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A Respect for Wildlife

story by Brook Joyner

The preservation of animals has become Howard Hicks's life work. "One of these days they probably won't be here," he says, "and then the only thing you got left is what we've done."

To Howard, taxidermy is an art and a science.

Inside Howard's Bait and Taxidermy, an unassuming building set far back from the road, deer, bobcat and fowl stare from every direction. Howard has been practicing for 39 years and is self-taught. He has had to learn about working with a variety of chemicals and the anatomies of different animals.

Growing up in a culture of hunting and fishing led Howard to a deep-rooted respect for the sport.  "Unless you've been hunting, you just don't understand what it's all about," Howard explains. "A lot of it's about the camaraderie, the respect for wildlife."

This appreciation for animals manifests itself in the attention to detail he puts into his work. The process varies from animal to animal but always involves tedious hours. From washing to preserving to airbrushing to stitching, Howard takes the time to make everything perfect. "I want to make them look like they did before, if not better," he says.

Howard mounts an average of 50 to 60 deer during gun season, which runs about two weeks each November.

Though he's proud of his work, Howard says he's still learning.  "I don’t care how much schooling you had or whoever showed you whatever, you still learn every time," he says.

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Howard jokes around as he rings up bait for a customer. He initially started solely with taxidermy and later added bait and fishing supplies. Howard grew up in Paducah hunting and fishing so his profession allows him to enjoy another facet of the sport.

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Howard coats a deer hide with borax, which preserves the skin. Although he works mostly with deer, especially during hunting season, he especially enjoys working with turkeys, ducks and other birds.

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Howard double checks the orientation of the artificial deer eye before bonding it to the form with adhesive. Attention to detail is important in taxidermy so Howard takes the time to make sure everything is perfect.

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JoAnne Herdon, 77, watches as Howard stitches up the hide of a deer. JoAnne and Howard have been dating for 17 years. Although JoAnne grew up around people who hunted and fished, taxidermy was a new experience for her. "I was kind of squeamish at first," she said. "But I got used to it."

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After work, Howard drives to dinner with JoAnne. He is at his shop every day of the week.

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JoAnne and Howard joke with the waiters at Cracker Barrel. The couple frequents the restaurant about once a week so they have come to know most of the staff there.

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Tony Snelling, a frequent customer, comes to Howard's Bait and Taxidermy to pick up minnows. He talks with Howard about the day's fishing spots.

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Howard inspects a recently-mounted deer in his taxidermy shop in Paducah. On average, a deer head mount will take him between five and six hours. "I want to make them look like they did before, if not better," Howard says.

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Since his mother's passing five years ago, Howard has kept a photo of her and his father on his workbench at the shop. "We were really close, my mom and me," he says. She had Alzheimer’s which led Howard to become her caregiver.

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After a long work day, Howard and JoAnne relax on the couch to watch television with their cat, Sassy.