Joanna Suitors, Female Taxidermist
A Putnam County artisan cutting it in a male-dominated industry.
When Joanna Suitors was debating a career in taxidermy, her mentor gave her a quick litmus test: If you can skin a deer, turn around, and eat lunch, you’ll be okay. And she could.
For the past 25 years, Suitors, 56, has mounted some 4,000 animals at her one-woman business, Leatherman Creek Taxidermy in Greencastle. She has reconstructed elk, buffalo, sheep, raccoons, turkey, fish, squirrels, black bear, and wild boar, but now specializes in white-tailed deer. Unlike bigger operations, she does all the work herself and by hand.
In her sunny studio, she works a deer on a full-shoulder mount. Suitors is a sturdy woman, dried clay streaking her strong hands. She reaches her favorite moment in the laborious process. The hide has been measured, skinned, fleshed by hand, salted, soaked in brine, neutralized, washed twice, brushed with tanning cream, washed again to remove the cream, then stitched to mend bullet holes, and now lies limp in the sink, like a discarded bathrobe. Suitors flips the hide over the glued-up mold. Voila!
It looks like a deer again. Not perfect. But give her an hour. She pats the buck’s neck. “I haven’t seen you in a while.”
When Suitors opened her business—a second income to support five children—she was the only taxidermist in Putnam County. Now you can’t shoot a muzzleloader without hitting one, though few women have taken up the art. Men like Melvin Young of Reelsville don’t mind the gender gap. Women tend to be more detail-oriented, he says. “I’m pretty choosy, and she’s the only one I take them to.”
Hunters often burst through her door, eager to share deer stories. Suitors will listen, but she has no interest in the sport. “They assume because I’m in three shades of green that I’m out there crawling through the weeds, but I’m not,” she says. “I don’t eat it or kill it. But I don’t look down my nose at people who do.”
A traditionalist, she has firm rules. No pets. No goofy poses. “I’m not going to jam an arrow through the head,” she says. “I’m not going to freeze-dry your cat.”
Her studio is clean but packed with gear: bench grinder, chain saw, buckets of antlers, freezers, a bathtub, drills, a million kinds of hand tools. Suitors stitches the buck’s hide with a four-inch needle and waxed twine, staples the hair to the back of the form, tucks the hide around the eyes. Later, she’ll fuss with the tear ducts. Her own eyes water when she describes what she likes best about her work. “When someone says, ‘Thank you, Joanna.’ When someone appreciates the effort it takes to do something nice.”
She walks away, done for now. The buck looks regal, knowing. Even up close, you’d swear it was alive.
This is the first piece in a new series called Work, exploring interesting jobs in Indiana. Its author, Lili Wright, teaches English at DePauw University and has been published in The New York Times and Newsweek. Her recent novel, Dancing with the Tiger, was an Edgar Awards finalist.