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A Considerable Town

Many Animals You See on Film and TV Are Taxidermied. Here's Where Hollywood Gets Them

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Thu, Dec 13, 2012 at 7:00 AM
click to enlarge Star Foreman - Mary Robbins with one - long-departed animal actor - STAR FOREMAN
  • Star Foreman
  • Star ForemanMary Robbins with onelong-departed animal actor

"No animals were harmed in the making of this motion picture," the famous disclaimer goes. None, it ought to say, unless you count the ones that were dead to begin with. When a role is too dangerous or difficult for a live animal, filmmakers call in the taxidermy stunt animal. Chances are, it came from that veritable Noah's ark of stuffed critters known as Bischoff's Taxidermy & Animal FX in Burbank.

Sometimes, all that's required is for an animal to stand there and look natural. Bischoff's deer, for instance, are always on call for clean-air vehicle commercials. Their job is to graze quietly in the background as the car drives by.

Most of the animals, however, take a serious beating. Bischoff's rats are always tumbling out of Dumpsters on CSI, 30 at a time. "Seems everybody's got a rat in their movie," says owner Gary Robbins, who runs the shop with his wife, Mary.

His deer have been shot and poisoned and knifed and strung up on trees and had their hearts ripped out. Most recently, his cows, pigs, sheep and assorted farm animals were massacred in a scene in the upcoming Johnny Depp flick The Lone Ranger — fake movie blood everywhere.

"This chicken was in a Taco Bell commercial," Robbins says. "He was in good shape a couple years ago, but he's pretty raunchy now."

Ditto the squirrel next to it. It's sold everything from beer to cars and has been in more ads than many aspiring human actors. The squirrel, Robbins says, is due for a skin replacement soon. Rifling through a pile of dead birds, he extracts a duck that starred in an insurance commercial. "Remember the Aflac duck? This is him. They hit him with a train. His beak's barely working now. The mechanism's screwed up." He tosses the duck back into the pile. "Everybody's got to earn their keep around here."

Though Bischoff's is home to quite a few famous taxidermy animals, or pieces of animals — the Stuart Little mouse, the stand-ins for Benji the dog, Mr. Popper's penguins, Seabiscuit's head — the majority of its troops toil in obscurity. They certainly don't get screen credit. They don't even have official names, only nicknames. Squirrel is "get the stupid squirrel." The beaver is "Billy," not to be confused with "Bill" the buffalo, who was named not for the Civil War soldier but for the guy on staff at Conan who calls to place the order.

As part of an old collection that dates back to the 1920s and '30s, when stars like Clark Gable and John Wayne used to hunt on safari, the animals are showbiz legacies of a sort. The biggest names of Hollywood's golden era brought their taxidermy to Bischoff's, although precisely which actor bagged what animal has long since been lost to history. In later years, as decorating styles changed, wives who ended up with their husbands' trophy kills donated them to Bischoff's, too. Moose head by moose head, lion by lion, the shop eventually built the largest inventory on the West Coast.

Gary Robbins was originally a customer at Bischoff's, but he quit a career in general contracting to buy the store in 1995. He has given up keeping track of how many animals it has. He estimates 600. "And that's not even counting the parts," he adds — the feathers, paws and claws, the horns, bones, hoofs, tails and skulls.

Patching the animals up after jobs is a full-time gig in itself. A large table in the back serves as the rehabilitation ward. Behind a glass window in a separate room — a taxidermy intensive care unit, if you will — a guy wearing an oxygen mask is stuffing an antelope. The antelope is turned inside out. Nearby, a pig, a German shepherd with a broken paw and three boxes of dogs back from a dogfight scene are waiting to be fixed.

Animals return with any number of maladies: ripped skin (bear rug, Playboy shoot), blood stains (stag, film role), decapitation (pigeon). Missing claws are par for the course for big guys like the grizzly. Robbins is perpetually having to reattach its claws after a gig. And woe to the kangaroo that encounters an unexpected script change. The script may call for grazing it with a car, but the director may decide to run it over, too. "You never know," Robbins says, shrugging.

