It's a Living
Keith Hopkins' Trophy Room taxidermy studio recently moved to Riverside after 37 years in Garden Grove.
I can appreciate the art of taxidermy, but the idea of actually doing it sounds pretty grim. Do you ever feel sad for the animal? Or guilty?
I wouldn't say guilty, no. Sad, maybe, sometimes. I think there's something genetic, either you have the hunting gene or you don't. If you don't, there's no explaining it to you. Everything dies, y'know? If you had bugs in your house, you'd get a can of Raid. Those are living creatures. You're killing them. Just because something has six legs and wings, instead of four legs and fur, does that make it better to kill it? I call it the "cuteness quotient": if something's cute, suddenly people have a problem with killing it.
How did you start doing this?
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I'm second-generation. I learned from my dad, after school. I started with one of my dad's birds—one of the less fortunate cockatiels. But I didn't start doing it professionally until I was 30. I was a financial planner for years, but finally I gave it up and went into the business. My dad's retired now, and I'm running the studio.
What drew you to taxidermy?
Well, it's really become an art form nowadays; it's much more creative than people think. Most people still think of it as a barroom novelty, like it was back in the Victorian days. Back then people were putting frogs in little suits, making dogs shave cats in little barbershop chairs, putting them in human poses, making them smile—pretty spooky stuff. The field has changed so much, just in the last 20 years, even. Now the animals look so much more natural. We're sculpting the animal's form and then casting it in foam. There are beautiful glass eyes with individual veins. People are making really artistic bases with grass and rocks. It's like the natural history museum or something.
Do most people want their animal stuffed in a threatening pose, like it was attacking them when they shot it?
That used to be how it was always done. Now with a bear, we'd probably stand it up; a mountain lion, maybe we'd put it in a threatening pose, with the arched back. But usually we're trying to capture the beauty of the animal as it was in the wild. I tell people, "This is something you might be looking at for 30 years." That's as true for a good pose as it is for a bad pose, so you really wanna get it right.
You've done bears. Were those the largest animals you've done?
No, we did a giraffe. We've done elephant heads, hippo heads.
How does somebody get a giraffe or a hippo all the way to you? Do they ship it frozen from Africa?
They don't ship the whole animal. They'll skin it themselves, then just ship us the head, with the skin hanging off the back. Then we'll, uh, decapitate it, for lack of a better word, and get to work.
How long does it take to do all this?
It varies. The skinning doesn't take long, but then we salt dry it for a week or two, and ship it to the tanners, and they keep it for months. The whole process can take a year. I have a lot of work lined up too. I work 10 hours a day, six days a week. Outside California there will be two or three taxidermists in every small town, but California has a different sensibility and there aren't so many of us. The demand is pretty constant. People get impatient.
Are there dangers in what you do?
Well, we're working with scalpels and sharp knives. And deer do carry ticks, so there's the risk of Lyme disease; you learn to watch for the telltale rash. I've never had a problem. If avian flu ever takes root here, I imagine that could be a serious burp in the industry.
Do you stuff a lot of pets?
We used to. I don't like it. It's such a tricky thing; people are so close to a pet, it's like another person. We can create accurate anatomy, and a stranger would say, "That looks just like a cat." But for the owner, it's different. We can't capture the idiosyncrasies.
Has anybody approached you about stuffing a person?
No. It's illegal. I get calls sometimes, but I'm college-educated, and I know when somebody's pulling my leg.
How do people react when you say what you do?
Well, my profession isn't very well thought of by some people. People make jokes. In horror movies, as soon as you see a taxidermist, you know he's the killer. I think that's one of the things that caused my divorce, frankly.
Well . . . she just wasn't into the whole thing. Understand, as a financial planner, I was making very good money. She couldn't understand why I'd give it up to do this. I've remarried since, and fortunately this wife is great about it. She's a stockbroker, but she gets it.
Wow. To give up your first marriage for this, you must be really passionate about it.
Well, in some ways I'm still trying to make up my mind about this job. It's high-stress, people don't understand why it takes so long, the pricing. I wish people understood the demands of this profession.
Does it hurt when people make the Norman Bates jokes and stuff like that?
I try to have a sense of humor about it. I know I'm pretty low on the food chain, career-wise.
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