An Inside Look at the Last Great Tannery in America

Jana Cook poses for a portrait with armfuls of mountain lion pelts at the Wildlife Gallery in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Cook sorts finished hides and boxes them up to be shipped back to taxidermists. Nic Antaya

YOU’VE JUST KILLED the buck of a lifetime. After a few quick photos, you carefully field dress and cape your deer. Then you flesh, prep, and salt the hide, or maybe just freeze it. The next day you carry the cape, along with that massive rack, through the doors of your local taxidermy shop, holding the two items with all the pride and diligence of a mother clutching her newborn twins.

But now you must hand over your trophies, swipe your credit card for the down payment, and then…wait. If you’re lucky, it will be about one year before you see your buck again. But it could be closer to two years. If you’re unlucky, it could even be three.

So why, exactly, does it take so damned long to get a deer (or any animal) back from the taxidermist? There are many reasons, but one good one is that most taxidermists send skins off to be tanned before they get to work on your mount. Properly tanning a hide takes real knowledge and skill—not to mention time. Plus, most of the big tanneries in America have shuttered as their owners retired or moved out of the industry. Many small tanneries shut down during the Covid pandemic and never reopened.

But the largest tannery in America, The Wildlife Gallery, is still cranking out finished hides as it has since it was founded in 1994, with owner Brad Eldred tanning hides out of his barn. Today, the Wildlife Gallery has a number of facilities in Michigan, Texas, and Alaska. Its more than 100 employees shave, tan, and finish hides from all over the world. But the tannery’s success wasn’t built on volume alone. The Wildlife Gallery is known for turning out quality hides that taxidermists can use to create the best mounts possible.

“Taxidermists want a tan that will provide good stretch, dry slowly, and not shrink,” says Jerred Peterson, senior vice president for The Wildlife Gallery. “And that’s where I think we set ourselves apart.”

Here’s a look at how the biggest tannery in America transforms a muddy and bloody animal hide into a beautifully tanned finished product. 

Workers unload new skins in the receiving department at The Wildlife Gallery. The company has two semi trucks that travel the country picking up hides from taxidermists. But they also receive hides through UPS and FedEx. Because the company is USDA approved, it can receive hides from international senders all around the world. “It’s not uncommon to check in 1,000 skins per day,” says Peterson. Nic Antaya

Upon arrival, each hide gets a specific punch code. This is a series of dots made on the inside of the skin that identify the taxidermist who sent the hide and the owner of the pelt or cape. That way employees are able to identify who owns the hide, even if a physical tag happens to fall off. In other words, it ensures that the cape on the mount you get back is truly from the buck you shot. Nic Antaya

Duran Karcher pulls hides from a pickle drum. After each hide is sorted by species, it gets rehydrated and then put through the pickling process. This entails sitting in a large drum that’s filled with a mixture of water, salt, and acid for a set number of days. The thicker the hide, the longer it needs to be pickled. The process helps lock in the hair on the hide and also kills bacteria. Nic Antaya

Water drains from a pickle drum in the wet room at the Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, facility. After a batch of hides is done, the solution is drained and the drum is refilled. The wet room is where much of the action happens. Here, hides are soaked in order to be rehydrated, pickled, shaved, and tanned. Nic Antaya

Bear pelts get a wash. This paddle vat helps remove grease and fat from bear hides. Since bears tend to pack on more fat than other animals, their hides need a little extra care. Nic Antaya

Jerry Kappler washes bear pelts at the Mt. Pleasant facility. Hides from each species require slightly different treatment. For example massive hides from bison or moose are a challenge to maneuver, while skins from high-dollar sheep species are delicate and must be handled with extra care. Nic Antaya

Here the shaving crew tends to their hides. Shavers are responsible for removing all the non-tannable protein from a hide. In other words, they shave off excess skin. The importance of this job within the tanning process is hard to overstate. Shave off too much, and the hair will pull from the hide; leave too much, and the hide won’t stretch properly. The Wildlife Gallery spends about six months training a shaver before they’re turned loose to work on customers’ hides. Nic Antaya

