King of the Mount

by twinink on October 25, 2012

(This article appeared in the Oct-Nov 2012, Hana Hou Magazine)

The fallow deer seems curious—ears perked, nostrils flared. A chestnut-streaked tassel of hair along its neck stands on end. When Gordon Lau takes a step closer, the deer looks like it might bolt. Maybe it would, if it had feet.

Standing in the small workshop attached to the back of his Halawa Heights house, Lau applies a light sheen of eye shadow above the deer’s glass eye with an airbrush gun. He steps back to survey his work, lowering his thick magnifying glasses, the kind watchmakers wear. “It’s looking better,” Lau assesses. “Almost alive.”

For Lau, one of a handful of professional taxidermists in Hawai‘i and the only one on O‘ahu, the technique of bringing the dead to life is not just a career but a lifelong passion, one that runs in the family. “My grandfather taught me the old-school way,” says Lau of his grandfather Kong Sing Lau, a self-made man who hunted out of necessity to feed his family of ten. Taxidermy followed as an extension of his enterprising nature, a way to extend the profits from a kill. “As a kid I used to love going into his shack, where all the hunters would gather with their animals to be mounted,” Lau recalls. “I loved the stories they would tell about how they caught them. It sparked my imagination. And the whole time I’d help my grandfather skin his game.”

Lau proudly displays his grandfather’s 1925 diploma from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy alongside a snarling collection of Lau’s best work: a black bear in mid-strike, a wild boar with glistening razor tusks. While the years and termites have taken their toll, the yellowing diploma is still Lau’s “most prized possession. My grandfather would be happy to know that I took over,” says Lau. “This is what he wanted me to do.”

For many people, taxidermy carries a connotation of the grotesque or bizarre. Like undertakers or morticians, anyone who voluntarily works in close quarters with death is often associated with society’s fringe. “I’m always a little leery of telling people what I do,” Lau admits, “because when they hear, they think I’m some kind of maniac.” Perhaps for this reason it’s all the more surprising to find Lau so affable and sincere—an introvert, yes, but also a gracious and affectionate family man, the kind who marks his kids’ height on the door frame and leaves the marks well after the kids are grown. And he’s understated about his work: “He’s very modest,” says his wife, Leona. “He doesn’t like to advertise, but when you watch him work, you can see the care and pride he puts in. Every hair has to be precise.”

When it comes to taxidermy, you have only one shot to get it right. Once an animal is mounted, it becomes a statue, forever locked in place. It helps then to be both a perfectionist and crackerjack zoologist— a professional observer of animals. Lau will spend hours analyzing the exact number of wrinkles on a growling boar’s snout. “I study the way they look around and position themselves,” Lau says as he adjusts a tendon in the deer’s cheek. “I try to do the best job I can to be naturalistic.”

That’s much easier said than done, especially when dealing with the kills Island hunters leave at Lau’s front door. Lau’s often up late into the night, measuring cadavers, skinning capes, extracting and cleaning skulls. “You don’t want to walk out there at midnight,” Leona quips. A carpenter by trade, Lau bears the muscular, knotted-rope physique of a Shaolin monk and approaches his tasks with the same fastidious dedication. He rises at 5:30 a.m. and works until he’s beat, usually around midnight. When he’s not in his shop, Lau likes to hit the trails behind his house. A former director of the Hawaiian Ultra Running Team, he’ll clock upward of eighty miles a week—mud, rain or shine. “Just look at him,” Leona exhorts, positioning Lau next to a fierce-looking mountain buck. “My old billy goat.”

As a young man Lau spent his formative years in intimate proximity with animals. The Lau family had ranches on the Big Island and chicken farms in Nanakuli, so death was part of everyday life. “I grew up taking care of those chickens,” Lau reflects, “and when they got mature, I’d have to kill and clean them. Gore and guts were just part of my childhood.” His later love for taxidermy evolved naturally from his love for the wilderness. A prize-winning bowhunter, Lau has spent most of his life in the mountains, raising dogs to hunt invasive mammals such as wild boar, axis deer and Mouflon sheep. “When we first met, he took me hunting,” Leona recalls. “That was kinda our thing.” Lau’s hunting days are now largely behind him, but he views the practice as necessary, one that’s even supported by the State of Hawai‘i. Like most local hunters, he targets only introduced species that threaten Hawai‘i’s native flora and fauna.

