The Young Taxidermist of Alberta

Where some see barbarism, Levi Wiebe sees connection.

Summer, 2017 / No. 39
Photography by Litia Fleming
Litia Fleming

Levi Wiebe, in the Top Notch Taxidermy showroom. ”Most people think it’s such a dark art,” he says.

Coaldale, Alberta, is a small southern town that not only puts up its Easter decorations at the beginning of January, but also leaves its keep christ in christmas signs hanging alongside them. Top Notch Taxidermy is one of the town’s largest buildings in which hockey isn’t played. Founded in 1987, the studio has grown into one of the country’s most successful full-service taxidermy studios, meaning it tans, mounts, and stages animal hides. Its Web site features dozens of photos of prize-winning productions, set on a black background littered with multicoloured fonts. Most of the photographs are of animals, but the occasional human sneaks in. These anthro-photos are taken in the immediate aftermath of the kill, the hunters still dressed in camouflage, making their heads looked unattached and mounted on the backdrop—a foreshadowing of what will soon happen to the accompanying deer, elk, or otherworldly antelope with long, corkscrewing horns. There also are photos of Kevin and Kelly Wiebe, the studio’s husband-and-wife owners, and of Levi, their son and heir apparent.

Top Notch’s highway-facing wall features a looming two-storey mural of Canadian big game, from which a five-metre-high ram head surveys the streets.

I pulled in front and asked a passerby if I could park on the road.

“Park where you want,” she said. “It’s a free country here,” her last word turning a truism tongue-bitingly political.

At 8:45 a.m., the winter sun already had resigned to failure. I grew up in southern Alberta, and recently moved back, from Vancouver. I realized how quickly I’d grown accustomed to West Coast comforts. Here, the air is so dry it hurts, and as I walked from my vehicle, the wind blew my eyes into glass. At the studio’s front door, I peered up at the ram and felt it not so much looking at but through me.

A robotic chime sounded as I entered, and Levi emerged from the back, smiling as he introduced himself. He was wearing a plaid shirt with the top four buttons undone. I, too, had opted for a plaid shirt that day (one I’d lain out the night before, a midnight substitution for my first choice of a plain white collared one), but mine was buttoned to the throat.

Levi guided me to the showroom, which was crammed with more than a hundred and twenty-five individual displays of wildlife. High on the showroom’s eastern wall, between the caribou and rams, was an ibex. I once wrote a short story about an ibex, but had never seen one in real life. I was unsure if this counted.

“They live in Europe, right?” I asked Levi, recalling my story’s French countryside setting.

“They do,” he said, “but I got this one in Kyrgyzstan.”

Kyrgyzstan is a former Soviet satellite. I heard “Kurdistan,” the war-torn region of northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

“Levi, isn’t it, like, super dangerous there?”

“I suppose, but I was fine.”

“In Kurdistan?”

“Yeah. Kyrgyzstan.”

“Isn’t isis there?” I asked.

Levi shrugged: “They’re everywhere.”

“But, like, mainly in Kurdistan.”

“In Kyrgyzstan? Really?”

“I thought so. But I don’t know a lot about Kurdistan.”

“Neither did I,” he said, “until I went.”

We paused, both aware something was wrong, but not sure what.

“So what did you do there besides hunt?”

“Saw some historical sites. I also enjoy city centres—markets, mostly.”

His casual bravery confounded me. While the United States infantry had altogether abandoned the region, Levi was strolling through its bazaars, asking directions to ancient cities, nibbling pecans, and sniffing grapefruits.

“Did you stuff the ibex yourself?”

Levi nodded.

“I wanted him as I found him.”

I thought he meant alive, but, as he explained, he meant atop a cliff.

I looked up at the animal, its protracted horns almost touching the showroom’s ceiling. Its hooves were perched precariously on a shelf of fake rock, and if its eyes hadn’t shone with such confidence, I’d have worried the animal might slip and plummet onto us.

I was so taken with the ibex that I almost missed the sasquatch. It appeared to swagger across the showroom floor—mounted mid-stride, arms swinging, like the infamous photo—an impressive assembly of shoulder, neck, and bad teeth. It towered over us, at eight and a half feet tall, half the size of Michelangelo’s David, but twice as impressive.

“He’s for sale,” Levi said, “and we’ve had a couple offers.”

