On the walls of pubs across Australia, in man caves and rumpus rooms, and in hunting stores, you will see Gary Jorgensen’s work hanging for all to see.

Some may find a dead deer head above the fireplace confronting, while others see it as a trophy of achievement.

The people who practise the trade of taxidermy are few and far between in Australia, and the industry has always been one shrouded with secrecy. 

Each practitioner has their own techniques that they have spent many years developing.

The process of skinning an animal; splitting the eyes, lips, nose or ears so that the tanning chemicals can penetrate in just the right way; sculpting and fabricating to get facial and body features in shape – if another taxidermist were to discover the way you complete a piece, you could be out of business.

Which is one of the reasons Gary found it so hard to first get into the industry.

He had a love of animals from a very early age and was always fascinated by taxidermy. When he decided to make it his full-time profession, Gary began cold-calling all the taxidermists listed in the back of a shooting magazine to see if anyone would teach him the necessary skills. No one was interested in helping the young man.

The last person on his list, like the rest of the taxidermists he had called, flatly refused. So for six weeks in a row, every Sunday night, Gary called the taxidermist’s number to tell him that this was what he wanted to do with the rest of his life and he desperately wanted to be trained. The skilled professional got so sick of Gary calling up that he finally agreed. Thirteen years on, they’re the best of mates.

One of the best things about being a taxidermist for Gary is that “it’s out of the ordinary”.

“It’s different from being a plumber or an electrician; there’s 30 of those in each town. Whereas our sort of trade there’s one every 1000 kilometres.”

While he trained he was able to hone his skills by practising on many exotic animals including bears and tigers. 

These days, working out of his backyard shed in Rockhampton, most of Gary’s commissioned work is pigs, deer, fish and crabs. These are the types of animals that regular people are able to hunt or capture themselves.

Occasionally people do approach him about working on a beloved pet that has recently died. He discourages them though as it is extremely difficult to make an individual animal’s likeness to what they remember their pet to be.

Many of the materials involved with taxidermy can be purchased overseas, but Gary chooses to makes most things himself, as it is a lot quicker and easier.

“It’s just a matter of trial and error making things. If it doesn’t work, try and try again,” he says.

Trial and error can come at a cost though. Gary has heard of a few horror cases with other taxidermists that make him a touch cautious with his trade. 

He knows of one man who put a knife into his own eye when he was trying to cut through a tough piece of skin with too much upward force. Another he heard of in Tasmania had his spine punctured, when he was transporting a finished deer head in the backseat of his car. The driver behind him hit the car with so much force that it sent the antlers flying through to the front seat.

Gary considers himself lucky that he’s only ever had a few stitches here and there, but nothing too serious. Working with chemicals, saws and knives can be a dangerous business.

“There’s always a risk of cutting something or losing something,” he says.

Gary would like to work with every animal on the planet if possible.

“There’s a whole world of things that haven’t been done. It’d be good to touch a little bit from every country. Not that I want to see all these animals die for the cause of taxidermy, I’d rather see them running around of course.”

Originally published on ABC Open and screened on ABC News 24.

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