ASTORIA — Melanie Kinney spends most days at a desk with a headset working dispatch for the Astoria Police Department. But each evening, Kinney, 28, retires to a dramatically different occupation.
On Jan. 28, Kinney was elbow deep in a blacktail buck hide, among her latest order as owner of Preserve The Hunt Taxidermy.
“You want to get it as thin as possible,” Kinney said as she spoke over a whining table saw that trimmed finger-length strips of fat.
First buck fueled hunting passion
Kinney was introduced to hunting as a student at Ilwaco High School when she received her first rifle and shot her first buck.
“Sandy [Bennett, owner of Sandy’s Guns and Ammo in Long Beach] set me up with my first rifle and introduced me to someone who allowed me to shoot a buck on their property. I’ve just been hooked ever since,” Kinney said.
Dispatch call sets new taxidermy course
In her role as a full-time 911 APD dispatcher, on a clear and sunny day in January 2019 a call came in that changed her life and set her on a new course.
A teenage duck hunter with black-rimmed glasses had gone missing on the nearby Columbia River.
“I took a call about an 19-year-old who was out duck hunting with his dad, and his dad couldn’t find him after looking for a few hours,” Kinney said. “They sent the Coast Guard and water patrol to look for him and they never found him. They found his boat, gun, gear and cell phone.”
As a fellow duck hunter, it was an area Kinney knew well and she found herself down at the nearby docks after work.
“The dad was still down there and I met him. It was really rough,” Kinney recalled. “It was a call that stuck with me.”
During an interview with the father later on the local news, Kinney learned that the missing 19-year-old was a taxidermist.
“I didn’t hunt the rest of the season because I couldn’t go out there and not think about finding him. After the season was over I decided I was going to try taxidermy.”
In March 2019, Kinney began mounting birds, at first relying on YouTube and Facebook tutorials. Later she learned how to tan hides from a friend in Bend.
“The taxidermy community is super inclusive. I had no formal training, just have gotten a lot of help from really good friends,” Kinney said. “I can call them anytime I need help.”
Soon Kinney was on her way to a taxidermy show in Prineville, where she connected with others in the industry and earned her first award.
“Three months later I went to the taxidermy show. I took a redhead [duck] from a friend of mine and mounted it. I won the Horizon Award, which is presented to the best up-and-coming taxidermist,” Kinney said.
The experience inspired Kinney to take a deeper dive into the taxidermy field.
“I realized I could really get into this and it snowballed from there,” she said.
Roughly a year later, Kinney had her first request for bigger game.
“The sheriff’s office was looking for someone to mount a bull elk that got hit by a car,” Kinney said. “At that point I had never done any big game taxidermy.”
Kinney consulted fellow award-winning taxidermist Bobby Esplin and drove to Colorado with a trailer containing the elk. Today the elk is prominently displayed inside the sheriff’s office.
After mounting the bull, Kinney then mounted her first bobcat, which now overlooks the dedicated shop she constructed along Maki Road in Astoria. In the fall of 2019, Kinney officially opened Preserve The Hunt Taxidermy.
“This fall was my first year taking big game. I decided to take on a couple deer and elk this year, which turned into a lot more deer and elk than I anticipated,” she said.
Kinney estimated she’s taken in 80 ducks, 16 deer, four elk and one cougar so far this season in addition to working 60 hours weekly doing dispatch.
“I’m busier than I know what to do with. But that’s the nice thing about living around here, there’s so much variety to what you see. You never know what’s going to come walking in the door,” Kinney said.
Difference is in the details
Mounts start at roughly $300 but increase for the amount of extra detail, which Kinney often constructs herself.
“You price the specimen then all the extras like if they want it to have an open mouth or a special habitat,” Kinney said.
In one bird mount, for example, the shells at the base of the mount actually came from the bird’s stomach.
“I pulled them out, cleaned them up and put them on the base for the customer,” Kinney said.
Kinney relishes the freedom of posing the animals, which helps bring the subjects back to life.
“They should have a flow to it. That you can look at the mount and it doesn’t just look like a bird on the wall. It should look alive,” Kinney said.
An intimate process
Kinney is a pioneer in what’s largely a male-dominated taxidermy field.
“There’s one other female in Oregon I’m aware of that does taxidermy,” Kinney said.
“The big misnomer about taxidermy is that you have to be a big, burly man to do it,” she said. “But actually it’s a very intimate process because you’re taking something that’s dead apart and putting it back together into something that’s anatomically correct and appealing to look at — it’s more than just using your muscles. They say that you mount birds with your brains and mammals with your muscles.”
Kinney recommends that those considering becoming taxidermists join their respective state taxidermy association.
“Go to the shows and the classes there,” Kinney said. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without going.”