He told me the asking price was fifty-thousand dollars, an amount that might seem exorbitant in another province, but was perfectly reasonable here, especially when marketed to a uniquely Albertan demographic: Prairie royalty. Prairie royalty live like they simultaneously have all the money in the world and none at all. They own three trucks, a couple of motorbikes, and property in Fernie, but they haven’t seen an optometrist in ten years. The men wear wrap-around sunglasses, go shirtless at the gym, and wield an inordinate amount of power in provincial politics. The women dress like endangered animals and have the most beautiful hair imaginable.

I caught Levi watching me scribble this into my notebook, and I snapped it shut with shame. The more I stared at the sasquatch, the more I saw its value: why spend hundreds of thousands on an Emily Carr painting when you can’t even drape your distressed leather jacket across its muscular arm?

The showroom’s southern wall held the decapitated heads of more than twenty pronghorn and mule deer, as well as a bison, a moose, a black bear, and some turkeys—breathless, every one. In the centre of the floor, an adult bull elk strutted across a base of deadfall and grass. Levi pointed at the small stage and told me this is called “habituating”: the taxidermic inclusion of the ecosystem. I asked him where the foliage comes from.

“We get the driftwood from a family cabin,” he said, brushing his hand through a sprig of grass. “And for the wildflowers, I’ll spend a weekend in the coulees with a pair of scissors.”

At twenty-eight, Levi Wiebe was only a year older than me. But standing beside him, I felt like a child. It was only when I restrained myself from casually propping an arm atop the elk’s rack that I realized how badly I wanted him to like me.

“You’re a vegetarian?” he asked.

I had no idea how he knew this.

On the western wall was a collection of African animals. I gaped at the wildebeest, gazelles, and antelope. I asked what they were called. Levi listed their species, and I realized he’d misunderstood me. I’d meant their Christian names.

Modern taxidermy emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century, closely mirroring the Victorian era’s own rigid and lifeless moral structure. The term “taxidermy” derives from the Greek taxis, meaning movement, and derma, meaning skin. The combination of these terms shows that the animal’s husk composes only half the art: the insinuation of movement is what differentiates the craft from simple preservation. The tanning, embalming, and dehydrating of pelts has been practiced for an unknowably long time, but none of these styles of preservation consider the charisma of their animal subject as taxidermy does.

The profession of taxidermy, from the time of its conception, has attracted the bizarre, the enigmatic, and those with an oddly empathetic relationship with the wild world. There’s the American Carl Akeley, the father of modern taxidermy, who once was mauled by a leopard but managed to beat it to death, then carried the big cat back to camp and taxidermied it himself for a museum exhibit. There’s the British Rowland Ward, who literally wrote the record book on big game trophies. More recently, the Swedish Monica Silfverstolpe laboured so long on restoring a road-kill lynx she slipped a red cardboard heart into its chest before stitching up the sternum.

Like all fine art, taxidermy has its own parlance. A finished piece is not a “stuffing” but a “mount”; an animal is not “hunted”—or, as I’d observed to Levi, “murdered most foul”—but “taken.” The verb “to naturalize” expresses the taxidermist’s objective in depicting the animal as sentient, and in this sense, a successful mount conveys the self-same sentience the animal previously was believed not to possess, thus making it killable.

In Top Notch’s backyard sits a tiny, sloping garage—one that, if you closed your eyes, you would no doubt remember from the nightmares of your childhood.

“It’s going to smell in here,” Levi said as he reached for the doorknob.

The hinges whined theatrically, and we were greeted by a darkness so thick it seemed liquid. Levi’s warning was apt. It did smell. Pungent and acidic, like an old folk’s home: not of death, but rather of life preserved past the point of death.

Levi found the light switch and the fluorescents flickered on. In the centre of the room was a wooden table worn smooth by years of oil oozed from skin. Off in the corner was a separate shower room with a drain gaping grotesquely in the concrete floor. All around us, on the whitewashed walls, hung mounts finished but forsaken by their owners, the bills unpaid.

“This is where,” Levi said, slapping the table with his Ove Glove hand, “we salt the skins.”

“Do you skin the animals yourself?”

“No,” he said. “Hunters dress them in the field. When you kill, like, a mountain goat, it’s usually too heavy to piggyback down a ridge.”

I was about to ask what exactly a hunter would dress a dead mountain goat in, but Levi had moved on.

“We salt them twice and then put them in here.”

He turned to a door behind him, which I’d assumed was an emergency exit, and tapped in a pass code. We walked into a cold storage room, dark except for the light that seeped in behind us. As my eyes adjusted, I saw uncountable rows of steel shelves packed with rolled-up skins. Instead of being astonished by the sheer scale, I was struck by how small they were. I approached a hide, which Levi told me was a mule buck. An animal that weighted over a hundred kilograms had been reduced to a couple of softball-size pieces of skin.

