Beetles, bears, black-tailed deer: Local taxidermist thrives 

Richard Harney holds the skull of Sitka Black Tail deer that he had cleaned by beetle larvae in his bug bin. Photo by Hall Anderson

Richard Harney has a box of flesh-eating beetle larvae he has kept in a self-contained ecosystem of bones and heat for months.

But Harney isn’t a character out of a horror film; he is a taxidermist. And although his business deals with hunters, his insects might be his most voracious customers.

Harney, who owns 5th Day Taxidermy, says he is likely the only local taxidermist in currently using insects for commercial taxidermy in Ketchikan.

According to Harney, the name 5th Day comes from the biblical fifth day of creation.

“So, I prefer to do birds, I’m trying to learn fish, so on the fifth day the Lord created birds and fish — things that fly and things that are in the sea — and so that’s where it came from,” Harney said. “… Some people are like, ‘5th day, so does that mean I get it back on the fifth day?’ And I’m like, ‘That doesn’t happen, nice try though.’”

The business, which he operates out of his home, is still a fairly new endeavor for Harney, who also daylights as the principal planner for Ketchikan Gateway Borough.

“I’m kinda new on the scene for the taxidermy stuff,” Harney said. “I started the shop up about a year and half, maybe two years ago … and it’s been a year of actually operating.”

Harney says that his taxidermy initially started as a hobby. He said that in order to learn about the processes involved he watched online classes and studied up on the industry as a whole.

Harney’s passion began to turn into a business when he came to the realization that Ketchikan might be facing a taxidermist shortage.

“I wasn’t really planning on doing anything, and then I found out that a lot of the other (taxidermists) were getting ready to retire or had retired,” he said.

For Harney, taxidermy is now a family affair. Being the sole proprietor of 5th Day Taxidermy, Harney says he often gets assistance from his children, an experience he says they enjoy.

“My kids all help, my wife helps out here and there,” Harney said. “I’ve got one (child) that’s actually really interested in taxidermy so I hope to keep her going on that, hand the shop down to her someday.”

And the help is not unwarranted; Harney said that his shop has been quite busy.

At the time of the interview, Harney said that he was working on a number of different animals including: Three bears at the tannery, two bear rugs, a goat rug, minks, two ducks, a pheasant from down south, two deer, a grizzly bear, a couple otters and beavers, and numerous skulls.

Harney said bear and deer are his most common requests, but what is the strangest animal Harney has ever received?

Turns out, it’s local.

Harney is currently working on preserving a small flying squirrel, which he says “would probably be the most unusual animal” he has seen come through his shop.

Harney’s shop is separated into two distinct areas — his bug box is located in one room, while the area in which he works on hides and non-skeletal mounts is in another. This prevents the beetles from escaping and cross-contaminating his other, meatier, work.

Harney explained that his beetles are used to make “European mounts,” which are when skulls without hides are mounted. They differ from the shoulder mounts and rugs that Harney does in the other room of his shop.

The species of beetle he uses to make the European mounts are called Dermestid beetles. Harney’s “minions” as he calls them, are housed in a large insulated box with a heat lamp. The box is filled with shredded Styrofoam, paper, bones, and hundreds of larvae, beetles, and eggs.

He keeps the box, which has a distinct odor, at a temperature of around 80 degrees. He noted the bug’s sensitivity to temperature, saying, “If (the beetles) hit 95 degrees, they actually develop wings and start flying.”

Harney said he originally purchased a colony of beetles online about nine months ago.

“They start out as really small little larvae, and they’re the ones that actually eat the flesh,” Harney explained. “I don’t think the beetles actually eat the flesh, I mean, they do a little bit, but for the most part when they get to be beetle-sized they’re ready to start laying eggs and pass away.”

“When I got my batch I just kept them going,” Harney added, noting that his “bug box” is essentially a self-contained ecosystem filled with generations of the original batch’s progeny.

And his insects are not just fruitful; they’re also efficient.

“They usually do a deer skull in about two days,” Harney said. He explained that larger skulls often take longer, with bear skulls taking up to three days.

But, there’s more than one way to skin a deer head.

“A lot of (taxidermists), they boil the skulls,” Harney explained, “And so when I do velvet antlers I have to boil them, because otherwise the bugs will eat the all the velvet off of them.”

“I do both processes, but I prefer the bugs because in the nasal cavities … the (bone) structure is actually held — like, you can see the nasal cavity,” Harney explained. “If you boil them there’s no guaranteed way to get that meat out of the nasal cavity (without destroying part of it).”

Harney said he keeps abreast of the latest technology and innovations in the taxidermy industry by researching online and being an active subscriber to some taxidermy-focused publications.

He also has 3-D printed molds, which he uses to shape and stretch his hides around after they are tanned. Harney noted that this is a fairly new innovation in the industry.

“I think the new technology, in my opinion, is all this CAD, and being able to do the 3-D printing, because they’ve just been doing cast molds for forever,” Harney said.

But what drives a man with a job in the borough’s planning department to get into taxidermy?

He says it’s the stories.

“I like to envision where the mounts are going to be on people’s walls, like in their houses,” Harney explained. “What I like to hear is the stories. I like hearing the hunter’s stories and sharing their experience. The reason that I enjoy it so much is making that memory last for the hunter.”

“So when they come in and they bring something to me I’ll always ask them, ‘Where did you shoot this? How was it? Who were you with? You know, tell me about it,’” Harney said. “Because that helps me mount it up … there’s always a story; it’s an art. It truly is an art.”

Harney says he loves the business and sees his art as a sign of respect for the nature he is working with.

“It’s preserving the animal, but also paying respect to the animal,” Harney said. “… That animal will go on to live in (the hunter’s) memories, in their minds and on their walls.”

And Harney’s beetles sure seem to love the business, too.