wife, and his brother’s mental handicap. “He doesn’t talk to people much, only the voices in his head,” Tom tells me about his brother, who never leaves the mobile home where he lives down the road from Tom’s shop. Tom checks in on him with groceries once a week.
Although he serves as Secretary for the Maine Association of Taxidermists (M.A.T.), a group of twenty-eight men and women dedicated to providing a voice for the art of taxidermy within the state of Maine, Tom is recognized most often as “The Bird Guy.” He has this nickname embroidered over the right breast of all of his “Tom’s Avian Taxidermy” polo shirts, which he wears tucked into belted blue jeans. Without realizing it, Tom often emulates a bird himself. Speaking of his childhood spent fighting on the schoolyard, Tom says, “You establish a pecking order!” He eats and drinks like a bird, too; he prefers sweet wines in small amounts and claims a sensitive stomach. For breakfast, he might have whole-wheat toast and a hard-boiled egg, saying, “Sometimes if I fry it I have indigestion.” Tom tells me that he’s mounted somewhere between 1,000 and 1,800 birds in his career. He says, “If I could, I’d like to be the best bird taxidermist in the world.”
Regardless of his professional ambitions, Tom is a self-described introvert. “The thing I like least about doing taxidermy is, at times, dealing with the public,” he confides in me. However, every first weekend in April, Tom makes an exception for the Maine State Taxidermy Competition in Augusta, an annual contest organized by the M.A.T. If everything goes according to Tom’s plan, this year he will compete with four of his carefully chosen feathered friends: a Northern Saw-whet owl, a baby duckling, a razorbill, and a wild turkey that he shot himself. But Tom is a perfectionist. With a month to go before the competition, the birds are still unfinished, and Tom will only compete with a mount if he is confident that it will score highly. “I’m not going to enter it if I’m not going to win a blue ribbon,” he tells me, “It just doesn’t make sense.”
For many of Maine’s most competitive taxidermists, the annual M.A.T. competition is like a family reunion. It is a yearly gathering of twenty or so distant but like-minded cousin taxidermists, some traveling from as far as the town of Jackman on the state’s Western Canadian border. Tom sees many of his peers only once a year. These include: Wild Wings Taxidermy’s Paul Reynolds, who by day specializes in bird taxidermy and by night is an officer for the Saco Police Department; Dick Galgovitch of Lisbon Falls, who calls himself a “master of masters” in the taxidermy industry; Denis Doucette, who specializes in animal skull cleaning with bugs from his farm of roughly ten to fifteen million flesh-eating beetles; and Jayne Leslie Dyke, an eccentric redhead who runs Enchanted With Nature Taxidermy Studio out of her home in Harmony, Maine. Jayne was named “National Champion in Large Mammals” by the National Taxidermy Association in 1993.
Along with Tom, Jayne Dyke regularly competes in the Masters Division at the Maine State Taxidermy Competition. By the time there is only a week left before the event, I have heard Jayne’s name mentioned so many times that I decide to finally meet her for myself. On the day before I go to see Jayne, I tell Tom of my plan. Although other taxidermists I’ve met throughout the state have warned me about Jayne’s antics, Tom is polite. “She’s an interesting woman,” he simply says.
When I arrive at Jayne’s, she has the purple front door of her expanded log cabin wide open. From the outside, I can hear Jayne laughing into the phone, while her large black Labrador, MacGyver, barks ferociously at me from where he is chained to a tree. Unlike Tom, Jayne is scattered and disorganized. Her taxidermy workshop is in the haphazard nine by sixteen-foot entry space at the front of her home, where a single window provides insufficient circulation; I have to excuse myself frequently for fresh air. Curled, washed-out photographs of Jayne’s smiling customers cover the shingled walls of her shop, where she works listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio. Behind her workshop, and through the kitchen, is Jayne’s living room, which is also her greenhouse, where plants sit brown and wilting under a plastic sunroof. Boxes of dusty, unused antlers populate the floor of her upstairs loft and sit forgotten on tables in a storage room off the back of Jayne’s house (where she also keeps four pet birds and an old piano). Outside, I spot yellowed and weathering polyurethane animal manikins throughout Jayne’s property; they sit in an open shed and poke out from the windows of her barn.
Jayne built her cabin in the isolated woods of Harmony back in the 1970s with her first husband, Ernie Adickes, whom she married when she was nineteen. Ernie was twenty-eight at the time, and New Jersey, where Jayne grew up, had become too expensive for the newlyweds. Though Maine was cheaper, the family’s living was still rough. Jayne was a stay-at-home mom back then and describes the marriage as a period of “abject poverty.” It wasn’t until 1989, when Jayne and Ernie divorced, that Jayne finally had a septic system installed. The family had been using an outhouse since 1973.
Jayne Dyke was born Jayne Cabeen, but her professional name in the taxidermy industry comes from her second husband, Richard Dyke, who first encouraged Jayne to open her own shop after she took a blue ribbon at Nationals. Jayne’s name at her church, however, is listed as Jayne K, for Bob Kraser, Jayne’s third and final husband. Jayne is single now and signs her checks as something else entirely: Jayne Dyke Kraser, a combination of two of the four last names she has had in her lifetime. “It’s hard to keep all of my names straight,” Jayne tells me. “I have to remember who I am.”
