- Associated Press - Saturday, November 26, 2016

JANESVILLE, Wis. (AP) - When the hunter dragged the deer down the stairs and into Nature’s Touch Taxidermy, a silence dropped over Don Rich Jr.’s home studio on Stonefield Lane on Janesville’s east side.

It was just three days before the start of Wisconsin’s gun deer season_the eye of the storm between the state’s deer archery season and the rush that hits Nature’s Touch when hunters start to bring Rich hundreds of trophy deer during the heat of the nine-day gun season, which started last Saturday.

The sight of this customer’s deer_actually, just part of the deer: its head, shoulder cape and an enormous set of antlers, 10 points in all_had left all three generations of the Rich family’s taxidermy business stunned.

The Janesville Gazette (https://bit.ly/2gvxKqF ) reports that Katie Rich, Don’s 24-year-old daughter and, since last year, his full-time understudy at Nature’s Touch, bolted from the shop’s showroom to the rear workshop to grab a tape measure.

The buck’s antlers measured 21 inches wide, the breadth of a large man’s shoulders. Where the antlers met the deer’s skull, they were almost as thick as a man’s forearms.

“God. That looks an elk’s rack,” Don Rich Jr. said.

The Rich family’s original don of deer taxidermy, Don Rich Sr., 71, has worked on hundreds if not thousands of deer over a 44-year career that he is now only semi-retired from. As he watched Don Jr., granddaughter Katie and the hunter drag the deer across the shop’s showroom floor on a plastic tarp, Don Sr. said he felt a rush of adrenaline.

“I’ve never shot one that big,” Don Sr. said. “I’m telling you, it’s a specimen. When a taxidermist goes to work on a deer like that, the whole time it’s taking shape, you know you got your hands on a true trophy.”

So begins the approach to the heart of deer hunting season, a set of days that Don Jr. calls “the Black Friday of Taxidermy,” or more jokingly apocalyptic: “The Days of Carnage.”

As hunters bag deer throughout Wisconsin, Don Jr.’s Stonefield Lane garage will become piled with deer brought from hunters local and regional. The hunters want Nature’s Touch to tap its 61 years of collective experience and finesse to spin out wall-mounted trophies that preserve the memory of their autumn hunt in lifelike relief.

This year is the second hunting season that Don Jr., 46, has had Katie’s help full time at Nature’s Touch. Katie now is learning taxidermy from her dad and grandfather, and she has largely taken over the shop’s customer service and educational outreach.

She embodies the third generation of a family-run taxidermy business, the work of which numbered 800 projects last year and spanned dozens of species of fish, bird and mammal_including more than 300 white-tailed deer.

“It’s grown and grown. She (Katie) is a lifesaver because we might get to 350 deer this year. I know we can get it done with her here,” Don Jr. said.

Don Sr. retired from his own home taxidermy business almost a decade ago, in part because of arthritis in his hands, the bane of taxidermists.

But every year, Don Sr. shakes off the dust to pitch in during deer crush at Nature’s Touch.

“We’ll all just sit in a circle and just skin deer. You tell stories, you listen to country music and try to keep the deer ticks off of you,” Katie said.

Katie shuddered. For her, ticks are the least-desirable perk of deer-season taxidermy.

The Dons chuckled. Don Jr. recalled how once, during a job, he accidentally sat on the quilled, business end of an African porcupine. Don Sr. once skewered a finger on the poison-tipped fin of a dead lionfish_a taxidermy injury that caused his hand to balloon up to at least twice its normal size.

All three have had run-ins with taxidermy scalpels, which the three taxidermists say are as sharp and unforgiving as the surgical kind.

Don Sr. slowly transitioned into the business of taxidermy, at first through a correspondence course he took in the early 1970s. He worked toward his taxidermy license and ran his own business part-time for more than two decades while working full-time at the Chrysler assembly plant in Belvidere, Illinois.

Don Jr. started to learn alongside his dad when he was still in elementary school. He founded Nature’s Touch in 2000. He left a job at Prent in Janesville to launch his business, initially using specialty fish taxidermy as a platform. The business has customers from multiple continents now, and Don Jr. has done projects involving 50 or 60 different species of animals.

Katie decided last fall to leave her job as a special education classroom aide in the Beloit Turner School District when Don Jr. asked if she’d work full time to help Nature’s Touch continue its growth. She enjoyed working with students, but family ties to taxidermy meant more.

“It wasn’t even a second guess,” Katie said.

She recalled how as a little girl, she’d put on an apron over a princess dress and help her dad skin deer.

“We now have customers who I grew up with. Dad has customers he grew up with.” Katie said. “It makes you proud to know we’re growing as a business that’s family-built from the ground up. And I get to be a part of that tradition. For my family, anyway, it’s not a dying art.”

___

Information from: The Janesville Gazette, https://www.gazetteextra.com


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