By Kristy Koehler, June 25 2020—
“Creating the illusion of life is no different than a magic trick,” says Ken Walker, a three-time world champion taxidermist — and Albertan — in the opening minutes of the documentary film Big Fur. “Ken has magic in his hands,” a fellow taxidermist chimes in a bit later, doubling down on the magical metaphor and confirming that what we’re about to see is something very unique.
Big Fur is a lot of stories rolled into one. On the surface, it’s about a Bigfoot-obsessed taxidermist who takes the art of mounting animals to extremes, engaging in not only conventional taxidermy, but in re-creation taxidermy as well. He’s created Irish Elk and Saber-tooth Tigers — animals long extinct — as well as a giant panda for the Smithsonian.
“The difference between conventional taxidermy and recreation taxidermy is that you basically in taxidermy are creating a form to fit a hide and in re-creation taxidermy you’re creating a hide to fit an existing form,” explains Walker in the film.
Dan Wayne, in his feature documentary debut, manages to make the film about far more than just taxidermy. It’s a poignant look at going against the grain, putting your whole heart into the things you believe in and preserving what you love. There’s also a healthy dose of entertainment.
“There’s a lot of weird Bigfooters, I’ll tell you that,” says Wayne in an interview with the Gauntlet.
Wayne met Walker through his own personal interest in taxidermy. He’d spent some time on online forums in an attempt to learn more about the art form and in doing so, found himself drawn to the stories of the people who made their living through mounting animals.
Originally, Bigfoot wasn’t the focus. Rather, it was about bringing awareness to an art form that’s experiencing a resurgence and suffers from some unfortunate stereotypes. Wayne sees taxidermy as a merger between art and science, and hopes viewers will too.
“That was really the main goal when I started out,” said Wayne. “And, from a lot of people that I talk to that have watched it, I think it was successful in that aspect.
“One of the things I started hearing over and over early on was that taxidermists struggle with this stereotype of that kind of backwoods guy mounting deer heads in his garage. There’s also the stereotype of the creepy serial killer — the Norman Bates type — that hangs over the head of all the taxidermists — especially the ones that are over 50 and are from that era.”
Walker was the natural choice for the main character in a tale about taxidermy — after all, he’s the best in the world. He’s also a natural showman who shines in the spotlight — he does a mean Roy Orbison impression and even manages to tie his love of karaoke up into a taxidermy analogy.
“They’re not really clapping for you, they’re clapping for Roy,” he says. “Karaoke is a bit like taxidermy in that you’re re-creating something.”
When the two started chatting, the would-be director discovered there was even more of a story to tell — a big hairy one.
“I knew Ken had a thing about Bigfoot, but I didn’t know just how much,” says Wayne. “Whenever you talk to Ken, the subject always somehow ends up about Bigfoot. A lot of taxidermists will specialize in mammals or birds or fish, but Ken’s known for doing these loyal recreations, species that have been extinct for thousands of years. When I found out he was getting ready to make a Bigfoot I thought, ‘That’s the movie right there.’”
“There’s a lot of people in the taxidermy industry who think that I’ve lost my mind, which is fine, you know,” says Walker in the film. “Some people are afraid of sharks, some people are afraid of spiders, upstanding normal people are terrified of ridicule.”
Walker certainly isn’t afraid of ridicule. For him, the existence of Bigfoot is a foregone conclusion. He based his re-creation on the ‘Patterson-Gimlin film’ — the grainy, 1967 footage shot in Northern California that’s become the quintessential proof for many that Bigfoot does indeed exist.
Because he takes his art so seriously, Walker meticulously re-creates his Bigfoot according to that footage. He looks forward, he says with complete confidence, to comparing his re-creation to the real thing someday to see just how accurate he was.
Adherence to anatomy and science are essential for realistic, award-winning taxidermy. Wayne learned this firsthand while attempting his own animal mounts.
“When you mount an animal you have to learn a lot about that animal,” he says. “You have to study reference photos and really have to study the anatomy. Not only am I more familiar with Bigfoot than I ever thought I’d be, but I’m more familiar with squirrels and possums and racoons than I ever thought I would be.”
Familiar with Bigfoot he may have become, but did Wayne become a true believer while making Big Fur?
“Belief implies faith,” Wayne says. “I look at it more scientifically. I certainly don’t believe Bigfoot came from outer space like some people do, it all has to be based in science for me. We don’t really know what goes on in the woods.
“There’s these different camps of belief in Bigfoot — there’s the people who say ‘There’s no way, we know everything, it’s impossible.’ And I think that’s kind of silly. We are still discovering new species all the time. Then there’s the people — and I think I fall into that category — where it’s not beyond the realm of possibility. It sure would be cool if they found it. Then there’s the people who are convinced that they exist because they’ve seen one — and those people are really fascinating to me. I’ve met a lot of these people while I was making the movie.
“Some of them are really obsessed with protecting Bigfoot’s habitat and that struck me as being incredibly strange and ironic. You have all these other forms of wildlife that we know for sure exist and share that same habitat — why don’t we just preserve it for those other animals and if Bigfoot lives there that’d be great.”
Wayne also says there was plenty more Bigfoot stuff in the film that ended up on the cutting room floor, but that he had to narrow down to what was necessary. And, while including some of the more eccentric Bigfoot footage would certainly have been entertaining, Wayne manages to strike the perfect balance between entertainment and education — leaving the viewer contemplating the value of wilderness.
“If wilderness doesn’t exist and we lose entire wild areas, we’re going to lose more and more species — including Bigfoot — whether Bigfoot exists or not,” he says.
In making the film, Wayne discovered that taxidermists — who are predominantly hunters — and conservationists don’t necessarily get along with environmentalists even though they share the same goal of preserving the wilderness — for Bigfoot, for deer, for whoever…
He says the fringe element of the different groups are the ones who cause friction.
“In reality we’re all a lot more in the middle than we seem — which is probably a good analogy for our times.”
Big Fur is a hard film to sum up. Love is at the heart of it — there’s an interpersonal love story, as well as a true love of an oft-misunderstood art form as well as love of the environment and natural world. There’s also a hilarious tale of Walker’s wife defrosting an eagle instead of a turkey, and plenty of footage of taxidermists packed into hotel conference rooms blowdrying fur, polishing eyes and putting the finishing touches on creatures displayed for championship accolades.
You have to see it to really believe it.
Big Fur is showing as part of the Calgary Underground Film Festival (CUFF). Like many festivals, CUFF shifted to an online format for its 2020 iteration. From June 22-28, 22 feature films are showing for the first time in Alberta. Fans can purchase tickets to individuals films or buy package passes to view their selections in the comfort of their homes. Visit CUFF online for more info.