One of the shaving crew, Mandy Steele runs a round knife. A motor beneath her desk powers the machine. If you look closely between the yellow guards, you’ll see a thin and very sharp blade. Shavers lift the hide to this blade to remove material. They wear kevlar gloves to protect their fingers. After a hide is completed, it’s inspected by a team leader. An experienced shaver can work through 30 to 40 deer capes in a day. Nic Antaya

A pickled skin is ready to be go to the shaving area. The Wildlife Gallery employs about 45 shavers across their facilities. Amid the Covid pandemic, it was difficult finding workers to train as shavers, but that isn’t as much of an issue these days, Peterson says. “We build all our own employees.” Nic Antaya

Not all skins can be shaved right away. Here, Brothers Josh Bigg, left, and Jason Bigg move a giraffe hide to a turning machine, which essentially does the same thing as a round knife, but on a larger scale. Large African animals go to the Bigg brothers for turning, and then they are cleaned with shaving. A giraffe hide like this can weigh 200 to 300 pounds. Nic Antaya

The Bigg brothers work on skins at their turning machines. They can knock out a big hide on a turning machine in about 40 minutes, which would take several hours on a round knife. Nic Antaya

A giraffe skin sits in the turning machine. The large white pile to the left of the machine is all excess skin turned from the hide. Nic Antaya

After skins are turned and shaved, they get tanned. Here, Adam Hastings, left, and Cody Bergey pull full-body giraffe and rhino hides from a tanning vat. The Wildlife Gallery has done substantial research and development to perfect its tanning process. The company is always working to improve the tanning solution, the amount of time that certain species’ skins spend in the vat, the oiling process, and much more. Each tannery has a slightly different process, which affects how each hide turns out. As such, the details around The Wildlife Gallery’s tanning process are treated like trade secrets. Nic Antaya

Jerry Kappler, left, and Jesse Wood pull a crocodile out of a tan. Kappler and Wood are chemists at The Wildlife Gallery, which means that their job is to monitor pH and salinity levels in solutions and oversee pickling and tanning, among other duties. Nic Antaya

Amanda Taylor, left, and Krista Jackson load hides into the extractor. After hides have been tanned, they go into this large tub, which spins them dry. Think of it as a massive dryer for animal pelts. Nic Antaya

Jeffery Main runs a hide through the staking machine. This helps “break” the hide, or stretch it to break the molecules, which helps make the pelt soft. Nic Antaya

Amanda Taylor applies oil to a hide in the finish department. After tanning, the hide becomes dry leather, so oil is added to make it soft and supple. Finishers use a sponge to work warm oil into the leather. Nic Antaya

Once oiled, pelts are hung to dry for 48 hours in the finishing area. Here, temperature and humidity levels are controlled to dry the skins properly. Nic Antaya

Zebra hides dry in the finishing room. Nic Antaya

Aaron Lombard stretches hides in the finish department. This helps keep them soft and workable for taxidermists. Nic Antaya

Jerred Peterson, vice president of The Wildlife Gallery, poses for a portrait with two mountain goat pelts. Big-game hunters who take trophy animals (like a mountain goat) should make proper field care of their pelt or cape a priority, Peterson says. Skin the animal and cool the cape as quickly as possible. Heat promotes bacterial growth, which can cause hair to slip from the hide. Also remove excess blood from the mouth area, as blood also causes bacterial growth. Avoid cutting the cape too short—simply move 4 inches farther back from where you think you should start your cut. Be extra careful around the nose and eyes. Making holes here makes shaving more difficult and can degrade the detail in your mount. Nic Antaya

Finishers comb tanned mountain goat hides. All pelts that come through the Wildlife Gallery are cleaned and groomed. This is especially important for species like mountain goats, which have long hair that catches briars and debris. Nic Antaya

Josh Malotke grooms a whitetail cape before it’s sorted and sent back to the taxidermist.

“Appearance is important when the taxidermist gets it back,” Peterson says. “It should look like it’s clearly ready to be mounted.” Nic Antaya

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