Levi left the storage room as I stood locked in thought. I scampered after him, terrified the door would latch behind him and the horror movie of my life would begin.

“Once the skins are rehydrated,” he said, back at the table, “we pickle them.”

Against the wall were three vats, within which sheets of fur were floating.

“They soak for a bit, and then they’re tanned.”

As Levi explained the tanning process—something to do with shrinking the follicles to hold each hair—my gaze wandered to the abandoned taxidermy. A fox, a couple of fish, some geese. All of their eyes, dusted by time, held a look of utter betrayal. Why did you do it? they seemed to say.

“Any questions?” Levi asked.

I pointed to one of the abandoned salmon (trout? tuna? shark?) and asked if it’s trickier to mount fish.

“No, but we don’t do fish anymore. It got too . . . I dunno.”

Levi glanced at my notebook, my pen quivering with anticipation.

“You know how fish people are.”

I clicked my pen. I nodded. I knew.

I assumed that after the tanning stage we would flee the garage, but I was mistaken.The true terror was yet to come.

“Most skin,” Levi said, “is too thick to be worked. So this tool”—he patted what looked like a small band saw—“is called a flesher.”

Levi, boasting the mime skills of a mid-century Frenchman, proceeded to demonstrate how he holds the skin taut against the spinning blade. I could almost see the make-believe hide turn transparent between his calloused yet dexterous hands.

Earlier, Levi told me that his long-term girlfriend (they met in high school) worked at the University of Lethbridge. As a result, Levi often attends university functions and rubs suited shoulders with donors. Watching him toil in a shed destined to be featured on one of Canada Post’s Haunted Canada stamps, I had a hard time imagining him in any other habitat.

“At those university functions,” I asked, interrupting his demonstration, “what do you tell people you do for a living?”

He seemed confused by my question.

“I tell them.”

“But doesn’t everyone ask the same stupid questions?” I wondered, not realizing at the time that I had been asking the same stupid questions all day, including, “Do you skin the animals yourself?” “Do the skeletons stay in?” and “Do you stuff pets?”

“I appreciate the chance to tell my story,” he said. “Most people think it’s such a dark art.”

Keats believed beauty occurs through the unification of contradiction: a snowstorm in the desert, a horse with wings, a God that both saves and slays. There are two sides to Levi Wiebe—the side that spends all afternoon in the Badlands sun, snipping wild sage, and the side that returns to the shadows and hunches over his flesher, his hands full of menace and tenderness.

We exited the garage. I chose not to ask what the shower room was for.

Photograph of Top Notch Taxidermy by Lita Fleming
Litia Fleming

Some mounts are “habitated”: the taxidermic inclusion of an ecosystem.

Back in the main building I received a tour of Top Notch’s well-lit workshop, where the cured skins are fitted onto forms made of polyurethane foam the colour of jaundice.

“Do you ever think of the factory in China that makes these things?” I asked, as I tossed an erect meerkat between my hands.

“They’re made in America, actually,” Levi said.

He showed me the supplier’s phone-book-thick catalogue. I flipped through the glossy pages and looked at every species that made it onto the ark. Each furless animal seemed startlingly human, whether it was a cougar reposing or a dingo pouncing or a koala nestled into a forked trunk. When I mentioned this, Levi told me of the time he naturalized an adult male baboon, and how his stomach squeezed as he gloved the primate’s fingers onto the awaiting hand.

“Have you ever seen a black bear without skin?” he asked.

I let the question linger.

“Not that I remember.”

“They look exactly like us,” he said, “especially if the head is gone.”

Skinning an animal, such as a black bear, is surprisingly simple. The animal is rolled onto its back, and a shallow incision is made from anus to jaw. Another cut runs from each hind heel, up the thigh, returning to the anus. For the forearms, a crucifying cut is made from the chest to both palms. Most hunters then fracture off the feet, and the hide is peeled from the body. A thin rind of fat underlies the dermis, making the entire process near bloodless, as the black pelt is pared back to reveal a saintly white corpse. The final step is to guillotine the head at the Atlas vertebrae. Top Notch’s clients are afforded a generous amount of mutilations thanks to Levi’s talent. He can conceal knife slips and hacked edges within the fur’s natural folds, and can purse the lips of puncture wounds. On his workbench was a warthog (one collected by his mother) perforated with so much buckshot that when you held the hide to the light, it resembled a map of the constellations.

