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Not-for-Profit, Award-Winning Community News and Views for Windham County, Vermont • Since 2006
Life and Work

Not-so-wild kingdom

From antlers to bears, taxidermist’s shop in Newfane has all sorts of preserved animals

NEWFANE—Antler central has opened on Route 30.

The shop, called the Rustic Moose, opened in May and it stands out in the small mall between Kindle Farm School and West River Valley Veterinary Service. Just look for the sign near the road that’s decorated with moose antlers.

Tom White, taxidermist and proprietor of the Rustic Moose, draws a stream of weekend visitors. Some buy deer antlers and jawbones, while others come in to talk about White’s work and why there seems to be more sheds (see below) in Massachusetts than in Vermont.

The shop is home to hundreds of antlers — deer, moose, elk, caribou — that compete for space with pelts from skunks, fishers (“fisher cat,” White says, is a misnomer), foxes, coyotes, beaver, and the like.

There are natural-like mountings of many animals — like an otter, standing and peering over simulated river growth — as well as less organic designs, such as the gun rack made from bear claws, turned upward and mounted on a snow shoe. 

Not to mention the wine bottle holder made from a cow’s leg and foot.

White says most of the many pelts in the shop are animals he’s hunted or trapped, but he does buy some to resell. He said skunk pelts, at $35 each, are the biggest pelt sellers.

Pale green plastic models, looking like ghosts from Jurassic Park, surround White’s worktable. He uses them to stretch skins into popular positions, such as the shoulder mount. (Taxidermists refer to their work as “mounts,” spurning references to the word “stuffed.”)

On this particular Sunday afternoon, he was affixing the eyes on a shoulder mounted deer head stretched over one of the models.

A mounted Alaskan bear in another room, looking very benevolent, drew an affectionate description from White of a mother bear and two cubs he’d recently seen up a tree. 

“You don’t shoot mother bears,” he said.

The most popular mounted animals are the bears, White said, priced from $350 to $1,200.

An enormous shoulder mounted New Hampshire moose head (alive, it weighed 700 to 800 pounds) dominates the front room. It hangs on the wall above a table full of cookbooks.

“I made [the moose] for a guy and it’s too big for his house, so I’m trying to sell it for him.”  The price is $5,000, and he says he has someone interested. 

White said he has been mounting animals since he was 10, when he stuffed a rat.

“My mother made me throw it out,” he says with a shrug.

In his day job, White works full time as a lumber inspector for Allard Lumber in Brattleboro. He lives with his longtime girlfriend Susan Ballantine in West Dover.

Ballantine is a bookkeeper and also makes mini-mountings — so-called pedestal mounts — of foxes and coyotes. She is also a cookbook collector and has four grown children. She had once been a home health care worker and for about 20 years took care of Janet Greene, one of the authors of the ever-popular Putting Things By, first published in 1973.

White also has a shop in a house he owns in Vernon, where one of his three sons lives. Another son is a salmon fisherman in Alaska and the third works locally as a carpenter.

Born in Brattleboro, White grew up in Dummerston and, after graduating from Brattleboro Union High School, he went into the Army for three years. His father was a career Air Force man.

A large and comfortable man, with a deep, quiet voice, White is an living advertisement for the hunter, trapper and guide.

He carefully sews up a coyote skin, then drops his needle, annoyed because he can’t find it.

And careful he is: his orderly inventory shows that.

That inventory comes from most sources that produce dead animals — hunting, trapping, road kill — and from live animals, so-called “sheds,” when an animals rids itself of one stage of antler growth to make room for another. 

White tells of a baby moose he mounted that had not yet been born when a driver crashed into the mother. The game warden contacted White.

“The baby was moving and kicking and he tried to save it but he couldn’t,” White explained. “I look at what I did as bringing something back to life.”

The mother was butchered for meat.

“We never buy beef.” White said. “We eat moose, deer and bear.”

An exceptionally organized person, White leads guided tours for $1,500 during Vermont’s big game hunting seasons, generally from September to mid-December.

He also owns a camp in Malone, N.Y., north of Lake Placid, and gets there when he can, especially when one of his sons is free. 

“They’re also hunters and trappers,” White said.

Numerous new and rusted used traps and snares are also on display and for sale. White claims most of those traps kill quickly, but concedes that this is not always the case.

“I’ve actually found some of the [trapped] animals sleeping,” he said, adding that he doesn’t think highly of Havahart traps. 

“The animals I’ve caught with those wear out their feet scratching the wire floor,” he said.

Hunting and trapping are significant cultural dimensions of Vermont life. John Hall, information officer for the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department, said that 17,165 hunting licenses were bought by residents and 10,881 issued to non-residents in 2009.

The license permits the hunter to take one deer and one bear during the season.

“The number of hunting licenses is gradually declining,” Hall said. He attributes that, in part, to fewer young people hunting, and “to people doing other things and having less time.”

The license covers general hunting. Special permits are required, for example, for moose hunting. This year, 765 moose permits have been issued.

“I would estimate that 50 percent of those take a moose,” Hall said.

Trapping, Hall said, is very carefully regulated. About 500 trapping licenses are sold and they cover leg-hold traps and those that kill instantly. More arcane rules cover species and trap use. For example, snares are prohibited.

The instant-kill traps are popular with beaver hunters, although other beaver traps that result in drowning are also permitted.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #61 (Wednesday, August 4, 2010).

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