Among the displays in Frank (Buzz) Meyers' crowded garage-workshop in Kankakee, Ill. are two unborn does. The mother had been hit by a car, and when a cesarean operation failed to save the fetal deer, Meyers, whose hobby is taxidermy, decided to preserve them. They are now his most remarkable examples, lifelike and beautiful, of a new type of taxidermy called the freeze-dry process, a term with which anyone who visits the supermarket is undoubtedly familiar.
Conventional taxidermy requires tedious hours of messing about with formaldehyde, arsenic and, more recently, borax. Often the specimen is mutilated and additional time must be spent trying to repair or disguise the damage. Looking for a better method, Meyers was inspired by the freeze-dry process used by the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The advantage seemed obvious: mammals, birds and fish required no cutting or evisceration and could be preserved with bones, organs and fur, feathers or skin intact, as though they had been stopped, not by a shot or a fishhook but by time itself. In freeze-drying the animal undergoes no radical change in appearance because only the moisture is withdrawn.
Meyers learned the system by means of a lengthy correspondence with Dr. Roland Hower, chief of taxidermy for the Smithsonian. "It is a correspondence that is still going on," says Meyers. "I have a question on a problem, he helps me and, well, you never stop learning, do you?" Enlisting the aid of friends and a group of local college students studying refrigeration techniques, he built his own freeze-dry chamber. It worked beautifully after a predictable period of trial and error and a flow of letters between Washington and Kankakee. But it was a small chamber, and his electric bill soared. Meyers bought an old 1,000-gallon steam boiler that would hold seven times as many specimens as the original model, and he and his cohorts started all over again. "For a while there," says Meyers, "it seemed that the entire population of Kankakee was dropping in to help or just to gawk.
"Freeze-drying fish and game for sportsmen is really no more difficult than freeze-drying coffee for housewives," says Meyers, placing a just-finished multihued snake in a cupboard. His unit includes a compressor that keeps a large specimen tank at approximately 10° above zero (a home freezer is generally about 5° colder) and creates an almost perfect vacuum. Another compressor maintains a condenser tank at about 50° below zero. Both tanks are connected to a large pipe; a vacuum pump is hooked up to the specimen tank. When the unit is activated, the moisture from the animals in the specimen tank is drawn to refrigeration coils in the condenser tank where it turns to ice to be disposed of later. The vacuum pump keeps the specimens from shrinking. Throughout the process, Meyers constantly weighs them until there is no further weight loss, evidence that all moisture has been withdrawn. The specimen will neither thaw nor rot, because after total dehydration, innards frozen at minus 50° take on the consistency of Styrofoam. Naturally, a six-point buck will take longer to dehydrate than an armadillo.
April 24, 1977
Nowadays, Meyers' steam boiler, which is only one diametric foot smaller than the unit used by the Smithsonian, is almost always full. A baby mouse lies cheek by jowl with a trout, a deer's head is athwart a horseshoe crab and a coyote is alongside a pheasant.
Meyers is particular about preserving animals in lifelike poses, which is fitting, because it is a rare customer who wants his dead fish to look like a dead fish. When preserving fish, he fastens pieces of cardboard to the fins and under the gill plates, holding them in place with paper clips so that they remain open while freezing. By and large, fish colors must be restored by painting (exceptions are northern pike and muskies). Meyers points to a 6½-pound large-mouth high on the wall above an equally open-mouthed penguin. "The sooner fish and game are frozen by the sportsmen, the better the chances are that they will lose almost nothing of their natural look," he says. "Too many people leave their trophies lying in the trunk of a car. Sometimes, by the time I get them a certain amount of spoilage has already taken place, and I have to work harder."
For large animals such as fox or coyote, as well as for birds. Meyers uses a homemade wire box for positioning the specimen, using bits of string and cloth and wire strips to hold the animal in place during the freezing process. Depending on the size of the specimen, he will take anywhere from one to five months to complete a job. He can be contacted at Route 3, P.O. Box 215, Sand Bar Rd., Kankakee, Ill. 60901. His prices are in line with standard taxidermy fees—about $2.50 per inch. Books and documents damaged by a flood or attic mildew can also be restored in Meyers' freeze-dry unit.
A bear standing on its hind legs in a corner of his workshop, forelegs outstretched, looks ready to lunge at intruders. "Some say this isn't true taxidermy." says Meyers, "but what difference does it make how it's done when you get a specimen that looks like that?" One leaves, passing the two tiny deer nestled in shrubbery, their eyes as liquid and bright as the day they were unborn.