Mount of a Black Tailed fawn lying amidst leaves

The Taxidermist behind Wild Cortes

Laurel Bohart has volunteered her time to mount or prepare the study skins of 100 birds, fish and mammals for the Cortes Island Museum. She is a member of the Board and one of the co-curators of Wild Cortes in the Linnaea Farm Education Centre. Bohart is also a professional taxidermist, whose interest can be traced back to her parent’s missionary years in Nigeria during the mid 1960s.

The first words she used to describe taxidermy were, “It’s fun.”

To which she added, “It’s a form of sculpture when you mount a bird or a mammal. It’s better than a photograph, which is two dimensional. These are three dimensional.”   

Laurell Bohart with a mounted Bald Eagle – submitted photo

“The first bird I did was a hawk which is like a Cooper’s Hawk, only smaller.   I didn’t know you had to skin the legs, the head, the tail, and the wings. So of course it became smelly and got thrown out. That was my first attempt. Later on I learned to skin them and pin them out and let them dry.”

“We came back to Canada in 1967, and my grandfather showed me how to skin birds and sent me back with eyes and material and wire and a lot of the things I needed plus a book to learn from. So I learned from the same book he did from the early 1900s when he was a boy.”

“My father was killed in 1970, and in 1971 our family came back to Canada permanently.  That’s when I was able to learn more from my grandfather and mounted my first deer head. I think I helped him do a rug or something like that. I learned on the job and bought books that he recommended. I  talked to other taxidermists, did a lot of study and practical application on my own.”

“When I got better at it, I was able to start a business, ‘L and M Taxidermy Service’ in Duncan in 1984. I had  graduated from university by then. I had my master’s in Museum Science and Ornithology, which is bird studies, but couldn’t find a job in the local area. I was tired of traveling. I wasn’t going to go back east  and I had just come back from Kentucky because I had finished my Master’s Degree down there. I didn’t want to go anywhere. I wanted to do what my grandfather did.” 

“I did other things in between times because taxidermy taxidoesn’t always pay well, especially in a recession. We had one in the 1980s. There was a big recession in Duncan. I lost most of my customers. They couldn’t pay, and they had to find jobs because they were in the mills that shut down.  It was a mad scramble for people to find work and places to live. Taxidermy is a luxury. It’s not something you have to have,  like food. Any artisan will suffer when there’s a recession. So you sometimes have to expand what you’re doing and find something else.” 

“By that time there were marital difficulties. My husband was quite mentally ill and we didn’t really know about that back then. He self-medicated quite a lot.  I ended up being the only person running the business, taking care of the house and the kids and relying on neighbors to watch my daughters, while I was at the taxidermy study in Lantzville.”

“I went down to Victoria for a few months, to prepare study skins for the Royal BC Museum. I think I worked for about two months and did over a hundred shrews, voles and mice. They were from the north.  A researcher had brought all her dead animals to the museum. They didn’t have enough people to work on them, so I was it.” 

“At the same time, I met the taxidermist who had worked at the museum. We had a brief affair and he’d introduced me to another taxidermist whom he worked with. So I worked for other taxidermist for a while until there was a blow up because he would leave people like me alone in his shop working away on a bird while he went to the pub.” 

“Customers would phone me and ask ‘is my animal ready.’ “

“‘Well, I don’t know which one’s yours?’ “

“These were fish up on a wall  and they all had a tag. So I’d ask for the tag number. The customer would give me the tag number and then I would look for the tag and it wasn’t there.” 

“I said, ‘I don’t see it. I’ll have to talk to my boss later.’” 

“Well, he promised me it was going to be done.”

“I dunno, anything about that.” 

“So I got into trouble because I told the truth about it, apparently that wasn’t my business. So I ended up out of a job and went back to Lantzville.”

“My marriage broke up.”

“I took the home support course and my present husband’s daughter took the same course. We had  lots of fun, so graduation came and she introduced me to her father.” 

“He brought me up to Cortes in 2002, and I didn’t want to leave.” 

“He had lived in Whaletown during the 1970’s, 80s and 90s. So we went to the areas that he used to know, and he introduced me to places that I might like.”

“You want to buy a house?” he asked.

“I didn’t, and then we came down Whaletown Road to Squirrel Cove,  sheer delight. I saw the mountains, I saw the hills, I saw the birds, and said ‘here.’ There was one place for sale. We bought it. We moved in 2005, and haven’t looked back.” 

“I still did, and still do taxidermy off Cortes.”

Wild Cortes came into being as a result of a display that Bohart made for the Cortes Island Museum close to twenty years ago. We will go into that in more depth in a second broadcast, but first want to look at couple of the other taxidermy exhibits at Wild Cortes.

