Walking into Bruce Tadeyeske’s taxidermy shop is almost like stepping into a natural history museum. Dozens of wild animals from around the world greet you at the entrance and showcase Tadeyeske’s skill and attention to detail in his work.
They also reveal his inner Teddy Roosevelt; he’s an avid hunter with a true love of nature.
“I came from a hunting family and started dabbling in taxidermy at the age of 12,” he said. “We were always out bird hunting. So I took some correspondence courses on taxidermy — it was a lot of trial and error.”
Tadeyeske, 58, is perhaps the busiest taxidermist in Whatcom County, producing hundreds of wildlife mounts and skins every year. He often works 10-hour days, six days a week in the shop on his Custer homestead.
Fall is especially busy, since that is hunting season for most North American game. Last year he did a 72-day stretch without a day off. But work is never too grueling when it’s something you enjoy.
“I get burned out occasionally, but after a couple days off, I’m ready to go back into the shop,” he said. “I love what I do. It’s who I am — I’ve been at this for so long.”
After teaching himself the basics of taxidermy, Tadeyeske got his first job at a taxidermy shop when he was 17. He would work after school and on the weekends, constantly honing his skills.
At 19, he landed a dream job working for the Milwaukee Public Museum.
“I was the youngest full-time staff member in the taxidermy department,” Tadeyeske said. “It was a scary position to be in.”
Tadeyeske had always been interested in African game, and seeing the African wing of the museum only whet his desire to go there. But that opportunity wouldn’t come until 1999 — “once our kids moved out,” he said.
“Pretty much every year now I go over there. I’ve been pretty lucky,” he said. “I just love being over there. It’s everything — the sights, sounds, smell, culture. And most guys can’t imagine the amount of game.”
Tadeyeske’s hunting trips take him to South Africa, where he has developed a relationship with a local hunting outfitter that guides clients on safaris and will prepare the skins and antlers for mounting.
“There’s so much prep work to make them look good,” Tadeyeske said. “Skins have to be taken care of in the field. The skinning is the foundation of everything.”
If a hunter doesn’t take care of the animal skin, then it’s harder for Tadeyeske to make a good mount. Sometimes he even turns down clients because of the poor quality of the materials they want mounted. No amount of taxidermy tricks can fix a poor quality skin, he said.
But there are a few tricks that can make a mount look lifelike; Tadeyeske pays special attention to the eyes and ears. The eyes are made out of glass and require precise positioning.
“It’s always the eyes that make it look good. If you mess up the eyes, you’ve lost it,” he said. “I’m rarely ever satisfied 100 percent with what I’ve done. I can count on one hand the pieces that I feel like I’ve nailed it. But there’s nothing perfect in nature.”