The signature injury of the Hollywood taxidermy stunt animal, however, is the broken ear. "Everybody gets broken ears," Robbins says, patting the head of a donkey that lost one in the political frenzy of the Democratic National Convention while on mascot duty. Rabbits typically "get run through the mill." Robbins has crates of bunnies with mangled ears that have been glued and reglued.

Other times, it's not even a performance that does the damage. A creature can lose an ear simply by being loaded onto a truck.

Bischoff's animals are insured, but it still makes Robbins' blood boil when they come home hurt. "All these little hamsters. See, this makes me mad," he says, picking up a rat. "We rent out a good rat. It comes back with blue paint all over it. Pisses me off. They blue-painted up my seagulls, too." The script called for the animals to eat some kind of blue poison and die. "No one's gonna rent this now," he says, tossing the rodent back on the shelf. "Unless someone wants a blue rat."

He'll keep it anyway, he decides, but will spray-paint it black. Maybe someone will need a rat to fly into a fire.

"I don't like people busting up my real stuff," he continues. "We'll build them a synthetic if they need to destroy an animal."

His tiger rug met with a particularly disgraceful end: The people who rented it doused it in green paint. "And that's something you can't replace. You can't get real tiger rugs or tiger parts anymore."

Robbins salvaged the head, but God forbid something should happen to the shop's full-body tiger. It's one of the few life-size taxidermy tigers in existence, mounted by Al Bischoff himself back in the 1950s.

But at 60 years old, the tiger is not even the shop's oldest animal. That honor goes to a tiny mongoose that dates to the 1930s. It just returned from filming Hawaii Five-0. The mongoose still has all its original teeth but came home from Hawaii with a broken ear.

Robbins frowns, roots around in a drawer and pulls out a handful of lion teeth. He lets them dribble through his fingers. Always on the lookout for spare parts, he picks up every single roadkill he sees. As a result, many of his animals have acquired a Frankensteinian quality over the years. Robbins often patches the dog hides with goat fur, and technically a few of the cats are more rabbit now than feline.

A customer calls: He needs some paws and tails to stick up out of a trash can. Can Gary do it? Yes, yes, Robbins says. "I was just wondering where to put this elk," Mary Robbins interrupts. "His nose fell off. We Super-glued it back on. But he's shedding all over the place. Don't touch it. It's drying. Can we move him out of here? Because he's just a mess."

Robbins thinks for a moment, then says, "What we do is wheel him out and blow him off."

Every now and then, animals return with little handwritten notes tucked into their crates. "Help, we need air!" the jokesters in the prop departments will write, or "Let us out!" Other times, they don't come back at all. Many a mouse has gone MIA. "Or they come back in pieces," Mary says.

Suicide missions are expected. Bischoff's rents out rats with tire marks already stamped across their bellies, and faux-decomposing squirrels, and raccoons and coyotes deliberately made to look lifeless. Not long ago, Robbins schlepped a taxidermied dog out to Louisiana for a movie about a boy who lost his dog in Hurricane Katrina. The filmmakers hit it with a car, dragged it and crammed it into the car's front grill. Robbins waited patiently on set for four days, but in the end there was nothing left of the dog to bring back.

In a minute, Mary walks in with a floppy brown chicken. "If we took his head off, how much?" she asks. "Fresh killed. Chicken."

Robbins scratches his chin and winces. "They just want the head off? Three hundred bucks. But we've already got a headless one."

"Is there a chicken back there with its head off?" Mary asks, peering over his shoulder. "Is it loose? Is it standing?"

Robbins waves her to the back. "Then I need a quote on a custom dog head," she adds. "It could be anywhere from a terrier to a lab."

"What, do they want it on a plaque?"

"Probably on a pole," Mary says. " 'Cause it's gonna be, you know, 'bacon bacon bacon.' It's a close-up, so you'll have to detail his nose real good. A real nice, leathery nose."

Follow me on Twitter at @gendyalimurung, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and like us on Facebook.

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