Braswell turns deer into custom displays

By BRENNAN LEATHERS

Gary Braswell used to be a police officer who liked to go hunting, but now, taxidermy and meat processing are his full-time job and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

During deer season, Braswell and his employees at True Life Taxidermy clean about 15 to 20 deer every day. Their busiest day is Thanksgiving, when many people go hunting with friends and family. During the firearms deer hunting season — Oct. 20 to Jan. 15 — Braswell is open every day, even Sunday, except for Christmas Day.

Deer have to be skinned in a specific way in order to preserve enough skin to fit around a plastic mold that forms the permanent display. That’s why Braswell allows hunters to bring in their kills as-is. Braswell can weigh animals and take their measurements. He has to record some of those statistics, because it’s required by the state government. But he’s happy to help hunters show off their prizes, in pictures at his store, on displays in their home and on Facebook.

If hunters are going to skin the deer themselves, Braswell recommends making an incision all around the deer’s body, starting behind the deer’s shoulders and continuing down to its stomach. Another incision is made behind the deer’s neck. The antlers are sawed off.

“The antlers are pretty fragile and should be sawed off in a certain way so that they can be placed on the mount correctly,” Braswell said. “That’s why I prefer that people bring the deer directly to me, if possible.”

The skin is cleaned with a knife and sprayed with an acid that kills any bacteria. Then it is tanned with water, salt and alum solution to make it soft and supple. An alternative method uses a dry preservative to make the skin have a harder feel.

Once the deer skin is ready to be mounted, it is pulled back over a plastic mold and carefully sewed up. Specially colored and shaped marbles are glued onto the mold to represent the animal’s eyeballs.

The deer’s antlers are stapled onto the top of the mold. Often Braswell carefully uses airbrush paint to apply details to the deer’s antlers. He can also repair any damaged antlers and re-create points that may have broken off.

There’s even a catalog that offers plastic molds that can help create displays of all types. Some show the animal in its natural setting, while some show the animal’s head in different poses.

“Many people choose to mount their animals just like they were when they were killed,” Braswell said. “I’ve had people say, ‘Man, he was looking right at me, can you turn his head to the left?’”

Braswell said the goal is to create something that people can show off, as well as jog their memory about a hunting experience.

“People spend thousands of dollars on equipment and hunting ground preparation before they even go hunting, then spend more time out in the cold waiting to shoot a deer, and when they kill it, they’ve got a lot invested in it.”

Larger animals are skinned differently, starting on their stomach and continuing behind their legs. The skin is stitched back together with thin fishing line.

For birds, Braswell uses soap and water to part the feathers so that the skin can be cut directly without damaging the feathers.

Recently, Braswell mounted an 800-pound Alaskan grizzly bear in a display that shows its natural setting.

Other animals Braswell has preserved include boars, big animals from Africa, fish, elk and various types of deer, including fallow deer and pronghorn deer.

In addition to rugs made from deer skin or the fur of a bear, Braswell has made various items from rattlesnake skin, including wallets and belts.

Braswell, a former police officer, used to mount deer for competitions across the Southeast. He got started in the hobby — now his career — in 1991.

“I couldn’t afford to get a deer of mine mounted, and so I did it myself,” Braswell said. “Some buddies saw it and asked me if I could mount their deer. They said, ‘Don’t worry about it if you mess it up.’”

More people began asking Braswell to mount their deer each year, eventually leading him to make it his full-time profession. He opened his current facility on Spring Creek Road in 2005.

Braswell assigns numbers to each animal that is brought in to his shop for mounting. For meat processing, Braswell also keeps the meat from each animal separate, so that customers can be assured that what they are getting is what they killed.

Customers have several choices for how they want their deer meat processed: hamburger meat, cube steak, custom smoked sausages and venison “pork chops,” back strap and tenderloins.

There’s about seven different types of sausage: fresh patty, smoked, jalapeno cheese, maple, Italian — even deer bacon and jerky.

Deer meat is hung in the cooler for several days, and then is ready for pickup in about seven days after the deer was brought in. Braswell has a USDA-inspected meat processing facility. The meat is vaccum-sealed and placed in old corn crates and labeled for pickup by the customer.

For more information, visit Braswell at his shop on Spring Creek Road, a mile south of Big Boy’s store, call him at (229) 243-0101 or search for “True Life Creations Taxidermy and Processing” on Facebook.

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