The Manhattan crowd seemed to think the lion head behind the bar was artsy or chichi or something. I asked a man in a starchy suit seated beside me at the bar what he thought of the lion and he replied, "Atmosphere, I guess." A woman in a Chanel suit next to him added, "He still looks mean." I turned to my right and asked a woman who had black nail polish and a tattoo of a black rose growing up her arm and she sighed and tried to go back to seeming sophisticated.
So I asked the bartender at Home Sweet Home, a tavern not far from Wall Street, "Who shot the lion?" His eyebrows fluttered as if it had never occurred to him that someone had once put a bullet in the beast before he remarked, "I think we got that at an online auction or something."
Taxidermy is no longer only ambiance for rural taverns. Now it is fashionable to have deer heads and zebra rugs in the snootiest ZIP codes—even if they don't want to know much about the dead game. From the ram above the fireplace at the Jane Hotel in New York City's West Village to taxidermy in the trendy Seven Grand nightspot in Los Angeles back to Freemans, a bar in Manhattan's Lower East Side, taxidermy is increasingly becoming popular décor for the denizens of concrete-and-steel jungles.
The Web has made locating elk shoulder mounts, dik-dik full-body mounts and bear rugs possible for people who wouldn't know a .30-06 from a .22-250. Indeed, the market has become so ubiquitous some states and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) see seized wildlife items as a revenue source. Government agencies are cashing in by holding auctions for seized horns, skins, alligator purses and more. The USFWS has had an online auction going since last winter, featuring items such as python handbags and clothing made of crocodiles and zebras. The USFWS says it's not selling trophies seized from hunters or those made from endangered species, just goods seized from companies making products from wildlife parts that can be legally sold in the United States. The online auction includes about 300,000 items, says Bernadette Atencio, a wildlife repository specialist with the USFWS. Many of the items were seized by federal officers because the owners didn't have the proper documentation to import the merchandise made from animal parts.
The items being auctioned by the Service were selected from the more than 1.5 million wildlife parts and products stored at the USFWS' Repository in Colorado. The Repository is a little like the warehouse shown at the end of the movie "Raiders of the Lost Ark"—miles of aisles of forgotten crates filled with who knows what. Only this one became so forgotten the warehouse could have been used for an interesting segment on A&E's show "Hoarders." So the USFWS decided to start selling. It can do this because the Fish and Wildlife Improvement Act of 1978 authorized the Service to sell wildlife property seized by law enforcement. Also, the Fish and Wildlife Improvement Act was amended by Congress in 1998 to allow the USFWS to sell abandoned property; however, this is only the second time the Service opted to sell this property. The USFWS contracted Lone Star Auctioneers of Austin, Texas, to conduct the auction.
Meanwhile, some states are selling seized taxidermy and wildlife-related goods. Hundreds of antlers, mountain lion skins, antelope horns and other items confiscated or found by wildlife officers were sold this past spring in a first-of-its-kind auction in South Dakota, according to Andy Alban of the state's Department of Game, Fish & Parks. Kansas also holds an online auction each fall for antlers and Arizona holds auctions for antlers and other seized wildlife parts at annual International Sportsmen's Exposition outdoor shows.
The Taxidermy Market Downside
Last February the increasing value of deer antlers inspired three teens in Reidsville, N.C., to allegedly conjure up the perfect crime that wasn't so perfect. They were charged with breaking into Broken Arrow Taxidermy and Nature's Creation taxidermy, and with stealing dozens of heads and other items. When the robbers found the heads were hard to sell (most big whitetail racks are recognizable), they dumped most of them in the Dan River. After a tip led to the river, Broken Arrow owner Eric Knowles hired a dive team to retrieve the heads. He got most of them back and at press time the teens were headed to court.
In countless other cases, hunters have come home to find their trophies missing. In fact, to help people locate stolen heads, taxidermy.net has started a forum for people to list what has been stolen along with photos and descriptions. Anyone who has a unique rack taken would be wise to monitor eBay.com and other websites where at any time thousands of taxidermy items are up for bid.
Such is a downside to being stylish. Well, there is one more. Manhattan's White Slab Palace learned there is a cost to hanging heads for ambiance. In papers filed in Manhattan Supreme Court, Raina Kumra says a moose head "dislodged and struck plaintiff on the head" at 1 a.m. in October of 2009. Kumra says the impact caused her "chronic neck pain, anxiety, fatigue, dizziness and other serious and severe personal injuries," including "embarrassment." The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages from the bar for "failing to ensure that the plaintiff and other patrons of the defendants would not be struck by the loosely affixed ... moose head."