These Alaska women are carving out a niche in the age-old taxidermy industry

Samantha Huckstep stood in front of a Kodiak brown bear mount in her garage last month and held a flashlight at the tip of its nose, aiming the light into its round, dark, glass eyes.

"If the two glares are in the middle of the eyes, you know they're centered," Huckstep explained.

A hunter had killed the brown bear in July, and Huckstep wanted to make the dead animal look alive again. As a taxidermist, that's her job.

Huckstep, a 29-year-old who once worked as an animal control officer, started the taxidermy shop in her garage in Eagle River in 2015.

Nationwide, more and more women are entering taxidermy, an age-old industry long dominated by men, according to Larry Blomquist, who has organized the World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships since 1994.

"The number of women entering the industry and having an interest in taxidermy is much higher than it was years ago," he said.

Taxidermists in Alaska say the trend is apparent here, too, on a smaller scale. Huckstep is part of it. She said she wants to help reinvigorate and modernize the industry.


"When I started hunting, I wanted to preserve the animal and use it to the fullest," Huckstep said.

Blomquist said it's hard to say exactly what's driving the increase in women in taxidermy. Some theorize that more women are hunting and that has something to do with it. Others say the internet has opened a window into the once shadowy industry, showing people that taxidermy is more of a technical artistry than a morbid craft. In some other states, it has become a hobby for hipsters.

For Huckstep, taxidermy is about immortalizing memories and using all parts of the animal killed.

"A lot of anatomy goes into it," Huckstep said in her garage, staring into the brown bear's eyes, surrounded by antlers, black bear hides, fish molds and a life-size Dall sheep mount.

Huckstep grew up in a hunting family. She said she remembers two deer heads hanging on the wall of her parents' home and always thought taxidermy was something she might like to do.

In 2014, she finally decided to quit her job, take out a $40,000 loan and go to taxidermy school.

At her secluded Eagle River home, at the top of a steep driveway, she keeps learning by studying YouTube videos and photographs. Every once in a while she looks out her window and sees a moose or bear ambling by.

To re-create the brown bear in her garage, Huckstep draped its tanned hide over a giant white foam mold — like a mannequin — manufactured Outside.

She sculpted the mold to fit the brown bear hide and carved foam pieces to create muscles in the arms. Around the eyes, which she set with clay, she tucked the hide to create its eyelids and eyebrows.

"I want it to resemble real life as much as possible," she said.

Over the decades, she said, taxidermy has changed.

"In traditional taxidermy, they didn't care about anatomy," she said. "They just shoved it full of sawdust and rags and newspaper. They used arsenic and formaldehyde. Today's taxidermy — you're not going to get sick on this stuff. A little kid could go over and lick it and survive."

Just north of Eagle River, in Chugiak, Andrea Radford also started a taxidermy shop in her two-car garage.

Radford, 40, said her husband is in the military and was stationed in Alaska in 2007. She had a job offer at an oil company, but turned it down. She wanted to work from home at a job with flexible hours so she could spend more time with her daughter, who is now 13.

"I wanted something artistic and detail-oriented that would still keep me working with the public," she said.

Radford said she decided "taxidermy would be the way to go." She hunted and fished, she said, "so turning to taxidermy was a pretty easy transition." She worked as an apprentice for a taxidermist in Anchorage for a year before opening her own shop in 2012.

Some of her customers say they're surprised to see a female taxidermist, she said, and many have asked who scrapes the fat from the animals' hides, a process called fleshing.


"A lot of them just assume that I don't do it," Radford said. "So they're kind of surprised when I say, 'No, I do it. It's not a big deal.' "

In Anchorage, Russell Knight opened Knight's Taxidermy nearly three decades ago. He said in the past six years or so, he's seen the number of women interested in taxidermy spike.

"They're taking taxidermy to a new level and turning it into more of an artistry," he said.

Knight also serves as the vice president of the National Taxidermists Association and he starred in a reality TV show on the History Channel about his taxidermy shop.

This summer, Knight had three interns at the shop and all were women, which he said was once unusual.

"We didn't generally have gals like Carri Ann just show up and want to know about taxidermy and I attribute that to a lot of factors," Knight said. Those factors include TV shows about taxidermy, magazines about taxidermy and the endless internet, he said.

"You can Google anything now. You can go see anything. People are now understanding that taxidermy is an art and not just a bunch of gross guys spitting tobacco on the floor," he said.

Carri Ann Mueller, a 43-year-old who lives in Chugiak, was working as the marketing manager at an outdoors retailer when she met Knight. She said she started hunting more than a decade ago, picking it up as a new hobby after running marathons became too tough on her knees.


After she shot her first mountain goat in 2016, Mueller said, she became interested in taxidermy. She wanted to make a rug out of it, and it seemed economical to learn to do it herself. Like Huckstep, she said she wanted to use the whole animal.

Mueller said she asked Knight if he would help her, and she became an intern at his shop. She works for free and last month was finishing up a caribou shoulder mount.

"It's a special kind of art," she said. "Some girls like knitting, some girls like crocheting, some girls like quilting and here I am sewing animal hides — it's totally a different type of hobby."

Maybe one day, she said, she'll start her own business.

In Kenai, Amanda Alaniz, a trapper, is just getting started crafting animal mounts and is practicing with her own hides. Her main business is fur sewing, she said, though she would like to eventually make taxidermy a larger chunk of her work.

"I've always been interested in dead things," Alaniz said.

Alaniz, 31, said she has a budding interest in rogue taxidermy — the creation of fantasy animals, like mice with mohawks.

She is currently working on crafting a unicorn out of a horse cape and an African oryx horn. To amp up the oddity, she plans to spray paint it black and white.

In Eagle River, Huckstep's more traditional business has continued to grow.

Last year, she had 160 taxidermy jobs and in 2017, that number topped 250, she said. The jobs range from antler mounts to life-size mounts to skull cleanings. That's where her beetle colony comes in.

Last month, Huckstep lifted the lid of an unplugged freezer behind her garage and the thousands of flesh-eating beetles inside scurried out of sight.

The stench of decay leaked into the air. Huckstep put two black bear skulls into the freezer and closed the lid. The beetle colony, she said, would eat any remaining scraps of meat left on the bears' bones, cleaning the skulls.


In a nearby shed, a grizzly bear hide hung covered in a salt mixture. In her pickup sat the massive head of a bison. Taxidermy requires heavy lifting, she said, and it can get messy.

"I have to shower anytime I leave the house," she said with a laugh.

But Huckstep said it's worth it. Her favorite part of taxidermy is the end result and giving her creation back to the hunter.

"I love the customer coming up. I love the expression on their face," she said.

One day, Huckstep said, maybe she'll start her own taxidermy school in Alaska so she can pass on the centuries-old craft.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.