St. Joseph taxidermist’s work a ‘far cry from stuffing’

Photos of deer eyes hang above Eric Kibler’s work area so he can refer back to them.

By Angelica Lavito

Once the hide is ready, Kibler glues it to a plastic deer head similar to a mannequin used to display clothes in retail stores. He must carefully move the skin to its correct anatomical place to “recreate nature,” as Kibler said.

“It’s a far cry from stuffing, isn’t it,” Kibler said, refuting the common notion that taxidermists simply stuff an animal.

With hunting season underway, customers are starting to pour into Kibler’s shop in St. Joseph. Halloween usually marks the beginning of the busy season as temperatures drop and hunters hit the woods. By the second week of November, he had a backlog of 18 deer to mount.

Kibler charges $600 per mount, a price he said is higher than most, but one that he believe is reasonable because customers are paying for quality. He follows the proper procedures when preparing the hide, explaining that a mount won’t last if a taxidermist takes shortcuts.

“It’s kinda like anything else. If you buy cheap, you get cheap,” Kibler said. “Quality comes with at least some kind of a price.”

With the quality of technology today, Kibler said there is no excuse for taxidermists producing “garbage.”

Kibler has done about 25 pieces for Robie Pruitt, his friend of nearly 20 years. Pruitt thinks Kibler’s devotion to quality over speed is what separates his work from others’.

“When he does a mount, it’s going to last a lifetime,” Pruitt said. “I mean, he takes all the proper steps, and his artistic ability — which is unbelievable — makes him so good at what he does.”

It’s Kibler’s artistic ability that helps him bring the deer back to life.

He uses clay to build muscle tissue under the antlers and around the eyes. He uses paint to make the ears pink inside again and redefine the mouth. He uses modge podge and black paint to recreate the texture of the deer’s nose.

But it’s the eyes that require the most attention.

“Obviously when someone looks at a mount, if the eyes look good, the rest of it can have flaws everywhere, but they’ll look at it and say, ‘that deer looks alive,”’ Kibler said. “So if there’s one place to make sure everything looks right, it’s obviously the eyes.”

Kibler uses a dental tool to gently tuck the skin into a clay slot he creates around the glass eye. He then creates the deer’s tear duct and adds a replica nictitating membrane, a third eyelid that all animals have.

Kibler guesses that 75 percent of taxidermists don’t bother to add the detail.

“It’s like, why wouldn’t you do that? I mean, 15 seconds and I’ve got it put in place and just replicated nature a little bit closer, which is what you’re trying to do,” Kibler said.

Three pictures of a deer eye hang from a shelf next to Kibler while he works. He considers studying deer anatomy critical to creating quality work.

He began his studies when he was 12 years old, and now 56 years old, he has never stopped.

“I mean, it’s like anything else. It’s always learning, learning, learning,” said Kibler, now 56. said. “You’re never too good that you can’t learn something else.”

Kibler grew up hunting and fishing with his father. At 10 years old, he saw pictures of animal mounts in his father’s outdoor magazines and wanted to learn how to create them.

One day, he saw an advertisement for a mail-order taxidermy class and asked his parents if he could take it. They told him to wait until he was 12 years old, and if he was still interested in the class, they would order it for him.

“And my mom said they never heard another word out of me for two years,” Kibler said. “When I woke up on my twelfth birthday, I came out of the bedroom and went in the kitchen and asked if they’d buy me the taxidermy class”

The class was “horribly vague,” but Kibler began mounting small animals such as fish, quail and pheasants. Once he began deer hunting in his early 20s, Kibler began mounting deer for himself and his friends.

When he and his mom went to the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships in Kansas City, they saw the work of Joe Meder, a man from Iowa who won best in the world. A few years later, Kibler took a 3-day course with him.

About a month and a half later, Kibler mounted his first deer and entered it in the Illinois Taxidermist show. He won first place.

Kibler took his mount to another show in Iowa about a month later. He won first place again.

At the show in Iowa, Kibler’s instructor encouraged him to take feedback from the first two judges, mount another deer and bring it to the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Competition.

Kibler followed his instructor’s advice. He won third place in the world with the second deer he ever mounted.

“It placed me on the map in the taxidermy industry,” Kibler said. “You know, people heard about me.”

Kibler continued entering his work in shows for a few years, but eventually stopped to focus on his part-time taxidermy business. Preparing a mount for a show can take 60 to 80 hours, while preparing a mount for a customer can take six to seven hours.

Kibler works on his taxidermy every day after he gets home from his day job. But once archery season starts, he’s away from his one passion most weekends focusing on his other passion: hunting.

“I hunt a lot,” Kibler said. “This paying is for my playing.”

Kibler’s wife of five years, Kathy, supports his weekends away, helping process deer that customers bring in and stir the salt brine, which she calls the “witch’s brew.”

She said some women would ask if they’re more important than their spouse’s hobby.

“The answer’s always going to be no, you know, because that’s what they do,” Kathy said. “It’s their passion, and you can’t take away somebody’s passion.”

But not everyone supports hunting. Kibler said he frequently receives posts on his Facebook page condemning hunting and taxidermy.

Kibler doesn’t let much of his deer go to waste, saving the meat and skin.

“It’s not like we’re out there shooting animals and just letting them be,” Kibler said. “We’re utilizing everything — I utilize more than most. I save the skins and mount them.”

Kibler takes pride in his work.

He still has to add more details once the glue dried, but he steps back to admire the trophy.

“Looks pretty nice, don’t he?”

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