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Re-Animator

In a dark little shop on the northwest side, one man brings the dead to life.

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At Arctic Circle Taxidermy on Irving Park near Central, the storefront is always dark and the grate is always half closed. Signs say the shop is open by appointment, and its window is filled with animals, but you'd swear nothing had moved in there for years.

When the door opens, though, a string of bells above it rings, and the hulking man behind the counter sits up straight and peers over the top of his wire-rimmed glasses. Ted Nazarowski has an appointment this morning, but this young man in a hooded sweatshirt isn't it. He begins to browse.

"Hi there," Nazarowski says. "Just having a look around?"

The man looks surprised to hear a voice. "Pardon me?"

"Having a look around?"

"Yeah."

"Good."

"Do you know Hector?" the man asks.

Nazarowski's face lights up. "Sure, Hector, of course--how is he?"

Hector is another taxidermist, and as it turns out the young man, whose name is Manuel, does some work for him. Nazarowski's relieved. Sometimes when people walk in off the street the first thing they do is berate him: "Oh, it looks so beautiful! How could you have killed it?" But Manuel, though he's not a full-fledged taxidermist, is one of the brethren. And good help is hard to find--the work requires a certain constitution, and an eight-week taxidermy course can cost between $4,000 and $6,000.

Nazarowski himself never went to taxidermy school. When he was a kid growing up near the wilds of Humboldt Park, the only one he'd heard of was a mail-order house in South Dakota. But he never sent in the matchbook cover and doesn't regret it. He read adventure stories and Hemingway, dreamed of hunting and traveling the world someday. He read about taxidermy and famous taxidermy enthusiasts like Theodore Roosevelt and George Armstrong Custer. He figured out for himself how to restore the capuchin monkey now climbing up the side of his door, or how to make it seem like the deer in his window are running off their pedestals.

"I'm a quick study," he says. "I have a natural skill."

He didn't hunt until he was 18, and didn't shoot his first animal, a deer, until he was 20. But he'd been practicing mounting specimens--not "stuffing," he says, because the animal's skin is mounted on a foam mannequin--from the age of 12. Most were flattened squirrels and pigeons he found on the side streets around Division and Kedzie. The owner of the local taxidermy shop, Acme Taxidermy, helped him out with leather scraps.

Still, Nazarowski had never thought of taxidermy as a possible career. He took commercial art at Lane Tech and then two years of sculpture at the Art Institute before dropping out and heading to California to "find himself." He wound up finding himself a real job back in Chicago as an insurance-fraud investigator. After eight years it hit him: "I was making good money, but it wasn't enough. I thought, There's got to be more to life than this. I was a sculptor at the Art Institute, a hunter and fisherman, and I put it all together."

In 1980 he took $5,000 in savings and opened Arctic Circle Taxidermy at Addison and Pulaski. (He'd first considered going into the business during a vacation in Alaska, and at the time "Arctic" made him the first taxidermist listing in the phone book.) He moved to the current (and larger) store on Irving Park in 1988. Now 55, he has seven people working for him part-time and could always use another. He considers himself a success.

"When you're in art there's not many fields you can enter professionally. This was one," he says. "It's art work is what it is. It's wildlife art, sculpture. No two taxidermists are the same. Even though there's now commercial mannequins you can purchase and mount the skins over, it's the taxidermist's skill and art you're buying."

Nazarowski has applied his skill to everything from hummingbirds to elephants. His work has been displayed in the Field Museum as well as museums in Milwaukee and Pennsylvania. He's fabricated elk horns for the Lyric Opera and a deer head for the Steppenwolf production of Buried Child that went on to Broadway. This summer he contributed to a multimedia piece by artist Mark Dion called Urban Wildlife Observation Unit, which was installed in New York City's Madison Square Park. "They wanted us to send them mounted mice and pigeons to New York from Chicago," Nazarowski says. "There was no artist in New York that was willing to take that on."

Sometimes the job takes him on the road: "Ho-Chunk Casinos near Green Bay, they lost a buffalo," he says. "I had to go up there and skin the buffalo in the field, and then I mounted it up for the casino." Other times the job is on the road: "I restored a moose head that blew off the back of a guy's truck and skidded down the highway on its nose." The nose couldn't be restored, so he built a new one.

Recently Nazarowski has found a new market in bereaved pet owners. Having one's dog preserved and placed as if sleeping by the hearth was fairly common in the Victorian era, he explains, but this form of sentimentality had fallen out of fashion until recently. "Now we're getting more and more calls," he says. The practice is trendy enough again that it was featured on 20/20 in September, but Nazarowski says he's one of only a couple of taxidermists in Chicago who will take on that type of job. He did about ten pets last year, including dogs, cats, and parakeets.

"It's very time-consuming," he says. "Also, most taxidermy artists--how can I put it nicely?--don't have the ability to make that pet look alive for the owners. Working on wild game is one thing, but working on a pet that they've seen all their lives is another thing. You have to work extensively with photos, and it's a very hard job to do."

Newly killed trophies come in during and after hunting season, but most of Nazarowski's business is in restoration, which goes on all year. His shop floor is so jam-packed with specimens it looks like the forest at rush hour. A brown bear in line for a custom-made Plexiglas base snarls in the general direction of three white-tailed deer awaiting repair or pickup and a black bear that's for sale on consignment. A grizzly claws the air in front of a wall of moose and buck and ram heads, amid which hangs a lone octopus.

Or rather a model of an octopus. "The skin on an octopus is like working with wet tissue, so we cast that in fiberglass," Nazarowski explains. The fish in the shop aren't real either--a fiberglass cast is cheaper, more convenient (the customer doesn't have to bring in the fish, just a photo will do), and more adaptable. "Fish can get bigger and bigger," Nazarowski says. "It's all art work."

As Nazarowski's talking, two short-haired young men walk by the store window and bleat: "Baaaaa."

There are no sheep in the shop.

Nazarowski says he understands these negative reactions--he just doesn't respect them. The people who complain are misinformed. "They think animals are pretty and they shouldn't be killed," he says. "They think animals are just killed for taxidermy reasons, not realizing that the meat is used as food." He points to a McDonald's across the street. "It's the Bambi reflex. They take the kids to McDonald's and the kids have no idea that what they're eating is ground-up animal.

"When you've traveled the world, you understand that only Americans are that naive. You go to other countries, especially African countries, and meat is protein, meat is life. Europe too. To hunt in Europe is so expensive it's exclusively for the rich. I mean, Canadians have a great outlook. They understand wildlife is a resource. It's a resource that can't be abused."

Misunderstood or not, Nazarowski's services are increasingly in demand these days--so much so that he's neglecting personal business. He took his sons, ages 8 and 14, on a cull-hunting trip in Africa last year, but still hasn't mounted the greater kudu and blesbok they shot. "I don't have time for them yet," he admits. "Maybe when they finish college."

Before Manuel, the taxidermist's helper, leaves the shop, Nazarowski makes sure to get his phone number.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Stephen J. Serio.

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