Though I ask Jayne how old she is, she refuses to tell me. “Women have the right to keep their ages secret,” she claims, giggling. Despite her overtly girlish demeanor, I guess that Jayne is somewhere in her late fifties. She wears flared jeans and outlines the lids of her translucent green eyes, which widen when she gets excited, in thick, dark eyeliner. Jayne laughs wildly, without reserve, and twirls her long, wavy red hair around her fingertips while she ponders my questions, balancing her weight on one hip. She drinks coffee, but only if she mixes it with hot cocoa. Every other Sunday, she drives ninety miles to the Dairy Joy in Auburn, where she always has the same order: a double-thick mocha shake with fudge. She decorates her fridge with inspirational bible quotes and pictures of Tom Selleck. She tells me that, “He’s got moral character. He’s not one of these guys that sleeps around.” Jayne also finds his mustache particularly divine. She says, “A kiss without a mustache is like an egg without salt.”
Jayne has always loved animals. When she was younger, she wanted to be a veterinarian, but Jayne and her brother were children of a single, alcoholic mother; the support that she needed to continue her education after high school just wasn’t there. “I’ve had an awful lot of negativity in my life over the years, and there was never anybody in my life who told me I could do something,” she says. “I was never able to keep a job for more than a year.” Aside from her taxidermy shop and the LL Bean call center, where she now works part-time, Jayne claims to have been fired from every job she’s ever had, including jobs at a newspaper, a greenhouse, and several convenience stores.
While Tom has been perfecting his bird mounts for weeks, Jayne has yet to put her pieces together just five days before the Maine State Taxidermy Competition. “I always leave everything to the last minute, I’m afraid. I did the same thing last year,” she admits. Jayne intends to enter two mounts into this year’s competition: a coyote bust and a deer head. But on the afternoon of my visit to her workshop, Jayne wastes time pretending her coyote skin is a hand puppet. She drapes the cape over her arm and uses it to mouth words to me while wondering out loud if the Bondo and lacquer fumes could be rotting her brain. Later, Jayne makes me leave her shop early because she prefers to work alone. “I start to cry because it looks real, and I want to pet it,” she tells me. “I wish more than anything in the world that it was alive.”
When I meet Tom at his house on the day before the competition, he is prepared and excited; it is the day that all of the competing taxidermists must drop off their entries at the Augusta Civic Center, where the M.A.T. and 130 other exhibitors will be setting up for the coming weekend’s Maine Sportsman’s Show. In total, Tom has spent between 85 and 100 hours working on his bird mounts, not including the hours required to skin, flesh, tan, de-grease, and dry the bird skins beforehand. The materials for the turkey alone cost Tom around $180, and there is no money awarded for placing at the competition. He isn’t bothered though. “I know what I like in life, and I know what I want to spend my money on,” he says.
Tom and I arrive at the Civic Center around noon. For the rest of the day, Tom helps with registration as other taxidermists, including Jayne, carry their pieces into the Aroostook Room, a twenty-five by fifty-foot temporary showroom constructed of a few old dingy white panels. Some of the entries are hung on the walls, while others are placed on long buffet tables fit with ruffled burgundy skirts. “Please Do Not Touch” signs printed plainly on stark white paper sit on the tables around the competition room, which is noticeably bare. A meager forty-nine pieces from eighteen different taxidermists have been entered, including eight birds, four of which are Tom’s. “I think a lot of people are not involved in taxidermy because it’s difficult,” Tom says. Jayne, on the other hand, ended up entering a single coyote head (she never finished the deer.) Both Tom and Jayne are this year’s only competitors in the Masters Division.
When the judging starts the next morning, the room is mostly silent; I hear only the buzz of overhead fluorescent lighting and the occasional clearing of a throat. For six hours, I watch as three M.A.T. judges lift animal mounts over their heads or get down on their knees to peer at the larger ones, often with flashlights or through magnifying headlamps they’ve brought from home. One I catch taking a long, deep whiff of a mallard, the feathers pressed tightly up against his nose. “Want to smell?” he asks me, though I decline.
By the end of the judging period, most of the competition pieces are adorned with shiny blue, red, and yellow award ribbons. Later, feeling strongly that no taxidermist should be left behind, the M.A.T. will also pin ribbons on the mounts that did not score highly enough to place. However, both Tom and Jayne have done well: Tom has received a 2nd place ribbon for his razorbill and 1st place ribbons for his owl, turkey, and duckling. Jayne has been awarded a 1st place ribbon for her coyote head, and she has also received the “Best of Show” plaque.
For the rest of the weekend, show-goers visit the taxidermy display. They walk through the Aroostook Room slowly in a single file line. Some enter votes for the “People’s Choice Award” on small slips of white paper. Others take pictures of the animals on their cells phones. But most simply continue out through the door on the other side and into the din and commotion of the Cumberland Room, where a duck hunting video game booth attracts a large crowd.
“I’ve lived my whole life thinking I was a loser,” Jayne says after the competition. “I just feel like I’m blossoming now, finally.” Tom never thought he would make it to such heights either. Of his status in the taxidermy industry, Tom tells me, “It looked [like] it was something way up there in the sky, and I could never even come close to reaching it. And it was called a master taxidermist. But here I am.”
Freerange alum Adriana Widdoes is a recent graduate of The Salt Institute of Documentary Studies, where she completed this project. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Writing and Integrated Media at California Institute of the Arts and is an Editorial Assistant for Black Clock. She lives in Los Angeles.