Taxidermy: Remembering the hunt

Written by: Camila Molina

Photos by: Ben Aijian

During one deer hunting season, Aaron Honeycutt spotted a young buck. He let it go, hoping to see it later when it was larger and more mature. But he kept an eye on it, using trail cameras, and two years later, he went out to find him during muzzleloading season. He couldn’t. But a friend did and brought him to Honeycutt’s house.

“The deer that I was hunting crossed a highway and got hit by a truck and was killed,” Honeycutt said. The impact had broken all four legs.

“It was a deer that I had known and watched so much, and to see him broken up like that was terribly sad to me,” Honeycutt said. “I know it makes no sense to somebody that doesn’t hunt to think that way, but it’s a fairly common way for hunters to think. I’m sure if I had shot the deer that afternoon I would’ve felt sad for the deer even then. I don’t kill a deer without feeling something for the animal.”

For Honeycutt, hunting is a foundation of his life. It led to Fox-Fire Taxidermy, which he has owned and operated from his home in Pittsboro, North Carolina, for more than 20 years.

Honeycutt and his son Tom turned the carport of their house into his taxidermy shop. Honeycutt is able to work from home full-time and is able to keep an eye on the farm animals pastured near the house. He mentioned that sometimes working from home gets lonely, but he gets to do what he is passionate about, for which he is grateful.

What used to be a carport is now a state-certified taxidermy studio where clients from North Carolina come to get a quality mount. Inside Fox-Fire Taxidermy he works year round skinning, salting, tanning and mounting his clients’ animals. Some of his mounts can take up to a year of work before they’re completed. The 65-year-old works by himself and takes his time with each animal, confident that his clients come to him for quality.

He has studied deer so much, he can recognize a buck even after it has grown a different pair of antlers. He respects and loves animals, yet he hunts and preserves them.  Some might think Honeycutt is a paradox, but he’s not. He uses his mind and hands to get meat for his family, the same way humans have done for thousands of years. Mounting an animal to preserve its legacy and beauty is a new technology compared to hunting.

“I’m an animal,” Honeycutt said. “I’m a human animal. I don’t see that I’m much different than the other animals I see in the world. We have a human culture that somehow tells us we are superior [than animals]. I’m not convinced of that. It is a natural thing, I think, to hunt.”

Before his taxidermy business, he often hunted turkey and deer, but now he doesn’t hunt as much because his business keeps him busy.

His dedicates a long time to each mount, making sure to preserve the natural look of the wild animal and the experience it took to find it.

“These become tangible reminders of something that was very enjoyable to them,” Honeycutt said. The mounts capture the memory of hunting with a friend or relative, the place and the effort it took to find.

Honeycutt mounts animals of all shapes and sizes at his business. He skins, salts, tans and mounts a variety of wildlife at his property in Pittsboro. He has everything from moose to elk and buffalo on his walls.

He grew up with a symbiotic relationship with nature. As a teenager he raised and sold pigs with his brother and in the summers he worked in the fields of Orange County harvesting tobacco.  His father taught him how to hunt and skin squirrels and rabbits, which they would later eat for dinner. The skins fascinated him, but he didn’t know how to preserve them. After noticing Honeycutt’s curiosity, his father suggested he take up taxidermy.

He started learning how to practice taxidermy through mail-ordered lessons from the Northwestern School of Taxidermy in Omaha, Nebraska. When he was about 12 he saved up the $10 to pay for the course that began his formal training. Later, he developed his skills in schools in North Carolina and has taught taxidermy class in community colleges.

Honeycutt watches deer on his trail cameras more than he hunts them. For almost 10 years, he noticed the same doe walk around his pasture until she disappeared. Observing this doe taught him a lot about how deer behave.

Honeycutt lives on a 14-acre property outside of Pittsboro. The farmhouse that has been in the family for 34 years is 100 years old. He and his wife Mary have raised pigs, rheas, cows and are currently raising sheep and donkeys.

