Before beginning a new art project, Tia Annis must first remove a carcass from the freezer.
Right now, a thawing raccoon lies under a large magnifying glass on her workbench. In the kitchen, the skin of a 32-inch northern pike is stretched over a towel, awaiting a chemical bath.
Such is the life of a taxidermist.
Over the past several years, Annis has filled her Chaska home with animals locked in motion. A stuffed mallard perches by her dining room table. A deer head overlooks her workshop. And a raccoon nests by her sewing machine.
The Minnesota critters, some of her first taxidermy projects, have been meticulously preserved to honor the "memory of the hunt." Annis, who runs Tia's Taxidermy out of her house, recently began filling custom orders for clients with the same goal.
"I'm respecting that animal completely by not wasting one bit of it, and keeping its beauty on somebody's wall for them to look at and admire forever," said Annis, 33, who earned her taxidermy license just over a year ago. .
Since childhood, Annis has tried to use the entire remains from animals she's killed. When she bags a deer, she eats the meat, gives the bones to her three dogs, and even renders the fat to make suet logs for birds.
Yet for the longest time, it troubled Annis that she couldn't find a purpose for the deer head — which she considers the most beautiful part. In her current trade, she can now use the brains to tan hides, then mount the head.
Annis grew up in Hampton, Minn., where it wasn't unusual for her father to bring home road-kill — or "bumper deer" — for dinner.
" 'Waste not, want not' was always said at the table," said Annis, who hunts for the majority of her meat, including deer, pheasant, rabbits and squirrels. Like her dad, she also brings home the occasional bumper deer.
"People that do hunt, they're more connected to their food. They're not just going mindlessly to a grocery store and buying something from a corporate farm that was absolutely miserable," she said. "These [wild] animals are happy. When they go down, it's quick and humane."
Annis' interest in taxidermy was piqued after bringing a foot-long crappie to an Excelsior taxidermy shop to have it mounted. The lifelike creatures in the showroom mesmerized her.
"It just hit me that this is what I want to do," she said.
She took time off her waitressing job to put herself through the pricey three-month certification program in Rice, Minn., living out of a camper on the back of her truck in a church parking lot. Annis bought one tool at a time — $10 here, $20 there — to finance the craft.
After a six-week apprenticeship in Savage, mostly spent working on large boars, Annis went out on her own.
Nowadays, when friends and neighbors spot road-kill, they'll often donate it to Annis' freezer. It's currently stocked with several squirrels and a opossum. The northern pike she's fashioning in the kitchen is a surprise for a young fisherman, commissioned by his grandparents.
Lately she's begun experimenting with "rogue taxidermy," a type of artistry that combines parts from different species to create a fanciful creature. Jackelopes, the fictional rabbit-deer hybrids, are an example of rogue work.
Bobby Jo Kniefel, a childhood friend from Farmington, bought one of Annis' first rogue items — a $100 winged squirrel. It now spreads its wings over her bedroom dresser.
"I had to have it; she put so much heart into it," Kniefel said. "It's hard to believe she's a beginner."
Annis eagerly awaits the day when her taxidermy orders provide a way out of waitressing.
"I'm not letting go of this dream," she said.