A mould will never suit a skin perfectly, so to best sculpt the musculature Levi sandpapers away some parts of the foam while moulding clay onto others. Once the body fits, he sews the hide in place and slips in a plastic nose and ears to substitute for cartilage. A pair of glass eyes is inserted, and at this point Levi glues on eyelids and must consider the ethos of the piece. A bison bust should convey calm power and therefore have a lid that rests low on the eyeball; a bugling elk would have a slightly recessed lid; and a wolverine mid-maul would have full rings of white around the iris. A centimetre off and everything rings false.

Once the skin sets, final adjustments are made, and the nose is painted with a fine-bristled brush.

“Do you paint the eyes too?” I asked.

“Kind of,” Levi said, and led me to a toolbox brimming with different-sized eyes, all of them shining and useless. “I take a micro-brush and touch on a water-based gloss to make them look wet.”

Everyone has seen bad taxidermy: the moulting fur, the tortured posture, the impotent growl. Worst of all is a failing of the eyes—not just a lopsided but a lifeless gaze, one that betrays the stuffing inside. The care Levi takes in perfecting the eyes affirms his belief in an animal’s inner self, that it is possible to brush a spirit into a dry stare. That’s why Top Notch doesn’t mount pets: it’s not that your best friend would look soulless, but rather it would have the soul of someone else.

Top Notch recently has ventured into the replica antler market. When a particularly prized buck is collected, the hunter may request a reproduction of its rack. The reproduction is created by coating the original antlers in a chemical substance that gels into a wobbly mould. Another chemical substance is poured into this shell and allowed to harden, after which the mould is husked back to reveal the twinned set of antlers. Once a replica rack sets, Levi airbrushes the faux bone. If the antlers are pre-rut, he also affixes velvet. The final product is indistinguishable from the original. But who wants fake antlers?

“Usually hunting partners,” Levi said.

As we sat at the store’s desktop computer he brought up a photo of four deer heads, each with a rack that could hold a hipster’s hat shop worth of fedoras. “This,” he said, wiggling his mouse over the deer at the far right, “is the original.” He told me a story of a hunter who one season found the shed antlers of a record buck. He and a friend tracked the buck for the entire next year, finally collecting it while it wore a new season’s rack. The original shed antlers were mounted on a deer head that was donated by a hunter who only wanted the animal’s meat. Levi then duplicated both sets of antlers, and each replica was attached to other donated heads.

“He wanted both himself and his hunting buddy to have the antlers that brought them together,” Levi said. I couldn’t help but think it would’ve all been easier if the two men had just said they loved each other.

The popularity of false antlers baffled me. The prevalent defence of taxidermy is that it immortalizes memory—Levi himself used this defence when I asked why he needed to kill the ibex—but doesn’t this defence disappear when the memory is manufactured? If a photograph can’t substitute for a kill, why can a chemical creation? When I asked Levi this, he rubbed his face.

“It’s not that simple,” he said. “Someone else would’ve killed this buck, and they wouldn’t have had such a connection with it.”

Back on the computer, Levi showed me a close-up of a fake antler.

“I don’t like to use the word ‘perfect,’” he said, “but it’s not far.”

It was the only time all day he hadn’t been humble.

Photograph of Top Notch Taxidermy by Litia Fleming
Litia Fleming

Levi Wiebe paints the eye of a bull moose.

Earlier, in the shadow of the sasquatch, Levi told me about the toll killing takes on him.

“The animal doesn’t always die right away,” he said, “and it’s sad.”

“So why do it?”

He told me about older hunters, like his grandfather, who’ve had the ardour wither within them. He told me about placing your hand inside paw prints. He told me about standing over an animal and weeping. He told me many things that didn’t answer my question.

“Wouldn’t it be easier,” I asked, “to just stop?”

“Sometimes I want to,” he said, running a hand through his hair, “but it’s hard to explain.”

I turned back to the sasquatch and noticed that even though I stood at ball-level, the beast was sexlessly smooth—like Milton’s angels. Perhaps we would all be holy if we were born without passion. Because isn’t it the nature of passion to reveal our best and worst selves, mounted for the world to see?

“Do all hunters get sad?” I asked.

Levi said no, a few do it just for the blood.

How could he tell the difference?

“Something in their eyes.”

