By Rick Epstein
I met Dan Wyant the day after a Somerville woman accidentally crashed into his father's '50 DeSoto while it was parked near Dan's Lebanon Township taxidermy shop. So I wrote two articles – one about the car's demise and another about Dan's enterprises. He arranges hunting adventures into places like northern Canada, and then, after the animals' hides and horns are brought back, he reconstructs them.
Usually I write articles that draw their juice from the enthusiasm of the people involved, but the Wyant stories tapped into my own interests and memories.
Here I remind myself of the first-graders I saw who were interviewing Alexandria Township's Harry Swift recently about his pumpkin farming. Most of them were asking good questions like: "How many pumpkins have you grown in your lifetime?"
But every so often, a kid would go autobiographical and say something like, “I have two cats.”
So hoping not to be sent to stand in the corridor, I'll skip the tale about the motorist who crashed into my '52 Ford in Frenchtown 30 years ago, and reach further back to 1962 to my boyhood ambition of being a taxidermist.
I was 11 when my mom gave me a Classics Illustrated comic-book bio of Theodore Roosevelt. I still have it. On Page 4 it says “He learned to stuff animals and he kept a record of every new animal or bird that he saw.” And there's young Theodore seated at his desk among a snake, a bird and a frog.
A half-opened pocket knife on the desk and a mysterious canister in his hands are obviously part of his taxidermy process. “Welcome the Roosevelt Museum of Natural History!” the boy is telling his parents.
I would do that, too!
When I caught a sunfish at a church picnic, I put it in a jar and brought it to my sixth-grade teacher for advice. He knew enough about taxidermy to tell me to discard the fish and start with something easier. Then I found a big owl in the woods, dead but otherwise in fine condition.
Cause of death? Destiny.
My mom bought me a scalpel and a how-to book, and I went out on the back porch and tried to skin the owl. Those professional owl-skinners make it look easy. But after an hour or two I had a half-peeled owl and tattered pieces of feathery skin. I buried the whole mess in the back yard.
A couple weeks later, some neighborhood boys found a fresh fox carcass in the woods. My next client!
But the kids kept it as kind of a pet for several days, and when they finally gave it to me, the fox had gone bad. My mom made me bury it next to the owl.
So while young Dan Wyant was up in Bloomsbury taking a correspondence course in taxidermy and doggedly mutilating squirrel after squirrel to build his skills, I changed direction and became an animal undertaker, finding and burying a variety of birds and rodents in the back yard.
Career-wise, it would prove to be a dead end.