The word taxidermy is derived from two ancient Greek words: taxis, meaning movement; and derma, meaning skin. In the 1800s the first taxidermists were upholsterers who plumped up dead animals with cotton and rags so that they reassumed their original shape and size. They sold these stiff and expressionless “stuffed animals” as toys for children or as statement pieces for men of a certain class. Modern taxidermists look back on such practices disdainfully, and if you dare refer to their finished work as “stuffed” (the proper term is “mounted”), you risk ending up with your head on their wall. Visit any natural history museum in the world, and you’ll see the level of craftsmanship to which Lau aspires: perfectly mounted flying squirrels frozen midflight, a pride of lions attacking a wildebeest or a group of antelope quietly grazing the savannah.

Lau first experienced this still-life dynamism in the shop of George Lee, Hawai‘i’s premier taxidermist, who ran a store off Kapahulu Avenue in Honolulu for over fifty years. “When I was young I used to go in there and just be amazed.” Being able to walk right up to a bobcat and touch it, Lau remembers thinking, “Wow, this is better than the zoo!”

Taxidermy at this level of artistry is an exhausting process, not for the weak of stomach or faint of heart. As Lau explains how it’s done, he unwraps a once majestic red stag from a large plastic bag. Known as the “king’s trophy” for being the preferred game of British nobility, it’s been shipped to Lau from a local hunter on safari in Australia. It looks today less than regal—more like roadkill. There are numerous, painstaking steps to transforming this freeze-dried carcass into a lifelike trophy. First there’s the fleshing, which involves removing the hide with a paring knife. “Call me crazy, but I love this part,” Lau laughs. “It’s so peaceful.” Next the hide is detoxified in a pickle bath. Then comes the longest stage: tanning and drying, which can take up to three months. “A lot of people send their animals to Mainland tanneries, and they come back dry and full of holes. I like to do my own tanning.” Because not every animal is the same size, Lau orders a custom epoxy mannequin over which he mounts the skin. Lau molds the mannequin into the desired pose, applying sinews of clay to the synthetic bone. This stage requires both a sculptor’s imagination and a surgeon’s understanding of anatomy. Once the cast is ready, Lau applies glue, pulls the skin taut and hand-stitches the hide together. “You have be an artist to do this,” Lau says. “You gotta know how to manipulate the skin and the clay, how to mix and blend colors, how to airbrush. … It’s meticulous work.”

Depending on the size and condition of the animal, mounting can take anywhere from three months to a year. And while a boar’s foot ashtray (a specialty item of Lau’s) might cost as little as $75, a full boar or grizzly bear can run as high as several thousand dollars. With more than thirteen million recreational hunters and over one hundred thousand registered taxidermists in the United States alone, taxidermy is estimated today to be a half-billion- dollar industry—less fringe than one might think. Still, despite the burgeoning conventions, trade magazines and websites—where professionals trade tips on rehydrating a coyote face or how to shampoo a bear—the industry is comprised mostly of small operators like Lau.

Inside his spotless workshop a Malakin cockatoo, a Namibian kudu and a black buck stand guard beside the deer and wild boars. The cockatoo belonged to a wealthy matron who wanted to see her pet bird fly one last time; the black buck’s herd escaped a private zoo and proceeded to ravage Lana‘i’s native forest; and the African kudu crossed three continents and two oceans to reach Lau’s door. Stuffed in a shockingly small cooler, thirty more animals await reanimation. In a high corner tucked beneath the corrugated tin roof, a dozen antlers hang out to dry. Lau takes down two pairs: a small one covered in downy velvet, a larger one twisted and battle-scarred. “Guys always go for the biggest rack,” Lau deadpans.

In his living room hangs a painting of a Native American archer, bow taut, arrow aimed at a wild pheasant. Apart from his mounts, it’s the only art in his house— a reflection of Lau’s sense of belonging to an ancient order. “Sometimes I wish I was born in those days,” he reflects. “There was a kinship with nature you don’t get nowadays.” As Lau applies a light sheen of linseed oil to the fallow deer’s antlers, a mosquito lands on its neck. A second later it zips away, probably disappointed and confused. Even the deer seems to regard Lau quizzically, as though startled to again be alive. Lau rubs its muzzle tenderly. It might seem ironic to those who do not hunt that someone can have such deep, almost spiritual reverence for the creatures he has killed or those he mounts, but to Lau there’s no contradiction. “In my way I try to give honor to the animal,” he says, “to bring back pride.”