Hank the Moose has been at it in Alaska for more than 10 years, holding steady for photos with babies and moms, newlyweds and convention goers, giggling girls and uncertain boys.
The Christmas holidays are boom time. Roger Davis, the third owner, positions the giant stuffed ungulate inside the Anchorage 5th Avenue Mall on a wheeled metal stand in front of a snowy spruce backdrop. A double blanket and saddle protect the hide, which is rubbing bare in spots.
Davis, a car salesman-turned-photographer, waits for customers who he expects will start lining up now that it's the holiday shopping season. He displays past Hank photos as a way to pull customers in, including his all-time favorite, a fishing foursome who hammed it up with poles, nets and rubber boots.
"We can handle about 250 people every four hours," Davis said. "The funny thing about it is tourists don't get the idea, but locals do. They know they don't ride a moose."
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski had her picture taken with Hank. So did Iditarod musher Martin Buser, a state trooper, and Smokey the Bear. Channel 2's Tracy Sinclare did the weather from Hank at the Alaska State Fair. Boys seem more skittish about climbing the tall ladder to sit on Hank than girls, Davis said. He discourages skirts and dresses. People don't listen. He bought some extra large hats that can be strategically placed.
The original owner was a taxidermist, who took Hank around but only shot Polaroids. The second owner, a woman named Suzanne, upgraded the operation to a degree.
Davis' wife, Maraya, saw potential for a jam-up business. Seven years ago at the Alaska State Fair, her son got a photo with Hank. Maraya came home and told Roger that if the moose ever came up for sale, they should buy it. Davis, who had already been selling his landscape photos, wanted to get out of car sales and spend more time with the family.
Two years later, Maraya spotted Hank on Craigslist. They made a deal with Suzanne.
"We knew he'd take off," Maraya said.
Like any business, there's upkeep. They're getting a new backdrop, with mountains and a sunset. Hank may need a new hide. He sheds so much he's beginning to look gray. When they put Hank in storage every January, "he has to take about five cans of Aqua Net to keep the hair on him," Davis said.
Hank's spindly legs are reinforced with steel rods. The body is supported with a foam-covered wooden box. An internal 2-by-4 props up his head. Davis tells people the moose can support 375 pounds, knowing that people may fudge their weight a bit.
There's a secret to Hank that only his taxidermist knows for sure.
He may not be all Hank.
The first year the Davises had Hank, a man at a show in Soldotna came up to them.
"He said, 'I'm the one who made him,' " Davis remembers.
The taxidermist said it all started when he had a bull moose hide that he didn't know what to do with.
The head, however, came from a cow moose, Davis was told. No one wanted to part with a bull moose trophy. The antlers from a bull are attached to the skull with a steel rod.
The different moose blend together. Hank doesn't look like a stitched-together Hankenstein.
Davis hauls Hank around in a large horse trailer to events all around the Railbelt: the Tanana Valley Fair in Fairbanks, the Alaska State Fair in Palmer to the Seward Polar Bear Plunge. He's been at school bazaars, at the Anchorage Hilton, and on the third floor of the Dena'ini center for conventions. He's on Facebook.
A couple years ago near Healy, Davis hit a patch of black ice and lost control of the rig. Hank's straps came loose.
"He was banged around," Davis said. "He had four broken legs and a broken neck." Knight's Taxidermy in Anchorage put him back together again, better than ever. His eyes sparkle like he's seeing you.
Davis figures he's taken pictures of 8,000 to 9,000 people with Hank. His wife thought it was 20,000. OK, Davis said, maybe 10,000.
Some people come back year after year. A dating couple, then newlyweds, then with their baby. The last photo some people ever have made is with Hank.
"He's lived his life several times," Maraya Davis said.
Reach Lisa Demer at email@example.com or 257-4390.
By LISA DEMER