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Ventura County

Meiners Oaks Taxidermist's Work Is More Than Skin Deep

Business: Chuck Testa insists his craft is worthy of being called art. Bears, boars and other animals are stretched over forms, not stuffed.

January 06, 2002|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chuck Testa whisked the fox hide into his house, dropping it snout first into the kitchen sink.

"I hope my wife doesn't see this," he said, glancing warily toward the door as he rolled up his sleeves and vigorously began to shampoo the floppy hide.

But when he struggled to stretch it over a foam model of a fox, it didn't quite fit. "I call it the last great act of defiance," muttered Testa.

In the Ojai Valley, where eccentricity and creativity flourish, Testa wants to be taken seriously as an artist, something akin to a sculptor. As a taxidermist, he aims to take dead animals and infuse them with the illusion of life, vitality--even a bit of defiance.

Slide open the door of Testa's Meiners Oaks shop and a glassy-eyed menagerie of snarling bears, prowling lions and shaggy bison glare back.

His workshop has an enormous Cape buffalo from Africa, a golden lion and a majestic eland that stands 9 feet tall. There are also wild boars, bears and pythons. But he doesn't do fish, and he's not wild about reptiles.

Testa bristles at those who suggest his animals are "stuffed." They aren't. In fact, they're usually just hides. Taxidermy supply businesses sell models--called mannikins--of pretty much any animal that crawls, flies or swims. The hides usually fit over the models like gloves.

"You have your art supplies like any other artist," said Testa, 45, who was born and raised in the Ojai Valley.

His supplies include a drawer of glass eyes, artificial snouts and several sets of false teeth for merino sheep.

He Strives to Create An Authentic Look

Before it's done, this fox will get new eyes and new teeth. Its paws will be painted and buffed. A duck--shot in Alaska along with the fox--will be inserted into its mouth and a natural background will be created. The bullet holes will be sewn over.

"Getting the expression and eyes right are the hardest part," said Testa, as he studied a fox face in a magazine. "You need just the right attitude."

While his ultimate goal is authenticity, he's sometimes asked to add a little drama.

"I put a snarl on this bear because the client wanted it to look more ferocious," he said, patting the nose of a large black bear staring over his workbench. "I like to mount my pieces as natural as possible. It's an art form to me. I want to see it walk off the table."

Some hunters ask him to somehow make the animal look larger.

"I tell them to go shoot a bigger deer," Testa said.

Taxidermy has come a long way since the days when animals were in fact stuffed with straw and stretched over chicken wire or wood. The words "taxis" and "derma" are Greek for "movement" and "skin"--or moving skins.

There is a National Assn. of Taxidermists, and each state has its own local chapter. There are also international, national and regional competitions. The Western State's Taxidermy Championships are held each year in Redding.

"I think there is a concerted effort by the industry itself to make it more accepted as art," said Tony Finazzo, president of the California Taxidermy Assn. "The overall quality of the work is much better. You are in a competition, not just with other artists, but with animals in nature. You use good composition and balance and present it as an art piece, as a kind of painting rather than a stuffed bird on a piece of driftwood."

Finazzo, of San Bernardino, has won three first-place prizes in national competitions and is deemed a "master taxidermist" by the national group.

Gerd Koch, program director of the Studio Channel Islands Art Center on the campus of Cal State Channel Islands, said taxidermists can indeed be artists.

"There are always people in any creative endeavor who transcend their limitations and take things into another realm," said Koch. "They are showing these creatures' lifestyles. The tableau or background they create is another thing, particularly if they take a unique approach to it. It can be an extremely beautiful and profound experience."

The backdrops can be as simple as a rock or as complex as a forest, desert or mountain environment.

Doing Everything by the Book

When a hunter brings him an animal hide, Testa records his license, where the animal was shot and any permits that were needed. His books are subject to audit by state fish and wildlife officers.

The hide is then tanned, washed, salted and degreased. It's pulled over a mannikin and sewn up by hand. Props are inserted under the ears to make them stand up. Eyes and teeth are put in, and eyelids are created of clay. Often the pelts and noses must be painted.

It could take up to a year to mount a large bear and create its woodland backdrop.

Young animals often have smoother pelts and less scarring. "You are bound by nature," Testa said. "Some animals are just ugly and some are exceptionally good looking. Coyotes are the worst. They are greasy and they stink."

Testa, who supports hunting but doesn't hunt himself, said the number of people shooting animals in countries like Tanzania has grown, and he is getting more exotic wildlife to mount. His clients, he said, come from all over Southern California. He's also done animals for natural history museums.

The work is time-consuming, and finishing a job can take months. He will charge about $800 for the mounted fox. Bears, lions and buffalo can go for $8,000 or more.

"It's a tough way to make a living," he said. "But you get to make something come back to life. I'm like any other artist. I could probably make more money doing something else, but I keep on doing what I love."

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