Laurel taxidermists help preserve the hunt, one mount at a time

By 
Jaci Webb Of The Laurel Outlook - Yellowstone Group
Thursday, January 20, 2022
Jim and Susan Ziegler have owned and operated their Laurel business, Tru-Life Taxidermy, since the early 1990s.

Jim and Susan Ziegler have owned and operated their Laurel business, Tru-Life Taxidermy, since the early 1990s.

Jim cleans an elk mount in his shop.

Jim cleans an elk mount in his shop.

Susan works on the bird mounts, including this interesting cross-bred goose.

Susan works on the bird mounts, including this interesting cross-bred goose.

When Jim Ziegler was 16 years old, he had a plan. He was intrigued by taxidermy, especially when he spotted a correspondence course advertised in a Field & Stream magazine. Ziegler enrolled in the course and honed his skills on pigeons before training under an established taxidermist in Helena. Now, more than four decades later, Ziegler’s still at it, operating his busy taxidermy shop, Tru-Life Taxidermy, with his wife Susan at their Laurel home on East Railroad Street.

Married for 37 years, the Zieglers still act like newlyweds, teasing each other about whose work space is in better order and sharing their excitement over bringing animals back to life. Taxidermy is a vocation and an art, a way to commemorate the hunt, often times a first hunt or a special hunt, by creating a life-like mount or diorama.

Although most of the 200 or more animals they preserve each year are local critters – elk, mule deer, whitetail, black bear, coyotes, fox, bighorn sheep, and even a buffalo or two in addition to game birds -- they also work with more exotic animals that Montana hunters bring back from other continents. The Zieglers have one of only four USDA licenses to allow them to work with animal hides from outside the U.S. COVID has shut down hunting overseas in places like Africa, but before the pandemic, the Zieglers worked on lions, a hyena, a couple of giraffes, and an African songbird.

The oldest son of entrepreneurs and community leaders, Stella and Ziggy Ziegler, Jim Ziegler built his business over the years, constructing a large heated shop behind his Laurel home and gaining a reputation for doing quality work. One evening his wife Susan came out to the shop to call Jim to dinner, and Jim asked her for some help on a bird.

“I’ve got these big hands and I just couldn’t get it,” Jim said.

Susan pitched in on the bird, and found she loved taxidermy work, too.

“You have to be self-motivated and you have to be a perfectionist,” Susan said.

Jim adds, “So many take up taxidermy and then quit after a couple of years because it is hard work.”

A deer shoulder mount takes 18 to 20 hours to complete. European mounts require a 13-hour day to boil and clean the skull and antlers. The work is physical and can be mentally challenging as well.

“When your body starts to hurt or your brain gets tired, you look around and find something else to work on,” Susan said.

They raised their three daughters to respect sharp knives, and because it was a home business, they taught the girls to do simple tasks like skinning and fleshing hides to help out. One daughter does fish mounts, something Jim and Susan don’t do.

“I’d rather be fishing than mounting fish,” Jim said.

The Zieglers now have four grandkids and every Tuesday, it’s play time with the grandparents in the shop, making wooden swords and enjoying some imaginative play.

After finishing off several projects that their clients wanted before Christmas, the Zieglers are still busy. Two bearskin rugs were on the rack last week for Susan to finish sewing, and Jim was working on some deer mounts. Susan still does all the birds, everything from her biggest bird mount – an ostrich – and the smallest – an African songbird. Jim takes on all the large animals, including a diorama he made a few years back of a lion and a hyena fighting. The snarling mouth of the lion and its huge claws make for a very intense scene. Jim also did full-body mounts of two 10-foot Russian bears.

Work will finally slow down in July, and that’s when the Zieglers get time to recreate, finding a good fishing hole and a quiet camping spot somewhere in the mountains.

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