Stuff of memories
Taxidermist Dan Johnson says profession is about preserving the moment

By Josh Perttunen - Enterprise Staff

July 17, 2014

Taxidermy actually doesnít involve a lot of blood and guts, Johnson says. It is merely fitting the animalsí hides to a foam mannequin, and there is a mannequin for just about anything that walks the earth ó including this North American alligator.
 By Josh Perttunen/Enterprise Staff

TOWN OF OCONOMOWOC - The moments that spark a lifeís passion are sometimes subtle.

Taxidermist Dan Johnson had hooked a fish before, but it was when he brought his catch to a taxidermist in North Prairie as a 20-year-old that he himself became hooked.

He sat down with the Enterprise to share his experiences from that point, as well as his thoughts on his profession.

ENTERPRISE: How did you get started in this profession?

JOHNSON: When I took that fish to the taxidermist, I had a lot of questions. The taxidermist noticed my interest and asked if I wanted to come in and help him. I jumped at the chance. I had a job at the time, but didnít know what I wanted to do. This was a hobby that turned into a career. Iíve been doing this for 28 years.


ENTERPRISE: What actually goes into stuffing an animal?

JOHNSON: There is a foam mannequin inside. You are fitting the hide over that mannequin and using an adhesive to attach it. There is a foam mannequin for pretty much anything that walks this earth.

Dan Johnson says a taxidermist needs to have a healthy appreciation and reverence for animals in order to immortalize them. He notes that the profession has also taught him how to work with wood, plaster, fiberglass and composite materials. His favorite part of the job is creating a scene frozen in time, complete with rocks, brush and other items.
 By Josh Perttunen/Enterprise Staff

ENTERPRISE: How have things changed in the nearly 30 years of business? And what has remained absolutely the same?

JOHNSON: It used to be that we had to make what went inside out of papier-m‚chť and hand-carve foam. The mannequins for nearly every animal have changed things.

The craft remains very labor-intensive and time-consuming. Itís something that you canít speed up.


ENTERPRISE: Is this as much about reverence for the animal as it is a memory for the hunter?

JOHNSON: You have to love the outdoors and nature, to have a passion for wildlife. Itís not just like painting a house. You have to know what the animal looks like and how it behaves while alive. You have to research it.

These are beautiful creatures. Where else can you get as close to this animal as here?

When hunters are getting animals taxidermied, it is supposed to be a piece of art that immortalizes the moment. They decide the positioning of the animal and the scene can be tailored to recreate the setting - with trees, rocks, logs and other parts of the scene.

Johnson says that many people would be surprised by the amount of people in their community that travel abroad to hunt big game animals, such as this lioness.
 By Josh Perttunen/Enterprise Staff

ENTERPRISE: What kind of animals do you see come through your door?

JOHNSON: My customers are everything from safari hunters to fishermen to the average Wisconsin hunter with his or her deer and birds.

There have been animals from all over the world, including lions, elk, cougars, ducks, foxes and bears. Some of the more unique animals have been alpacas, alligators and monkeys.

The average person doesnít realize the amount of people that travel abroad to hunt.


ENTERPRISE: Would you ever stuff a family pet?

JOHNSON: Iíve been asked to, but I wonít do pets. Iím an animal lover. Cats and dogs are personal; theyíre family most of the time. Though I respect the animals I do taxidermy, thereís not that personal connection. Thereís no way I could cut a pet. I couldnít even give someone a shot.


ENTERPRISE: What are some common misconceptions people have about taxidermy?

JOHNSON: They think itís a morbid profession, with lots of blood and guts. Aside from cleaning the fish and birds, thereís not a lot of blood and guts. We are working with tanned pieces of leather. The bear hide that comes back to us is as clean as someoneís fur coat. Itís been shampooed, conditioned and brushed.


ENTERPRISE: What are some of the common misconceptions people have when they see animal trophies?

JOHNSON: They see the African animals and think that being hunted is bad for the future of the species. The economy of regulated big game hunting has actually added value to the African animals and generated money that can be funneled back into the stewardship of these animals, increasing their numbers. Otherwise, they would still be hunted, but without the stewardship efforts.


ENTERPRISE: What is your favorite part about being a taxidermist?

JOHNSON: With animals Iíve never worked on before, itís the challenge of something new. I like being creative, and I really get into it when I get to re-create that whole scene. Making the habitat is what I enjoy; it changes the whole aspect of it.

Itís like Iíve frozen a moment in time, like Iíve frozen that whole environment to be put into a household.

Johnson operates out of W359-N5828 Brown St. in the Town of Oconomowoc and may be reached at