A bear growls silently in Burbank.
Standing about 10 feet tall on its hind legs, a dirty-white polar bear glowers at pedestrians who wander past him. But he does not advance, nor does he seem to notice the lions, lambs, deer, buffalo and alligators stationed near him in the large picture window.
At first glance, the scene in the front of Bischoff's Expert Taxidermists shop in the 400 block of San Fernando Road appears surrealistically realistic. The stuffed and molded animals seem to have a life of their own, with expressions that range from ferociousness to surprise to affection.
But it's a bizarre indoor zoo where the animals cannot be fed, or even petted.
Props and Stand-Ins
The people who run Bischoff's say it is the largest taxidermist service and shop on the West Coast. Although they do regular business with hunters and sportsmen, the shop specializes in being the "taxidermist to the stars," supplying animals to motion picture and television studios for use as props or stand-ins for real animals that may not take too well to direction by humans.
"Face it, it is much easier to cut away to a shot of an angry fake bear attacking someone, than having a real bear get mad and attack," said Michael O'Donnell, 30, the manager of the shop. "In quick cutaway shots, it's hard to tell the difference."
Among the credits accumulated by the animals at Bischoff's are movies such as "Doctor Dolittle," "Psycho," "Psycho II" and the upcoming "Psycho III," and television shows "too numerous to mention," O'Donnell said. Some of the life-size deer appeared in "Red Dawn." The polar bear, which is the centerpiece of the store, has been featured in episodes of "The Addams Family," "Remington Steele," "Mannix" and "Quincy."
Working Since '60s
"He's been working since the 1960s," O'Donnell said. "He has a longer film career then most actors."
Often, it's even difficult for people passing by the shop to tell whether the animals are real or unreal. "One father recently brought his little girl to the front of the store and kept telling her it was going to get her," O'Donnell said. "She got real frightened. The animals also get strange looks from old ladies."
The animals are displayed in a room that is the size of a small sound studio. Several endangered species of birds, fish and fowl adorn the walls and floors. Almost every foot of the display area is inhabited by a creature of one species or another.
'I Really Enjoy It'
In the rear of the shop is an even larger area where the animals are prepared by a three-member staff. Everett Wilkins, 64, who creates most of the legged animals, will shape a mold made out of urethane or a similar material, and stretch the tanned hide over the mold. Expressions and stances are meticulously posed.
"You have to be a little bit of everything--a carpenter, an artist, a gamesman," said Wilkins, who has been at the shop since 1950. "I really enjoy it. I'm a hunter myself, so this is fun, more like a hobby than a job."
O'Donnell stressed that animals are not killed just to be stuffed. He said the shop works closely with the state Fish and Game Department, and permits must be obtained for the hunting of animals before they can be mounted.
Makes Own Animals
Of course, the shop also specializes in making its own animals. The alligator who bit off the villain's hand in the recent action hit, "Romancing the Stone," was actually a fiberglass creation with a remote-controlled head that was made at the shop. The alligator that Michael Douglas was trying to keep from going into the ocean from the fortress in the film's climactic action scene was actually just a latex tail.
The expressions on the mounted animals seem so lifelike that even O'Donnell said that he sometimes imagines that they are really alive. But they stay motionless at their stations all through the day.
Maybe when the lights are out at night. . . .