Advanced Taxidermy

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Dying Art

Advanced Wildlife Design breathes new life into the age-old skill of taxidermy and wildlife 'replicas'

When Shawn Galea invites me into the showroom and studio at Advanced Wildlife Design on King Road in Caledon, I am struck first by the change to the 10,000 sq. ft. building since the business set up shop a few years ago. A former farmer's market, the building now houses a highly specialized wildlife design and taxidermy business. The showroom, which once house fresh produce on rough hewn wood shelves, now boasts highly polished gleaming stone floors, shiny wood walls and pewter ceiling panels. To my right is a very realistic polar bear replica- so real it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up for a second; several large fish mounted on driftwood framed with solid wood are lined up to my left. Galea shows me into the studio, where all the hard work is done. Right in front of us are rows and rows of fish ready to be shipped, resting on cardboard berry boxes- the boxes a reminder of the building 's former function.

Advanced Wildlife Design has had some pretty high profile clients- including several NHLers, former premier Mike Harris and, right now, the Bush family. McGregor and Galea are discreet about the work they do for their clients.... "We make things for the richest guy in town down to the newspaper delivery boy," he says. Often, fishermen will come in with a photo of a revered catch and some basic measurements and Galea and McGregor will take it from there recreating the fish.

As Galea shows me through the immaculate room, there are men in overalls working on grey replica fish. We come across a row or turkeys lined up in various attitudes waiting to be shipped. Although they're not the prettiest of birds, when asked about them, Galea says turkeys are a popular item.

Customers bring in the feathers and Advanced Wildlife Design takes care of the rest. "We got into this because we were passionate about wildlife; passionate about art," Galea explains. Galea and his friend, James McGregor set up their business over 21 years ago in a smaller 2,500 sq. ft. studio in Toronto. The friends were avid fishermen in high school and at age 16, Galea started making fish jewelry and pewter fish pins. The young men took Galea's designs to the Toronto Sportsmen Show with the hopes of selling a few; they got something better. Bob Izumi, the sportsman celebrity, saw the jewelry and took an interest.

"He thought they were very unique," Galea says. "He had never seen anything like them." Izumi featured the boys in a five minute spot on his TV show. From small beginnings, the business grew- a few years ago, they outgrew their Toronto space; Galea, who lives in Terra Cotta, wanted something closer to home. When Bailey's Farm downsized its market, Galea and McGregor took up the space.

Neither Galea nor McGregor have formal training in taxidermy. "We sometimes joke that maybe we're doing everything wrong, that we're breaking all the rules," says McGregor. But the 37-year-olds must be doing something right. And last year alone sold 2,000 fish replicas and close to 200 mounted mammals, which is more than any other business in Canada.

But the businessmen believe part of their success can be attributed to the fact that that they're not formally trained. They say it helped them make a unique product in a way that no one else does.

"We're pioneers," says McGregor. "We took the fish off the wall. We were the first to make replicas from moulds. We also take a lot of care in the details- in the composition and design of each piece."

Although they do some taxidermy, Galea says it only makes up about 10 per cent of their business. "We certainly compete with other taxidermy businesses, because our final product is used for the same purpose- as a design feature in a home, cottage or business," he says. But he says the replicas make for a better product than the real thing. Replicas are made from cast moulds of real fish. "They look more like the real fish than the real fish," he says. They last longer and, like other pieces of art, aren't illegal to resell (selling mounted wildlife is contrary to the province's Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act).

Galea says the popularity of wildlife designs has increased in the last five to six years. "Martha Stewart did a show about incorporating wildlife into decor and we noticed and increase in people wanting something for their home or cottage," Galea says, laughing. "Women were actually coming in and wanting something for their home, Usually it's the men begging their wives."

Advanced Wildlife Design has had some pretty high profile clients- including several NHLers, former premier Mike Harris and, right now, the Bush family. McGregor and Galea are discreet about the work they do for their clients and divulge few details of what they're going for the president of the USA. McGregor says their clients are not just from the wealthy upper crust of society. "We make things for the richest guy in town down to the newspaper delivery boy," he says. Often, fishermen will come in with a photo of a revered catch and some basic measurements and Galea and McGregor will take it from there recreating the fish.

How much their products cost is difficult for McGregor to say. "Each piece is custom built to the client's requirements and priced individually; it depends on what is involved- what materials we are using, color, mount. Each piece is unique," he says McGregor. One of their biggest and most memorable jobs was creating a replica river and pond in a building complete with bridges, fish and life-sized people. "The winding river was inlaid into the floor and we had about 80 species of fish into it. We basically recreated a whole ecosystem," Galea says. Galea is sensitive to the fact that some people view taxidermy as cruel. "It's definitely a dying art," he says. "There are not a lot of people getting into it and it's hard to find people who know how to do it." But he strongly believes wildlife designs, replicas and taxidermy, are important. "For many people, it's their only opportunity to see these animals up close and personal."

A few years ago, they donated a fish to a young boy who had a terminal disease. When the boy came in to pick his fish up, the showroom had a large bear in it. "He was so drawn to that bear, he couldn't take his eyes off it," says Galea. "He died a little while later, but we took comfort in that we gave him an opportunity to see something that he otherwise wouldn't It's such a necessary thing; a vehicle for people to learn."

Spring, 2007
Sideroads of Caledon & Erin

Karen Martin-Robbins

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