Dennis Anderson: Tough times In the bug biz

  • Article by: DENNIS ANDERSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 28, 2010 - 8:34 AM

Storm Amacher and her beetles prepare game for taxidermy, but in these times fewer folks can afford it.

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Among its many victims, taxidermists -- some of them -- have been stuffed by the weakened economy. The craft is practiced by fewer men (and they are mostly men) in Minnesota today than was the case a few years ago.

Reasons are obvious. Having the head of a deer or elk mounted or a trophy fish memorialized, important as this timeless practice is to hunters and anglers, is nonetheless a luxury compared to eating. And paying the mortgage.

Additionally, hunters and anglers who have been financially able to take "trips of a lifetime'' in recent years have been fewer. Consequently, not as many 6x6 mule deer, for example, have been returned to Minnesota from the West in recent hunting seasons. Ditto big fish from Canada and Alaska.

The fallout among taxidermists can be felt even in the bug business, said Storm Amacher, owner in St. Paul of Remains to be Seen, a provider of flesh-eating services.

"Some taxidermists I worked with for years are no longer around,'' Storm said the other day. "Times are tough for a lot of people.''

The holder of a fine arts degree from the U, Storm -- originally she was named Rochelle, but after only two days of dealing with her infant daughter, her mother opted for Storm -- never thought she would earn a living shoulder to shoulder with a million creepy little insects.

But earn it she does, in the basement of her home, a domicile familiar to UPS and FedEx drivers who routinely drop off the excised noggins of some of America's biggest big game.

"In addition to the bug business, I've also worked in the genitalia paraphernalia game,'' Storm said. "You know, walking sticks, canes, that kind of thing, made from bull penises.''

Happily shod of that handiwork, Storm now concentrates her manifest artistic efforts in the creation of "European'' mounts of game- animal heads. Some work she does direct with hunters, but mostly she contracts directly with taxidermists, near and far.

"Taxidermists are trained and know that licensing of harvested game animals is a big deal,'' Storm said. "No one in this business accepts game for taxidermy work of any kind unless it's been properly registered, and taxidermists are good at doing that kind of stuff.''

Storm was first exposed to bugs-- actually, it's dermestid beetles she employs -- in the 1970s while working with a Twin Cities veterinarian. Subsequently she toiled in the (human) dental business, which she said was also valuable in developing her bone-picking expertise.

So what is a European mount?

It's the cleaned and polished skull, with antlers attached, of a deer, elk or similar animal ("I've done bears, coyotes, you name it,'' she said), absent, often, the lower jaw.

This kind of mount shows off an animal's antlers while also taking up less room on a wall than a traditional, full-head mount. European mounts also can be hundreds of dollars cheaper than traditional mounts.

Given her druthers, Storm prefers to receive her lopped-off heads skinned, boned and dried. Or at least skinned. "I hate skinning,'' she said. "But I can bone a bear skull in 15 minutes.''

Once removed of most flesh, skulls are dropped into one of many large, steel, aquarium-like containers in Storm's basement. Then her beetles -- each container has its own colony -- go to work, chewing away at flesh housed even in the tiniest crevices.

"Dermestid beetles can be found outdoors in Minnesota,'' Storm said. "They finish what the carrion eaters and maggots don't get.''

Fickle, Storm's bugs like their victims dry.

"If the skull's too wet, they simply aren't interested,'' Storm said. "And they don't like chemicals. I once did parts of a human skeleton for the Mayo Clinic of a man who had been undergoing chemotherapy. The bugs wouldn't touch it.''

Which brings up another admonition Storm feels compelled to offer, lest some weirdo shows up at her doorstep with big ideas:

"Don't bring me Grandma,'' she said.

It's not that she hasn't worked on humans over her three decades in the bug game. She just doesn't do it much of it anymore.

"And, as you might expect, it's fairly well regulated,'' she said.

Sheep, however, she's picked apart those -- in one case a full skeleton. Ditto an 800-pound pig. "And I once boned an entire cow in 61/2 hours,'' she said.

But mostly it's deer, bear and elk skulls that her bugs bite. Then they are degreased in a solution of ammonia and dishwashing detergent and coated to a brilliant sheen with a high-gloss clear acrylic.

Other means can accomplish the same end.

Some hunters prepare their own European mounts by boiling skulls to remove excess flesh. This can be problematic, however, because large pots are needed, as are, oftentimes, daylong boils.

Additionally, the bottoms of a trophy's antlers must be kept out of the boiling water and rising steam or they can change color.

Another method -- complicated but theoretically possible -- is to bury a skull and antlers and hope that over time subterranean critters perform the same handiwork Storm's bugs do.

Storm's advice:

"Do what you're going to do, but treat a head that you intend to mount the same way you would treat it if you intended to eat it. Keep it frozen until you skin it and debone it or until you bring it to a taxidermist.''

• • •

Recall now the aforementioned downturned economy.

For about 10 years, Storm earned a living full-time doing what she loves to do, which at its heart is a form of forensic pathology. "Each animal is different from the next,'' she said, "and each individual is different from other individuals.''

But in recent years, Storm's need for health insurance and a stable income led her to seek a full-time job.

Now she does the bug thing in her free time, working night and day.

"My husband and I have been together 39 years,'' Storm said. "He's on a transplant list for a kidney, and we're hoping one can be found. There are just too few donors.''

Upbeat nonetheless, Storm carries on, keenly aware it's a wacky, if not buggy, world.

"Recently my home phone number was mistakenly listed as a housekeeping service and for a while I was getting calls from people wanting me to clean their homes,'' she said. "I told them that unless they wanted skeletons in their closets, try someone else.''

Dennis Anderson • danderson@startribune.com.

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    Stormy Amacher has an unusual basement business , preparing skeletons for taxidermy.

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