There are those who find taxidermy barbaric. Some days I am one of them. Consider the Minnesota dentist, or the B.C. huntress Jacine Jadresko, or the Jeep I once passed in the backcountry with a slack-jawed wolf strapped to its hatch. Levi told me he has a giraffe bust on the docket. Some airlines have adopted a ban on the “big five” animals and no longer transport lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, and Cape buffalo hides. In August, 2015, during the fallout from Cecil the lion, Air Canada announced its participation in the ban. Several international airlines still fly the Big Five, but their only Canadian stops are Vancouver and Toronto, so hunters must now truck their kills into Alberta.

Stencilled on Top Notch’s front wall is a quotation from Elgin Gates, one of the most prolific hunters of the twentieth century. Gates, in defence of trophy hunting, wrote it “is a more noble and fitting end than dying on some lost and lonely ledge where the scavengers will pick his bones, and his magnificent horns will weather away and be lost forever.” Levi took great solace in this quotation. I read it with suspicion, even contempt. Levi saw the statement as a vindication of his life’s work, but I couldn’t get past how the logic assumes the animal shares a human view of the afterlife—that it looks down from hyena heaven, at its mannequined body snarling from above the lintel, and thinks, “Frankly, Elgin, I’m honoured.”

Levi and I ended our day in Top Notch’s staff lounge, replete with a Keurig, pool table, and antler chandelier. The lounge was located in a loft above the showroom, overlooking this Albertan archive of the world. The busts and bodies seemed small from this vantage. The black bear was more diligent than savage, the bucking wildebeest more fraught than free. The wall of deer heads stared like Shakespearean kings killed for their crowns. Even the sasquatch looked delicate enough to love.

I asked Levi what he was most proud of. “Your ibex?”

“No,” he said, “my sheep.” He told me the story of how he and his father trekked for days through northern Alberta, having already failed for seven years straight to put a bighorn in their sights. He pointed to a ram skull on the ground and in the corner. The white simplicity of it.

How wonderful to have met a person who so dazzlingly surpasses your expectations. Someone thoughtful, well travelled, and who considered the aesthetic implications of art on a nine-to-five basis. People amaze me. They collect dragonflies, buy white bread for pigeons, and name their cats after dead prime ministers. People fishtail on the range roads to take a picture of a pronghorn in the distant soy. They wear fake fur jackets and red leather boots. They grow patio avocados. They invent astrological signs like a mountain-serpent sea-goat all to understand fate. People limbo, scuba, and downward-dog. People love something so much, they rip the skin right off it.

Is it the act of killing we find distasteful, or is it the reminder?

I consider what I have killed: a couple of fish, insects, a dozen mice, and a chipmunk my dog caught, broke its leg, and lost interest in. I suppose also the hundreds of farm animals that came from my twenty-three years of omnivorism. And those chickadees I hit while driving. That gopher (slingshot), that sparrow (badminton racket), and that frog (my bare hands). How far should I extend this: to the oil slick that smothered the seal, the six-pack ring that noosed the turtle? The list is longer than I’d assumed, and I hold taxidermy responsible for this mortal accounting.

Taxidermy is, at heart, the art of consumption. It is the art of greed made tangible, of watching the arrowhead of geese migrate across the sky and wanting to hold them still and suspended and forever yours. If the aim of art is to communicate a human soul, then perhaps taxidermy is the most honest art form we have, as it speaks to our base desire: to keep what’s beautiful, beautiful—and find a way to be close to it. Who amongst us cannot extend King Midas a certain level of mercy? Who would keep their hands to themselves if they knew there was a golden world out there, all within reach, just waiting to be touched?

I took the secondary highway back to Calgary, as the wind dragged long lines of snow atop the asphalt. A couple of kilometres ahead of me, a coyote jogged across the road. I pulled over to watch it. It was making its way west, trotting into a shorn wheat field, but no matter how far it got, I could still track it.

What versions of ourselves should we present to the world, and what versions should be hidden or subdued or abandoned in some haunted shed? What to consume and be consumed by? It’s a choice that gets my hands wringing in the time-honoured tradition of those who do not fully know themselves. But it’s a choice Levi made when he first hovered above the flesher, thinning his skins until the sun shone through.

I watched the coyote for so long that entire lifetimes seemed to pass. But after rubbing the water from my eyes, I realized what I’d been staring at was a distant boulder. The coyote had long disappeared.

Richard Kelly Kemick is a National Magazine Award–winning writer living in Calgary. His debut poetry collection, Caribou Run, was named one of CBC’s fifteen must-read poetry collections. Last updated summer, 2017.