Jana Cook poses for a portrait with armfuls of mountain lion pelts at the Wildlife Gallery in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan. Cook sorts finished hides and boxes them up to be shipped back to taxidermists. Nic Antaya
YOU’VE JUST KILLED the buck of a lifetime. After a few quick photos, you carefully field dress and cape your deer. Then you flesh, prep, and salt the hide, or maybe just freeze it. The next day you carry the cape, along with that massive rack, through the doors of your local taxidermy shop, holding the two items with all the pride and diligence of a mother clutching her newborn twins.
But now you must hand over your trophies, swipe your credit card for the down payment, and then…wait. If you’re lucky, it will be about one year before you see your buck again. But it could be closer to two years. If you’re unlucky, it could even be three.
So why, exactly, does it take so damned long to get a deer (or any animal) back from the taxidermist? There are many reasons, but one good one is that most taxidermists send skins off to be tanned before they get to work on your mount. Properly tanning a hide takes real knowledge and skill—not to mention time. Plus, most of the big tanneries in America have shuttered as their owners retired or moved out of the industry. Many small tanneries shut down during the Covid pandemic and never reopened.
But the largest tannery in America, The Wildlife Gallery, is still cranking out finished hides as it has since it was founded in 1994, with owner Brad Eldred tanning hides out of his barn. Today, the Wildlife Gallery has a number of facilities in Michigan, Texas, and Alaska. Its more than 100 employees shave, tan, and finish hides from all over the world. But the tannery’s success wasn’t built on volume alone. The Wildlife Gallery is known for turning out quality hides that taxidermists can use to create the best mounts possible.
“Taxidermists want a tan that will provide good stretch, dry slowly, and not shrink,” says Jerred Peterson, senior vice president for The Wildlife Gallery. “And that’s where I think we set ourselves apart.”
Here’s a look at how the biggest tannery in America transforms a muddy and bloody animal hide into a beautifully tanned finished product.
Alex Robinson is Outdoor Life’s editor-in-chief. He oversees an ace team of writers, photographers, and editors who are scattered across the continent and cover everything from backcountry sheep hunting to trail running.