Nothing unusual about the name. Average, really.
And in fact, Richards is an average guy, living in an average house in Barwick. He will be married in two weeks but at least a portion of the wedding will be paid for by his anything-but-average trade.
Richards is a taxidermist—an animal mortician so to speak.
He and his fiancé, Renée, just moved into a new place. There is an unfinished bear rug lying on his living room carpet and, appropriately enough, a walleye on the wall.
Deer ears, bear tongues, foam bodies, and glass eyes of every size are strewn about the place.
But behind the house is where Richards hones his craft.
In the expansive garage, several pike and a 48” muskie—complete with a bluegill as its prey fish—hang to dry, their fins cardboarded in place. Four bearskins, a wooden pair of snowshoes, and an assortment of fishing poles provide atmosphere.
A full-size bear cub is waiting in the freezer. And flies buzz above his next assignment—a 28” walleye thawing out in a wash basin.
It’s a taxidermy world—their world.
“It’s an art and you put yourself into it and you give the animals and the wildlife character,” his fiancé explained. “It’s who [Tony] is. He has always been a hunter and an outdoorsman.”
Richards has been at this for about a year but the stuffing business is taking a while to get plump. It takes about six months to finish one fish, and he has to buy supplies in advance but sometimes doesn’t get his 50 percent deposit up front.
Yet a new guy on the block can’t turn away business, which means any new money pays for old supplies. And so it keeps going in circles.
“I took on another carpentry job because this hasn’t bloomed into a full-time job,” he admitted. “I would like to make it a full-time job but you have to have clientele before you can start doing that.
“My biggest problem is people not paying their deposits,” he noted.
There are only about four taxidermists in the Rainy River area. But despite some initial headaches, Richards knows other successful taxidermists and their recipes for success included large amounts of patience and time.
“It takes most taxidermists at least two years to get started and established,” he said. “It can be a good paying job once you get good at it.”
He already is pretty good at it. In fact, the Kay-Nah-Chi-Wah-Nung Historical Centre asked Richards to create a life-size moose for an exhibit. For two months he spent his spare time inside the centre working on a moose that stood nine feet at its head.
“So far the biggest experience I’ve had is the life-size moose,” he said. “I did it right on the floor beside where they mounted it because once I finished it, they would have never gotten it through the door.”
At the centre, the bull moose towers over other exhibits. When you see it, you get the feeling the big fella might just walk away to graze in a nearby meadow.
Richards decided to take me through the taxidermy process by skinning the giant walleye. He slapped it down on the plastic-covered table and pulled out his tools—a sharp knife, a pair of snipping pliers, and a $1 paint scraper.
Reaching around the fish, he grabbed its belly and started to snip, a pungent odour permeating the air. Blood and pieces of flesh soon coat his hands as he worked the fish down to only skin and head.
The hissing sound of air escaping suddenly broke the silence as he pierced the bladder.
“The biggest thing is patience and knowing how to use your knives to skin [the specimens] properly,” Richards said, continuing his precise work.
He found his way into the business through a three-week course at the Penn School of Taxidermy. It cost him $3,500 but he believed there was a need for a person with his skills.
“[My family] had three things [a moose hide, coyote, and a duck] that we sent to a taxidermist and we never received them back so I decided I could give better service to the district,” he explained.
Richards began to meticulously skin the fish so there was no meat, flesh, or bone left. This took about two hours but that’s not the difficult part.
“Sometimes it gets a little frustrating. Taxidermy itself is really tedious work, especially when you have to set and sculpt up shrunken spots on heads.
“That gets really frustrating. You do it for a while, then you have to get up and walk away,” he added, pouring some salt on the pickerel to preserve the scales, then continuing to scrape away the flesh.
Richards grew up on a farm, spending his youth hunting and fishing in the Sturgeon Creek area. His outdoor experience pleasantly complements his taxidermy skills.
“You have to have a little knowledge of the animals for setting them up. You have to have an idea what they would look like in the wild,” he explained.
“Like if you give a deer a startled look, you have to know what they would look like when they are startled,” he noted.
He popped the fish eye out of its socket and stuck his finger in the hole. He was almost finished but first had to clean out the cheeks before he placed it in the brine.
It must soak for 12 hours to preserve the skin. When it’s dry, the skin will be attached to a foam body and the fins glued in place with cardboard.
It can take a couple of months for a fish to dry, then Richards must fill in the holes with putty before he air brushes a natural finish. After it dries again, he will mount it on a wooden plaque or background.
It seems like a lot of work for $8.50 an inch but it’s not all about the money.
“[I like] the compliments on my work when it’s finished,” Richards said. “There is a bit of pride in it because once it gets on someone’s wall, everybody knows you did it.”
He is done skinning but still smells like a walleye fisherman. But to Richards, that’s nothing new.
“The grossest thing to do is probably the small animals because they have an odour of their own,” he noted. “Minks have scent glands. You hit one and they start to stink.
“Bears aren’t that bad, you can tolerate their smell,” he added.
But what about after work? Does the smell linger? Do taxidermists literally take their work home with them?
“You might smell a little fishy when your done but you can take a shower and actually smell pretty good,” Richards claimed.
Just another average day.