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  • Autumn Payne /

    Eric Nelson, whose Rio Oso home provided the site where the 14-foot-tall giraffe was stuffed, loads the animal into a truck as taxidermist Grady Miller provides guidance.

  • Autumn Payne /

    The giraffe's 14-foot-tall frame offers a special challenge at it's moved out of Eric Nelson's Rio Oso house to the truck that will take it to its new home at a Tucson museum.

  • Autumn Payne /

    Nelson has some final moments with his houseguest as it departs for the International Wildlife Museum in Tucson, Ariz.

Tall tale of stuffed 14-foot-tall giraffe to end in Arizona

Published: Saturday, May. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 1B
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 28, 2013 - 10:20 am

Question: How do you move a stuffed 14-foot-tall giraffe?

Answer: Very carefully.

With the help of four other men, Wheatland taxidermist Grady Miller tackled that question Friday as they painstakingly loaded the giraffe into a rented moving truck.

If everything goes right, the story of the giraffe ends Tuesday in Tucson, Ariz., at the International Wildlife Museum.

"Everybody likes a giraffe. It will be a nice addition," said Richard White, museum director.

The story starts in Africa.

About three years ago, a friend of Miller and his family went on a hunting trip to South Africa, where the friend's then- 19-year-old daughter shot and killed the giraffe, Miller said.

For a significant fee, giraffes can be legally hunted. They are listed as an animal of "least concern" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of threatened species.

A South African hunting company, African Sky Safaris & Tours, lists a "trophy fee" of $3,800 to kill a giraffe, in addition to the hunting fee of $450 per night.

The hide must then be treated, which costs another $3,100, Miller said. And then there are U.S. customs fees for bringing it into the United States.

The friend's family paid the fees, then hired Miller to stuff the giraffe.

Miller, who has been a professional taxidermist for seven years, knew right away the job was too big for him alone.

He enlisted the help of friend and fellow taxidermist Jon Verwoest, whose business is in Marysville. Neither man had stuffed a giraffe.

And, neither of their shops were tall enough, so they turned to friend Eric Nelson. It was Nelson's Rio Oso man cave/workshop that served as home base for the operation.

"I had no other place to go," Miller said.

Nelson seemed to enjoy the houseguest.

"It's not every day you get a giraffe in your backyard," he said.

But his wife, Debbe Nelson, wondered whether the giraffe would be gone in time for a large party in June.

The gentle giant spent much of the time on its side as the hide was pulled over a pre-shaped polyurethane form. Most taxidermy is done by customizing ordered forms, as opposed to sculpting forms from scratch, Miller said.

Maneuvering the giraffe – even with the assist of a forklift – is a challenge.

"It was a giant project," Verwoest said, "a backbreaker."

The pair, with Nelson and his wife occasionally checking in on them, worked for nine days assembling the form, mounting the hide, performing touchup painting over blemishes and bare spots on the hide.

The art came in bringing life to the animal's face, the pair said.

"When we put something together, it's sort of like a painting," said Verwoest, who started dabbling in taxidermy as a child.

"You can play with the eyes and ears to make an expression," Miller said. "It takes a real artist's eye to make it look alive."

While one might think that taxidermy would be a dying art, taxidermists say their numbers are growing.

"There is a lot more people getting into it," said Dan Grayson, vice president of the California Association of Taxidermists. "There is an endless stream of people that are interested in taxidermy."

Grayson said it's a wide-open industry where longtime professionals can find themselves undercut by upstarts working out of their garages.

Miller and Verwoest said they are doing well.

"More people have money to spend on this kind of thing," Verwoest said. "When they shoot something in Africa, they want it mounted."

Mounting isn't cheap. It can cost $350 to have a duck done and up to $700 to mount a deer head.

Miller put the total cost of the gift to International Wildlife Museum at $30,000.

The last job before making the 900-mile drive to Arizona was recording a good set of measurements.

White said he wanted to make sure the giraffe could get into the museum building without workers having to remove door frames. The museum has a tattered 13-foot-giraffe that barely made it inside, he said.

"It was like threading the eye of a needle," White said.

In Rio Oso, the men spent the better part of an hour using a forklift to gently lay the giraffe on its side, adjusting the bracing and sliding it into the truck.

"The good thing is (it) is going to a museum," said Debbe Nelson, "so everyone can see it."

Call The Bee's Ed Fletcher, (916) 321-1269. Follow him on Twitter @newsfletch.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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