Stuffing game is his game

Tom Batters
Robyn Rocke, owner of Rocke's Wildlife Studio in Eureka, stands next to a full-sized lion that he is working on for a customer who shot it while on an African safari.

Robyn Rocke smiled and said, “We like to refer to ourselves as reconstructive surgeons.”

But, there is actually some truth behind the joke.

Rocke, owner of Rocke’s Wildlife Studio in Eureka, has performed taxidermy for more than 30 years.

An hour-long tour of his studio revealed that there is much more to this delicate art than some people may realize.

“It’s an art, just like painting or sculpting something. We take pride in making everything look real, right down to the last detail — the wrinkles under the eyes, the bending of the joints...”

It all starts with the skin.

In fact, in most cases, the skin is the only part of the animal that is used in taxidermy.

Rocke and his two-man staff (Obed Fritz and Rocke’s son, Jake) perform several procedures on the skin so that it is preserved and colored to look just like it did when the animal was alive.

Then, using several detailed measurements as their guide, they meticulously place the skin onto a urethane mold that was created to match the exact size of the animal.

“That’s where the word ‘taxidermy’ comes from,” Rocke said. “It means taxiing, or moving, of skin.”

Many times, the skin is discolored, scarred, or even blown away altogether in some parts, so the challenge of restoring it can get daunting, even for someone of Rocke’s experience.

“This one has a slight slug hole,” he said, pointing to one of the several deer skins hanging from the back room where much of the “surgery” takes place. “We’ll have to cut it out, sew it back together, and do some airbrushing to make it look like it was never there.”

Local hunters bring their game into Rocke so he can create trophies for them to display in their homes.

There are deer, of course —lots of them.

But, the skins of moose, turkeys, beavers, elk, pheasants, snakes, fish, and even a life-sized lioness sit in the studio awaiting their treatment.

The full-sized lioness will bring chills to anyone who walks close enough to it. It looks real enough to pounce.

“That came from a local hunter who shot it while on an African safari (he had the skin treated and shipped to us),” Rocke said. “It is a very difficult piece. There are a lot of wrinkles under the eyes. It took a lot of work to recreate that detail.”

Rocke has seen it all over the years.

“I’ve done moles, mice, pets, you name it,” he said.

Moles?

“A guy who ran a pest control business wanted to have a life-sized mole, so he could show his clients what a mole looked like. I’ve done a few moles, actually.”

While he may consider himself a “surgeon,” he also calls himself an “artist.”

“That’s what I enjoy the most about this. I like turning something into a piece of art.”

He points to a rattle snake display he is working on. The back of the display contains three cacti.

“Those are real cactus spines that I ordered,” he said. “I super glue each one onto the cactus to make it look like real.”

Rocke started dabbling in taxidermy when he was in high school in the late seventies.

“When I was younger, I was always out in the woods hunting and trapping,” he said. “I learned a lot of it myself from a book from the Outdoor Life Club. A mink was the first animal I did many years ago.”

Since then, he has attended many seminars and world conventions so he can stay on top of the latest techniques, but there is no substitute for experience.

“When a customer brings in a challenging piece, I can say, ‘I’ve done that before.’ Not much surprises me anymore.”