Etsy may be full of items that required little effort to create and don’t look especially original, but that’s not what you see on Erica Heath’s page.
Located in Philomath, artisan Erica Heath takes your trophy animals and family pets and brings to life fanciful things such as animal skulls painted as la Dia de Los Muertos sugar skulls, and makes pendants of transparent acrylic to display animal teeth, tiny crabs, and even cannabis leaves.
Hunters bring Heath the heads and other parts of whitetail deer, pronghorn antelope and cougars. Even a bear is just another job. She buys deceased exotic animals such as zebras and vervet monkeys, but only “from [U.S.] ranches or zoos … to avoid having to deal with import paperwork.”
Heath on Family Pets
Heath handles pets, but won’t try to stuff and mount one the way some taxidermists do.
“When a person has spent 15+ years looking at an individual animal every day, they pick up and recognize tiny qualities that any other person will not see,” she said. “If one ear is placed incorrectly, or a crooked whisker isn’t realized, the owner will notice and it will feel like a stranger to them.”
If you want to have your cat’s hide tanned, the skull of your ferret cleaned, or even have your dog’s noble heart “mummified,” she is ready to do it.
Heath on Larger Animals
I asked her the largest animal she’d ever handled. She had to think for a minute before saying Roosevelt Elk are the heaviest by weight, but she also cleaned the skull of the biggest black bear ever shot in Oregon. In her personal collection is the skull of a 14-foot alligator that reminds her of the dinosaurs she’s always been fond of.
She’s hoping to up her large-animal game: in Newport, “a blue whale has been submerged in the bay since 2015 for flesh removal … This is only the second blue whale to wash up in Oregon since Lewis and Clark. I have been patiently waiting since 2019 to be a part of the de-greasing, whitening, and articulation of this largest creature on the planet, [whose] skull weighs 6,500 lbs.”
Heath said it’s a rare opportunity: “Because of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, one can only hope to touch a blue whale through an official organization or university, which is why I contacted OSU to be part of this project.”
I asked her if she’d ever made the classic bearskin rug. She answered that bear pelts “weigh far too much for me to lift and they are far too thick to be softened without machines to shave the skin. I hope to someday have the machinery to process larger hides when I have an indoor location.”
Heath on Protected Birds
You’ll find amazing things on Heath’s Etsy and Facebook pages, but she has to refuse some jobs. The most common reason is the Migratory Bird Act of 1918. “Many people don’t realize that all raptors and all native migratory birds – including your common crows and scrubjays – are protected by…[t]he MBTA,” a law enacted soon after the 1914 extinction of the passenger pigeon. Even a shed feather you see lying on the sidewalk is covered by the Act, so if you do pick one up, be cautious what you do with it.
Heath on Faux Fur
“Vegan” taxidermy, made from artificial fur, is popular lately, and when asked about it, Heath had an answer some may find surprising: “I see vegan taxidermy as being far less ethical than real taxidermy. Taxidermy may use the fur of animals but vegan taxidermy uses faux fur…non-biodegradable plastics. I only buy real [vintage] fur coats [that] don’t pollute the environment with microplastics and other pollutants. Fake fur is plastic and it doesn’t last long before it is thrown away. Real fur lasts 100 years or more.”
When she buys a fur, it will be recycled rather than thrown in the landfill. And when it is thrown in the landfill eventually, it will biodegrade.
How to Process a Skull
I saw quite a few skulls at her site and asked her how she turned a dead elk or cow head into a clean white skull. I learned not to call skulls bleached: “a taboo word as you never want to use household bleach on bone.” Also, she won’t “boil the meat off of a skull for a faster turnaround … boiling bone only damages it by cooking the grease into it.”
She says, “Similar to flesh eating beetles, but less work to take care of, [maggots] do a very good job, even though they’re gross. After they do most of the work, my skulls then go into a room temperature water bath for a number of months until my bacterial culture has completely finished de-fleshing the bone. After the bone is clean, it must go through a months-long process of degreasing.
“If you want your trophy bear or buck to be handed down to your grandchildren, a slow and precise processing of the bone is required. Anything of quality takes a good amount of time.”
And after they’re degreased: “Once a skull is fully degreased … I use a peroxide mixture [to whiten it]. After several whitening sessions, a skull must fully dry, have all of the teeth and small bones glued in, and the antlers or horns must be stained or sanded … my process takes a long time and a lot of hands-on work.
“It takes an extremely strong stomach and a lot of patience and understanding, as well as respect, to clean skulls to the quality that I do,” Heath said. “Skulls that bake in the sun become permanently stained and rough to the touch. It’s hard to describe exactly why my end product is so unique but every customer understands it immediately upon the return of their skull and comes back for more every year.”
Where to Find Erica Heath
Heath is working through the pandemic, open for personally commissioned painting, jewelry, and home decor, although she’s not currently available for traditional taxidermy. You can also shop her Etsy store.
John M. Burt