Family business preserves art of taxidermy

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Zachary Strain

Alex Martinez, a taxidermist, fits the hide of a sheep onto a mannequin at his shop on South Lamar, Friday. Martinez learned the craft from his father, Alejandro Martinez, who opened his own taxidermy shop in 1976.

Jessica Lee

There is a vanilla aroma in the air at the Martinez Brothers’ shop. Family photos are tacked onto a corkboard next to a desk covered in paperwork. Alex Martinez puts on a stained apron, walks into the back room of his shop and begins to take the skin of an animal off of its skull.

Martinez is a taxidermist.

It all began with his father, Alejandro Martinez. The elder Martinez was the oldest of nine boys and two girls, and at the age of 15, his parents said he needed to get a job in order to help support the family.

He found a job at Paschall’s, a local taxidermy shop. It was there that Martinez learned the craft. Paschall put him to work making the paper products like mannequins and ear liners. The strange intricacies of the taxidermy process intrigued Martinez, and he quickly became an expert. By the age of 23, Martinez was a master taxidermist.

After Paschall’s closed, Martinez opened his own taxidermy shop in 1976.

Alex Martinez constantly hung around his father’s shop as a child, and learned how to mount fish. Eventually his father taught him the entire craft. Now, Alex Martinez has taken the place of his father as the master taxidermist.

When you hear the word, “taxidermist,” it conjures the image of a man in a white lab coat stained with blood holding a cleaver — a quick glance at Martinez disproves this myth. Martinez is anything but scary, with a seemingly ever-present smile on his face as he explains what he does for a living.

The taxidermy process is a long and intricate one. Most of the animals Martinez stuffs are products of a hunt. The animal is taken to a meat processor, salvaging the head. The antlers are then cut off. The skin is de-fleshed and salted down. This salt curing process takes a little over a week and dries out the skin, making it rawhide.

From there, the skin is placed in a tanning solution for about three weeks. The tanning solution turns the rawhide into leather. During this process, the skin thickens and must be shaved and washed several times before it becomes flexible.

Unlike many modern taxidermists, who outsource their paper products, Martinez makes a mannequin to place the skin around. He said that crafting the mannequin himself allows the animal to appear more realistic.

“This is a family business,” Martinez said. “And we want it to continue in the same way my father originated it.”

Martinez takes the skin and forms it around the mount. A layer of clay inside allows him to reform the muscles back into the face, creating a more lifelike creature. He applies paint to the nose and inner ear because the tanning process removes much of the color from the animal.

Economics senior Michael Morgan is an avid hunter and has found that the only way to flaunt what he has shot is by getting the animal’s head mounted on his wall.

“Mounting the kill is the only way to show off what you did in a sport that you would otherwise get no recognition for,” Morgan said. “It’s a sport. It’s just the same as receiving a trophy in a tennis match or golf tournament.”

But now more than ever, the public seems to be interested in what is going on behind the scenes at the taxidermist’s shop than simply preserving their hunting accomplishments. “Taxidermy is coming back as a trend,” Martinez said in reference to popular taxidermy-themed television shows “American Stuffers” and “Mounted in Alaska".

And though the statement seems ridiculous, it is true. The public suddenly seems interested in taxidermy. It has become much more than stuffing deer killed during a hunt. Martinez is seeing more and more people come in with pets hoping to preserve their memory in a more literal way.

“It’s usually cats and dogs,” Martinez said, “but I did have a man come in one time who wanted us to stuff his pet rat.”

Martinez’s wife, Vanessa, said that the rat owner showed up at the shop, clearly upset. He had approached a number of taxidermists hoping to preserve his pet rat but was laughed at.

Vanessa Martinez listened to the man’s story. The rat was actually a rare, very expensive breed and was obviously very dear to the man. She told him they would be happy to help.

Martinez encourages those interested in the craft to stop on by the shop. She is happy to answer any questions and just chat about hunting, sports or daily life.

“One thing that I think is funny is that we know how Longhorn football is going based on how many Longhorns we get,” Vanessa Martinez said. “We get a lot of Longhorns when UT does well.”