 One of the displays consists of the heads of two Black Tailed Deer mounted on the wall, with a fawn underneath them.

LB – “We decided to do an exhibit on Blacktail Deer. There’s different races of blacktails. Vancouver Island Blacktails are larger,  because the island itself is much bigger. Black tails, like most deer, will swim from island to island. What happens is the deer get smaller on small islands, in order to accommodate the same number of  their kind.” 

She pointed to the two deer heads mounted on the wall. 

LB – “So that’s a two point at the top and it’s the same two point only much smaller, just below. That’s to show the difference between islands and the space that animals have to roam and to find food.”

CC – Where was the top deer from and where’s the one below it from? 

LB – “The top deer was taken by a hunter in Vancouver Island. I had a taxidermy business in Lantzville called ‘Fin and Feather,’ and I mounted it there. The lower one is mine, which I took in the  Squirrel Cove area.”

CC: – “It almost looks like a teenager.” 

LB: – “No, they’re both adult males about three to four years old. Just because  the other one is smaller, doesn’t make it any younger, and everything has to do with the number of deer on an island, the amount of browse they have and whether or not they’re swimming from island to island.”

“Sometimes they get Elk coming over from the mainland and they’ll cross  the Redondos and swim over to Cortes. We find the occasional Elk prints. They do some browsing and there’s no girls, so they go look for somebody else, somewhere else on some other island. They island hop.”

CC: Tell me about the Black Tail fawn (photo top od page).

LB: – “I did the fawn last year, it died the year before. It was found by somebody in the woods after they’d watched the mother walk off very thin and very sick. She disappeared. They found the fawn later and got it to me.”

Another display was dedicated to the Owl family.  

LB – “The reason we did this particular display is because Barred Owls are eastern birds and they’ve migrated west.  In the east they don’t naturally eat things like Saw-whet Owls. They don’t have them there. They do have Screech Owls and unfortunately Barred Owls are eating Screech Owls, Pygmy Owls and Saw-whet Owls. They’re catching them just like they do Robins.”

“A Sharp-shinned Hawk is an Accipiter Hawk, as is the Cooper’s Hawk. Accipiter Hawks have short wings and long tails, and that’s from maneuvering between trees because these are forest birds. Where I live, we occasionally get a Sharp-shinned Hawk smacking the window because it’s after a songbird.  Cooper’s Hawks also smack windows like that one did, after the same thing.” 

She pointed to one of the other mounted Hawks.

LB: – “This is a Buteo Hawk,  they’re related to Golden Eagles, which is a Buteo Hawk as well. The Golden Eagles are three feet long, but these birds are soaring birds. If you watch them, instead of fluttering through like  a Merlin does, they soar. And while they’re soaring, they’re looking down for whatever’s moving on the ground or the trees: Mice, rats.” 

“This is an adult Redtail Hawk. She’s got quite the history. If you looked at her talon here, she had arthritis. Christine and Cec Robinson found her dead on Whaletown Beach, and they’d watched her soaring over that beach for 18 years. She’d raised a whole bunch of babies. Lots of youngsters, and she finally died of old age. They found her nice and fresh, and here she is.

This is a Goshawk, which is an Accipiter Hawk. Long tail, short wings. They’re forest birds. Unfortunately, they have a liking for chickens and getting into chicken pens. This one was at Mike Manson’s Farm.  He had reinforced his chicken pens so that anything that tried to get through would be caught. By the time they were able to untangle the bird, it was already dead. It is a Species at Risk, so we wanted to keep them going as long as we can. 

I had a Goshawk encounter a few months ago. I have a land tenant and this person had chickens. Well, they didn’t roof over the pen.

“The chickens are yelling their heads off, and I thought, ‘How many of them could have laid an egg?’ That sounded like distress. I went over there and sure enough, this beautiful Goshawk was mantling, that means spreading their wings protecting their food. If somebody else comes along above them,  they’ve shrouded their food and the other hawk can’t see what they’ve got. It’s an instinctive gesture. So, she shrouded her food and growled at me. I started getting in there, and she flew up and sat up in the tree.  I  told her she was a bad bird, and went around to look for something to repair the coop and  by the time I came back she was gone. I let the tenant know that you need to do something about roofing over your coop. So they put strips of yellow tape across and that apparently stops the birds from coming in because they don’t want their wings tangled.”

“Easy solution, but will not stop raccoons. We don’t have any raccoons at my place because we have wolf skat, prints and wolves.” 

In part two of this series, Laurel Bohart will talk about birds and mammals in the context of where they are found in the Cortes Island water cycle.

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Top photo credit: The Black Tailed Deer fawn mentioned in this story – Photo by Melanie Boyle

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