Jeff Manes: Griffith father and son are taxidermy pros
July 6, 2013 7:38AM
Updated: August 8, 2013 6:46AM
“My hobby is stuffing things. You know — taxidermy.”
— Anthony Perkins
Tony Perkins as Norman Bates in the movie “Psycho” was a pretty creepy dude. Edward Leep Jr, also a taxidermist, is the polar opposite — one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.
So much for stereotypes.
Leep, 39, and his father, Edward Sr, own and operate American Natural Resources Inc. on Broad Street in Griffith. The place is near Blythe’s Sporting Goods and right next to DeRosa Imports. I’d already interviewed Dick and Roger Blythe for this column but not Anthony DeRosa. DeRosa’s interview will run Wednesday.
I love my job.
Walking into American Natural Resources feels like you’re walking into The Field Museum. And although a huntsman will have to fork out more than $5,000 for his grizzly bear (full mount), an angler can have his or her 10-inch bluegill done for about $65.
Did you attend Griffith High School?
“No, I grew up in Schererville and went to Illiana Christian in Lansing, (Ill.),” he said. “We still attend the (First) Christian Reformed Church in Highland.”
I figured Leep was probably a Dutch name.
“My great-grandfather came over from Holland. My grandfather started the business in the 1937. He did it out of his house in Highland on Lincoln Street. Once my grandfather passed away, my dad took over.”
Tell me more about your grandfather.
“He started Pleasant View Dairy in Highland with Bud Leep. Grandpa Leep worked as a processor at the dairy, but also took taxidermy lessons from Louis Schere. This was during the Great Depression and he caught some flak from the family because he was spending money on those lessons.
“Grandpa died of a heart attack while deer hunting in Big Rapids, Mich. in 1964. I’ll say this, Louie Leep died doing what he loved.”
“Dad worked for (Royal Crown) Cola and became a full-time taxidermist in 1968 in Schererville. In ‘94, we moved the business to Griffith.”
The business continued to grow.
“Yes, we diversified from just being a backyard taxidermy outfit doing strictly customer work to doing a lot more wholesale work, furniture, antler chandeliers, antler chews for dogs... . We did a lot of work for Bass Pro until about 2008.”
“The economy. They let go a lot of their staff. The people we were connected with lost their jobs.”
Ed, like a lot of kids, I sent in for lessons, but interest sort of waned. Remember those order forms in the backs of magazines?
“The Northwest School of Taxidermy.”
Has the trade changed much since the ‘60s?
“Not that much, actually. The old-style eyeballs were all handmade in Germany. By the middle of this century the Van Dykes started doing all the eyes in this country.
“Taxidermy is a Greek-derived word. Taxi means to move or rearrange and dermy means skin. In essence, taxidermy means to move or rearrange skin. Everything you see in taxidermy is an illusion; it’s a sculpted manikin inside of a leather hide or a bird skin or a fish skin.”
How long does a mount last?
“There are specimens preserved and mounted that go back to the 1500s. During the Victorian Era, birds were real popular. People would often have their pet cats or dogs preserved by taxidermists.”
Let’s say a hunter brings in a deer he or she has harvested. What’s the routine?
“The first thing we do is have the hide sent out to be commercially leather tanned. It chemically alters the make-up of the hide. We have a lifetime warranty on the work we do. None of our products will ever shrink or rot.”
How long have you been a full-time taxidermist?
“For 25 years, six days a week.”
Your first mount?
“A domestic chicken.”
I’m not even going there.
“It was for a country kitchen decor kind of thing — a laying hen in a basket.”
“I’m a waterfowl collector. I go all over North America trying to round up all the species. We’re going to go to Greenland next so I can pick up a king eider. They’re one of the tougher species to find.”
Like the late artist John James Audubon, you shoot them.
“Yes, I don’t go after numbers of ducks. I just want a nice drake and hen representation of each species to mount for my private collection. Living on the Kankakee River, you can probably see about everything migrating through at one point or another.”
Yeah, besides the more common mallards, teal and wood ducks, I’ve added ducks like hooded mergansers, redheads, buffleheads and pie-billed grebes to my bird list. A drake wood duck is a beautiful creature.
“A lot of people don’t realize, but you get 10 miles out on Lake Michigan and you can identify a ton of sea ducks that you would normally think of as West or East Coast inhabitants only. Oldsquaws, scoters and eiders all with the city of Chicago in the background.”
Tell me the story of the snowy owl you have displayed here.
“We do a real good job with our reproductions. That snowy owl is actually a domestic white goose. We manipulated the feathers and painted the markings of a snowy owl on it.”
It sure fooled me.
“We’ve had the (Department of Natural Resources) come in and really get excited about that ‘owl’ mounted with no paperwork. I’ll tell them, ‘You better take a closer look at that before you get hot under the collar; it’s a reproduction.’”
How many taxidermists do you and your dad employ?
“A dozen all together; about half are full-time.”
You employ some fantastic wood workers as well.
“We have three full-time guys doing the furniture. The tables and chairs are made of either walnut, oak or recycled barn wood.”
Is Ed Sr. going to hang up the paint brush any time soon?
“Dad does what he wants to do. He does a lot of the finishing work, fish painting and a lot of the bird work. He does it because he likes it.”
“Adam is 10; he’s all about hunting and fishing right now. I won’t push him into anything. Time will tell if he becomes interested in taxidermy.”
It’s always a pleasure interviewing folks like the Leeps who enjoy what they do for a living. Plus, I got to interview my first duck collector.