Out of the wild: local taxidermist brings hunting memories to life

By DeeAnna Haney | Dec 06, 2013
Laura Howell, owner of Howell Taxidermy, molds an eyebrow out of clay for a white-tailed deer mounting.

Working with dead animals may seem like an unusual or even morbid job for a wife and mother. But to Laura Howell, it’s all about bringing the animals back to life.

Howell is one of the few local full-time licensed taxidermists in the county. She works out of the basement in her rural Cove Creek home and has more than 20 years of experience in a job that she truly loves.

From longtime avid hunters looking to hang their trophy buck to children who want to mount their very first deer, being a taxidermist means keeping memories alive.

“You’ve got to be a hunter to really understand the significance of why people want these on their wall,” Howell said.

Her love for taxidermy started when she took an elective class while seeking her degree in wildlife management at Haywood Community College. She later began doing it as a hobby, mounting animals for her husband, father and friends.

But when she quit her assistant teaching job at Hazelwood Elementary School to stay at home with her two young boys, she started taking taxidermy a little more seriously. As her kids grew, she was able to turn taxidermy into the full-time job that it is today.

Over the years, Howell has mounted deer, hogs, squirrels, foxes, raccoons, bear, bobcats and more.Taxidermy is more of an art than anything, requiring artistic talents such as painting and sculpting and crafts such as carpentry and tanning.

“It’s time consuming and a lot of people don’t realize there is skill and artwork to it. It’s not just throwing it together. I am very particular about making them look exact and real. I want it to look the way it did when the person saw it before they shot it,” she said, while sculpting a deer eyebrow out of clay.

In its most basic description, Howell’s job involves removing the natural skin from the animal, placing it over an artificial body and making it look lifelike.

The animals come to her after their meat is already processed, leaving her to work with the skin and the head. Her first task is to get the meat off the hide and then tan it, which takes about 12 hours.

She must prepare the mannequin for mounting, which involves cutting slits for the nose and eyes and setting the glass eyes in just the right way.

“If the pupil is not set at the right angle it ruins the whole mount,” she said.

She admits she’s had some strange requests over the years as well. One of the most common is people asking her to freeze dry their beloved household pets after they die, which she said has become somewhat of a trend. However, it’s not something she’s been willing to do.

“There are taxidermists that do them, but I draw the line there,” she said, adding that she also doesn’t do birds or fish.

Another trend is mounting the skull of the animal with the antlers attached, which she will do. That process involves boiling the head to remove the skin and then bleaching the skull before mounting.

She’s always up for the challenge of working with animals that aren’t native to the East coast. The most unusual animal Howell ever mounted was a badger that was shot out West. She’s also worked on antelope, caribou from Canada and elk. But her specialty and about 90 percent of her work is white-tailed deer.

She’s currently in the throes of her busiest time of the year for her business and her favorite hobby, hunting. Deer season for all weapons is in full swing until Dec. 14, during which time Howell expects to get plenty of requests for work.

Her living room is practically a showroom for her work. A bobcat lounges above the couch, slouching over a tree limb. At least a dozen regal white-tailed deer heads look over the room. At every turn on every wall, animals are coming out of the woodwork, many of which she and her husband killed.

Howell didn’t fall in love with hunting until her husband, Dean, took her deer hunting in Georgia about 20 years ago.

“I think he probably thought I wouldn’t like it, but I just loved it,” she said with a laugh. “He hardly ever goes hunting without me now and I actually get to hunt more than he does now because of his job.”

It’s not unusual for Howell to work the first half of the day and then head up to the family’s hunting club in Cruso for the evening.

Because of her passion for hunting, one of the greatest joys of her job is simply hearing the tales from all of her customers.

“I enjoy it because I hunt. The majority of the people who come in here are men and everybody that hunts wants to tell their hunting story…three or four times,” she said laughing. “I do a lot of listening, which is fun. I love to hear people’s stories, and I relate to them because I’ve been there.”

She especially loves to hear the stories from children who are thrilled to have killed their first animal just like their daddy.

Many large-scale taxidermy shops are up to a year’s wait on a job, but Howell said she tries her best not to take longer than six months at the most. Right now, it’s only a three-month wait. And she mostly relies on word of mouth to get the word out about her work.

“I keep my prices about $50 to $75 under what the big shops charge. I feel like all my customers come back because they like my work,” she said.

For information about Howell Taxidermy, give her a call at 926-8258 or 734-6168.