Still Life

 

Let’s say this right up-front: the idea of preserving an animal as a trophy is not for everyone.

Personal beliefs about hunting aside, however, it’s hard not to appreciate the craftsmanship and artistic effort that goes into every one of the pieces created by Northeast Taxidermy, from the smallest birds and fish all the way up to elephants and giraffes. Many animals appear to be magically frozen, merely waiting until the spell is broken to resume their activities.

“I’m very serious about my work,” says the otherwise amiable Joe Pitruzzello, who along with his wife Lowrey, started Northeast Taxidermy in Middletown 35 years ago and has seen it become one of the premier studios in the country; today it employs seven full-timers in addition to the Pitruzzellos. “I realize that I’m not for everyone. I’m very intense, and if someone comes in and I can tell they aren’t as serious as I am about wanting [a piece] to come out great, I’ll pull them aside and say, ‘Look, you might want to take this somewhere else.’” For the cost—fish mounts start at $300, a full whitetail deer is $2,700 and a water buffalo will run you more than $10,000—and effort involved, definite commitment is needed.

This straightforward approach has served Pitruzzello well as his business has grown, with last year being his most successful to date. He classifies the majority of his customers as “upscale clientele,” and estimates that 95 percent of his business is based on repeat customers, which come from all over. “Look around—almost all of the pieces you see here are exotic animals, and not local,” he says as he shows me around the 7,500-square-foot studio (discreetly tucked away in the back of a commercial park), where dozens of mounts are in various states of completion. A zebra, lion, alligator and all manner of antelope/deer/creatures with antlers are being sewn together, fitted on mannequins or having finishing touches added. A mountain lion (not from Connecticut, we joke) is being installed atop a wire form that is going to be transformed into a rocky base. Says Pitruzzello, “If you can hunt it legally, we will mount it here.” (No pets!)

After an animal is taken in the wild, it’s measured, photographed and then carefully skinned. Skins from hunting destinations around the globe come into Northeast Taxidermy, packed in salt, most often accompanied by horns, claws, jaws and other essential parts; animals taken locally (primarily whitetail deer) are skinned and packed in salt on site. The skins are sent out by Northeast Taxidermy to tanners, who clean and preserve them, and they are then ready for the artistic process.

Once a pose and type of mount have been determined—for instance, a full-body or pedestal mount—the measurements that were taken are used to construct a custom form over which the skin will be fitted (each animal is unique and requires different sizing depending on its height, weight, etc.). Starting with a pre-fabricated mannequin, the form is modified with clay, epoxy and other sculpting material until the proper shape for that specific animal is reached. Details such as eyes, teeth, horns or antlers are added, followed by the preserved skin, which is pulled on and stitched into place. Then it’s time for the final touches, ranging from painting claws and hooves to fixing whiskers and brushing fur. The entire process takes anywhere from six to eight months.

Northeast Taxidermy also produces fishing trophies, with most of the shop’s upper level dedicated to that work. Skin mounts, which involve the actual fish, are done here, but increasing in popularity are fiberglass reproductions, which are replicas of actual catches that allow those sport fishermen who catch and release an opportunity to have a record of one that they let get away. On hand are over 2,000 molds, each one representing a different kind of fish, and trophies are recreated from measurements and photographs of catches. Pitruzzello’s father Manny does most of the prep work, from pouring the mold to sanding, shaping and priming the trophy. Pitruzzello himself usually does the painting. Earlier this year, a 16-foot fiberglass replica the studio did of a great white shark caused a stir, stopping traffic on I-91 while it was being transported on the back of a truck to Cabela’s sporting goods store in East Hartford.

Pitruzzello is the head artist (Lowrey runs the business side of the operation in addition to being a seamstress), and regularly visits the homes of clients to view their trophy rooms so that he can design a mount that will fit in properly. “Each one is a custom piece,” he says. “Every trophy has its own expression.”

To that end, each of the artists in the studio has his own area of expertise—for instance, Pascual “Pat” Perez handles big game animals, Nick Redman works with white tail deer, antelope and North American game, and Jason Congdon fashions the forms that go inside the mounts. Overall, I’m struck by how much everyone here truly enjoys what they’re doing. That starts at the top.

“I love wildlife, and with my artistic background this was a good fit,” says Pitruzzello as he finishes work on a pedestal that will hold a shoulder mount of a sable antelope. “I’ve been doing this since I was 12, and I still love it. I look forward to coming to work every day.”

For more info, call (860) 613-2067 or visit northeasttaxidermy.com.

Still Life

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