With the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition setting its sights on Charleston this weekend, one question hangs in the air like smoke wafting from the hot barrel of a gun: How can the victorious hunter commemorate his (or her) conquest with something more substantial than a few bowls of venison stew?
Enter A.O. Freeman, owner of Freeman's Safari Taxidermy in Ladson, who in a 45-year career as a taxidermist has stuffed more animals than a Care Bear factory.
Stuffed, actually, isn't the correct term for what Freeman, 65, does. And those who use that particular piece of jargon "don't know anything about taxidermy," according to the man who's mounted everything from cougars to Cape buffaloes.
No, there's no stuffing involved in a taxidermist's work (a common misconception); rather it's a process that involves skinning game, tanning its hide, placing the treated skin onto a glue-covered, animal-sized-and-shaped mannequin, and sewing the whole thing together.
Touch-up painting and other aesthetic enhancements — such as glass eyes and dental work — are also common tricks employed by taxidermists to ensure the lifelike quality of their craft.
At the end of the process — which lasts from weeks to months depending on a number of factors, including the type, size, and condition of the animal — customers receive a vivid memento from the hunt. And that, according to Freeman, is what taxidermy is all about.
"It's like someone wanting the last ball some ballplayer hit," Freeman says of the desire to have a boar's head or bass hanging on the wall. "It's a trophy for them. It carries them back to a place and time."
Freeman knows of what he speaks. He and his wife, Sue, hunt together regularly and have made four trips to Africa in the last several decades. Those forays to the Dark Continent have yielded 60 animals — everything from zebras and giraffes to Timon and Pumbaa — and a lifetime of memories.
Freeman's studio is a monument to his work with both a rifle and a sewing needle. It's a large, wood-paneled chamber with a towering ceiling, and almost every inch of wall space is covered with mounted wildlife from around the globe. There are bobcats and bears, wildebeest and rattlesnakes, antelope and kudus. There's a herd of deer (waiting to be picked up by customers), a gaggle of bears, and some fantastic foxes.
"When we went to Africa, Sue shot as much as I did," Freeman says, referencing his wife's haul, which includes a six-foot-plus giraffe's neck that minds one corner of his trophy room. "One day she'd take pictures and I'd shoot, and then the next day we'd switch."
"She's a good wife, bo," Freeman adds. "I wouldn't get rid of her."
Outside Ravenel, another Lowcountry taxidermist is just starting to make memories of his own. Kenneth Cordray is a 22-year-old Clemson graduate who made his initial foray into taxidermy just two years ago while he was still in school.
Cordray has watched his business flourish since moving back to the area last May. And he now has his own setup at his family's farm, which is also home to a meat processing plant.
"It made sense to me," Cordray says recently as he stands in his tanning room, surrounded by still-wet deer hides that dangle from hooks. "It's a one-stop shop where people can bring their venison to get it processed and have their deer mounted at the same time."
Preserving memories isn't cheap, of course. A typical deer shoulder mount — the most common piece taxidermists are commissioned to do — starts at about $400. For further context, Cordray charges $350 per foot for a full-body alligator mount, while a Lord Darby Eland will run you $16,600 at Freeman's.
Unlike some states, though, South Carolina doesn't require its taxidermists to be licensed. All that one really needs, aside from the appropriate business paperwork, is a desire — and presumably the accompanying skill — to mount animals as trophies.
A prime example is Dan Pernell, owner of Pernell's Taxidermy in Summerville. In 1968, at the age of 12, Pernell shot a duck, but was unable to come up with the funds to have it mounted. Instead, he ordered a taxidermy course out of a wildlife magazine and did the work himself. The results were less than impressive. "It looked like something that had been scraped off I-26," Pernell says.
But Pernell improved over time, as numerous state and regional awards attest, and now he, his wife, and son have a combined 65 years of taxidermy experience between them.
That type of skill polishing isn't uncommon among taxidermists, a majority of whom consider what they do to be a form of art. Though there are no state licensing laws for their trade, many in the field — Pernell, Freeman, and Cordray included — regularly attend seminars and workshops in an attempt to keep up with the latest trends and practices. Pernell and Freeman will both have booths at the SEWE, as well. Freeman will be stationed at Gaillard Auditorium, while Pernell is going to set up shop under a pavilion at Brittlebank Park.
"I'm always looking to improve," says Freeman, who is both a Safari Club-certified master measurer and qualified by the U.S.D.A to import birds and animals into the United States from outside the country.
There is also a S.C. Association of Taxidermists, a loose-knit group that provides taxidermists across the state with a chance to trade ideas and tall tales at conferences it hosts throughout the year.
Perhaps one idea Freeman will share at the next convention is his still-rattling rattlesnake. Among the myriad critters in his studio, Freeman directs visitors to pay attention to a snake he mounted years ago. As take a closer look, Freeman, from across the room, presses a remote control button that sparks to life the snake's trademark vibrating tale and sends guests scurrying.
Thankfully, if there's one thing Freeman has learned in his years as a taxidermist, it's restraint.
"I don't do that to old people," he says. "It might give them a heart attack."