Mary Honeycutt, his wife, grew up in High Point and didn’t spend a lot of time outdoors. They met while working as mail carriers in the Carrboro Post Office. She knew he liked to hunt, but she found out about his interest in taxidermy later on.

“I thought it was kinda creepy,” Mary joked. “I felt a little ambivalent about it. A lot of my friends were animal rights people and vegetarians, one of my sisters was vegetarian. Even though I ate meat, I felt guilty about it.”

But her opinion changed over the years.

“I love it now, I think he’s an artist,” she said.

Honeycutt views his work as a craft rather than art, although some artistry is involved in capturing the animal’s expression and realistic pose.

The taxidermy process demands a great degree of skill. The ability to make a mounted animal look lifelike requires a broad spectrum of knowledge about animal physiology and musculature.

The Honeycutt’s 100-year-old house sits on 14 acres. It used to be a farm where they raised chickens, turkey and rheas. They still keep a few animals, and in the afternoons you can hear sheep and chickens talk to each other.

The family doesn’t eat a lot of meat, but when they do they eat chicken, venison, and they raise two pigs every other year. They eat the eggs the chickens lay and the fish they catch in the pond.

“For a very long time, he didn’t want to kill animals that we didn’t eat,” Mary said. Coyote are the exception because they target their sheep.“Generally, there was a philosophy that you don’t waste an animal’s life.”

Mary maintains a vegetable garden which they use for their own consumption, but she’ll purchase produce in the grocery store depending on the season.

“We’re not so different from animals,’ Mary said. “Watching how species connect with each other, how the ewes connect with the lambs, how the rams act…you feel more connected, more than just people.”

The Honeycutts originally boarded sheep for neighbors who were lacking space. They have seven acres of pasture on which every year the ewes have new lambs. The Honeycutts raise the lambs ultimately to be sold.

When they first moved to Chatham County they met most of their friends through a food co-op. Mary described some of them as hating hunters and disapproved of taxidermy. But Honeycutt was open about what he did and over the years they developed deep friendships with the folks that disapproved of his hobbies.

Perhaps it’s because of their philosophy of respect for an animal’s life.

“Aaron says he does this when he hunts, we always thank the animals for giving us this food, for giving themselves to become part of us,” Mary said. “It would be nice if we were healthy to also turn into food. We both like the idea of being consumed by wildlife when we die–that everything doesn’t go to waste or get put in a box.”

Polly, left, and Claudine, right, are two of three donkeys that the Honeycutts pasture with the sheep to help protect the sheep from the local coyote population. Polly is named after Mary Honeycutt’s mother, and the name Claudine was Aaron’s invention. Which he now says was a “terrible” name.

Honeycutt feels closest to nature when he is chopping wood for his wood-burning stove or when he’s hunting for meat.

“Those two things are two things people have done for thousands and thousands of years,” Honeycutt said. “They built fires to keep warm, and they hunted animals to eat. That and grow a garden, are the most normal things that I can do. I worked for the Postal Service for 24 years and I stood at a counter, and I sold stamps, and I weighed packages for people. Those are very unnatural things. But when I hunt I feel very much a part of nature.”

“I think it’s a good way to be.”

There’s a life-size deer mount in Aaron Honeycutt’s taxidermy studio that is special to him. No one looks at that deer the same way Honeycutt does. It reminds him of the deer he hunted for two years because it was killed only a month before he found the one in his studio.

“I went to hunt him one afternoon, I wasn’t expecting to see him at all and turns out I got in my ground blind and I saw a doe out in front of me and she was acting unusual,” Honeycutt said. “I figured there was a buck around the way she was acting. As she was leaving, this deer stepped out of the weeds. So the hunt was five minutes. In that case, it didn’t turn out to be a long hunt, nothing like the deer I had been hunting prior to that. I just happened to connect with him the first time I hunted him.”

Years of memories come to mind just by looking at that one mount.

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