Alex Martinez of the Martinez Brothers Taxidermy Shop
THE MARTINEZ BROTHERS TAXIDERMY SHOP is something of an institution in Austin. For more than 50 years, it has occupied the corner of Oltof and South Lamar. Its hand-painted sign, adorned with the outline of a jaguar, looks the same as it did when Alex Martinez started the business in 1962. His son, Alex Martinez II, who took over day-to-day operations more than a decade ago, greets me at the door and introduces me to his son, Alex Martinez III, a gregarious grade-schooler who says he plans to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. After Alex III gets me acquainted with the various animal mounts around the shop, Alex II sends his son into the back room to watch TV and we sit down to talk about life as a taxidermist, making mounts for hunters and, it turns out, for pet owners, too.
Growing up, did you always want to be a taxidermist?
No, I would say that I was 15 when I decided that I was going to become a taxidermist, that I was going to take the reins and continue the Martinez Brothers legacy.
I grew up spending time in my father’s shop just like my son Alex hangs out here with me. I probably started working in the store when I was in grade school. I’d sweep the floors and shadow my dad, Alex senior. Then, when I was 15 or 16, I became my father’s apprentice. I started with the reptiles—the snakes, the lizards, anything with scales. Then I did the fish, which are larger, and from the fish, I moved on to the mammals, and from the mammals, I moved on to the birds.
It’s been about 12 years now since I took over the day-to-day operation after my father started to become ill from Agent Orange contamination in the Vietnam War.
Austin has changed a lot since your father opened the store in 1962. Has taxidermy grown more popular or less popular over the years?
Taxidermy has generally grown more popular. In the last six years, you see more taxidermy in Hollywood films—not necessarily the traditional head mounts, but the antlers or the skulls painted in some way. It’s cool to have taxidermy.
We’re seeing more of this taxidermy art these days. It’s taxidermy—they’re just putting an artistic spin on it. More people are interested in taxidermy, which is good. I think any taxidermy is good.
How many pieces do you do in a year?
Hundreds—I couldn’t tell you exactly how many, but it’s hundreds. We basically get all our work in the fall, and it keeps us occupied until the following fall, with the spring and summer being production months. My family comes in to help and I hire seasonal staff, but at the end of the day it’s a one-man show. I’m the man in the front, I’m the man in the back, I’m the man building the pieces, and I’m the man finishing the pieces.
That’s a lot of work. How long does it take to do the different pieces?
The antler mounts and the elk skulls can take three to six weeks. I do those first. Then I work on the head mounts, and they can take months.
“She had two cats-these special, rare breeds-and she wanted to make hand warmers.”
I tell people that anybody can do taxidermy because it’s been turned into a kit, but it takes a true taxidermist to get that animal to look realistic again—to get the ears, the eyes, and the nose to look natural. Anybody can skin an animal, send it off to a fur dresser, and then get the piece back and say, “Okay, I’m going to put the animal back together.” If they have enough will power, they’ll get the animal over a manikin, suture it up, and it’ll be there . Well, it’ll be there, but it might not look good.
Oh yeah, I’ve seen some great photos of taxidermy gone wrong. So how do you get it right?
You can study the live specimens and look at photos of them. There are natural poses that a deer holds its ears in. Rotating its ears, it can go from a relaxed pose to an I-think-I-heard-something pose to a what’s-over-there pose. You can open the eyelids a bit wider to make a I’m-nervous pose. . It’s the ears, the eyes, and the nose—that’s what makes the mount.
How do you decide on the pose?
A lot of it comes down to how the taxidermist feels at the time . Also, it’s whatever the client is trying to achieve with the mount. When we work with the local film industry, for example, we get very specific requests.
Which films have you made pieces for?
My father made props for “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” in late seventies. Basically, the production team came in and said, “Is there any way that we can just have the tools and everything off this desk and the walls to put it in Leatherface’s workroom?” .
Then there was “Hope Floats”in the nineties. The grandmother—the woman who plays Sandra Bullock’s mom—she uses a purse that we made from an armadillo. And more recently, Robert Rodriguez has used us for several films—”Grindhouse,” for example.
What are the most difficult pieces to make?
For me, the most difficult pieces are the domesticated dogs. The difficulty comes from the mind-set that you have to put yourself in, or that I personally put myself in because I’m a dog person.
Are a lot of people bringing in their pet dogs?
I have four domesticated dogs in the shop right now. So, we get commissioned to do dogs—and cats—quite often. But it’s mostly dogs in the last decade. People want to have their dog immortalized, as a lot of people say. They don’t want to have it cremated, they don’t want to bury it, they want to go ahead and have it there with them, just like that black bear right there .’
Also, there is no LongHaired Chihuahua manikin on the market, so it’s a custom job. We use the carcass to produce a mold, and from the mold, we order a manikin. I don’t freeze dry; I make traditional mounts. It’s old school. I skin the animals, I cure the skin, and then I send it to a fur dresser who turns that rawhide into a softer, more malleable leather. After that I rehydrate it so that I can put it on a manikin.
Does that separate you from other taxidermists?
I think that separates me from the rest. We’ve also made our own manikins until this year. Well, I still make them, but they cost double. Otherwise we order them from a company called McKenzie, which supplies taxidermists nationwide with all their needs.
After being in this business for so many years, you must have some stories. What’s the most unusual request you’ve received?
I’d say domesticated animals, but they’re becoming more common. It’s mostly the smaller kinds, like those Teacup Chihuahuas, but we’ve also done a full-grown German Shepherd.I had a house cat picked up last week. This woman just wanted the skull. Skulls are becoming more popular.I had someone else from way up north, somewhere near Maine, call me and ask to have her cats tanned. She had two cats—these special, rare breeds—and she wanted to make hand warmers.
She wanted to make hand warmers out of her cats?
She said their fur was just so soft. You could hear that this was an old lady on the phone—somebody’s grandmother. She had had the cats for more than 10 years before they passed. She loved the cats, and she wanted the skins. I told her how to ship them to me, and I did what I had to do, and sent them back.
The poor woman had been going state to state, calling people in the directories. She was so happy that I would do it. She said, “You don’t know how many people I’ve talked to. They’ve hung up on me, they’ve cursed at me, and you’re just so welcoming and nice.”
And I said, “Sure, we do everything.”
What do you like most about the job?
Meeting people. Everybody has a story. They want to sit down and talk about the hunt that they went on. I do a lot of pieces for youth. People take their daughters or their son hunting, and they’ll come back with that first deer and want it taxidermied.
But it’s not always the cut-and-dry deer. I showed you the fish, the snake, the coyote, the mountain lion, the steer named Buck.
The neatest piece I have in the studio right now is actually a bald eagle. It’s the whole thing. A Native American put the paperwork in, and they’re pretty much the only ones who can do that. It came in this huge box—frozen. We’re going to do a standing mount with its wings up a bit, looking proud.
Now how many taxidermists do you think can say they’re working on a bald eagle?
Read more from the Outdoors Issue | April 2017