Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Do not say that Rick Smith stuffs dead animals. He mounts them. That’s what taxidermists do.
Smith is the cheerful owner of A+ Taxidermy in Henderson, a shop that mounts plenty of deer and elk heads and pretty much everything else — musk oxen and wallabies; sharks and goldfish; arctic wolves and pit bull puppies; house cats and white tigers. This being Las Vegas, he’s done three tigers and is about to mount a fourth.
Smith paid his way through college by hunting, which led him to taxidermy for extra money. After graduation he changed directions a bit (human embalming) and, what with one thing and another, Smith didn’t get back into taxidermy until nine years ago.
He has sets of little plastic drawers, the kind most people keep fishing lures or screws in, filled with glass eyes. There are eyes for deer, bison, moose, trout, bass, marlin, pheasants, parakeets, cats, big dogs, little dogs, blue-eyed dogs, cows ...
Cow eyes? Who has a cow’s head mounted?
You would be surprised, Smith says.
“There’s always a story. I had one guy who bought a bull, bought it for breeding, twenty-five hundred bucks, and he had it two weeks and it twisted a gut and died,” Smith said. The man figured he had to get something out of the bull, so he brought Smith its head and its scrotum, the latter to make a drawstring purse, “what they call a possibilities bag.”
Another client wanted his elk head posed in full bugling — that is, posed as if it were making the bull elk’s distinctive screaming and grunting call — and wanted the mount complete with realistic resin slobber drips about a foot long. “It looked really cool, but you’d have to have a really understanding wife, I think,” Smith says.
And then there are the pets.
Pets, Smith says, are an important part of his shop’s business, a buffer against bad times, a comfort to the grieving and a rock in the shoe of his life. Dead pets are trouble.
Pet owners know their animals and are pickier about their poses than hunters are. Besides which, he ends up owning a few of the pets he mounts.
People who have just lost a beloved pet are emotional and are quick in deciding to have their chums mounted. But taxidermy is not quick. When freeze drying a dog, it can take nine months or a year for all the frozen water to sublimate into vapor. By the time the animal is ready, the owner may have moved on or rethought mummified companionship.
So Smith asks for payment upfront with pets. Three times, he has broken his own rule, usually for sad children, and accepted credit or a payment plan. “I’ve been burned every time,” Smith says.
This is why he’s been stuck with a cat posed in a cat curl with a flicking tail and wearing a pink dress (the owners’ choice). He still has hopes that another customer will fetch his recently cryodesiccated Pekingese.
“People say to me, ‘Are you ever going to have your pet done?’ ” Smith says.
“I say, hell no, I’m going to have ’em cremated like everyone else.”