Mount My Squirrel! Local taxidermist Rick Nadeau has a lot of fun with his "little buddies"

"I can mount any squirrel in just about any position or style you would like," taxidermist Rick Nadeau promises on his website, Rick's Custom Squirrels.

This is no idle boast. Nadeau can mount a squirrel climbing a wall or cradling an acorn. He can mount a squirrel to fit under the wheel of a car like fresh road kill. He can mount a squirrel's butt sticking up from a Coors tallboy or a can of Planters peanuts.

But he has his limits. "There was this guy who saw my website and called me up. He'd had a squirrel come down his chimney. He put a match to some lighter fluid and torched the squirrel. He asked me, 'Can you mount that?' He wanted the mount to look like a fried squirrel. Why would I do that?"

Rick Nadeau and one of his buddies.
Rick Nadeau and one of his buddies.

Nadeau specializes in "characters": military squirrels in brightly colored felt berets clutching M16s with lit cigarettes dangling from their lips. There was Secret Squirrel who huddled in a trench coat and fedora, and a fiddler in railroad overalls. "That was the cutest one," says Nadeau's wife, Chris, who sewed the overalls. "I didn't want to let it go."

Nadeau won't use endangered species, such as the Franklin's ground squirrel. "The only thing I'll take is a legally harvested squirrel," he says. "They're considered varmints."

He also refuses to mess with chipmunks (too small) or skunks (possibly rabid). Squirrels are his only medium. When he first started practicing taxidermy in the mid-'80s, he'd mount deer heads, but now the skin is too thick for his arthritic hands. Squirrel skin is stretchy and easy to handle; it's almost as easy to sew as cloth.

Besides, says Chris Nadeau, "you can't do much with a deer head. You can't give it character."

Once, when Nadeau was still living in south St. Louis, a neighbor found out he did taxidermy. "She'd had a Persian cat in her freezer for twenty years," he remembers. "She wanted me to mount it like a beanbag so she could put it in different poses. The cat was all crystallized; it had crystals all over its face. I told her that once it's mounted, you can't put it in different poses. It kind of freaked me out a bit."

Nadeau has heard of other taxidermists who wouldn't hesitate to preserve a pet cat or take a dead squirrel and make it look like road kill. They have formed an international movement called Rogue taxidermy, and they've developed sophisticated theories about the appeal of, say, squirrels dressed like commandos.

"We anthropomorphize everything," says Robert Marbury, cofounder of the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. "It's part of being human. There's an instinct there: We need to relate to an object."

Traditional taxidermists tend to shun the Rogues, of which there are only 30 practitioners worldwide. Some of them also look down on Nadeau's work. "Professionals think they give taxidermy an unprofessional look," explains Pete Sweitzer, president of the Illinois Taxidermist Association and an early mentor of Nadeau's.

"Professionals consider themselves artists. A talented taxidermist will make a mount look so real that you can't tell it from a live animal. You can't recreate what God put on Earth, but you can get close."

The Rogues argue that the centuries-old craft has outlived its original purpose — to give people an idea of what wild animals really look like. "Any armchair art historian will tell you that art begins as representational, then evolves, or devolves, into the scattered and abstract," notes Scott Bibus, a Rogue taxidermist.

Nadeau prefers to stay away from these arguments. "I'll stick with doing my own characters," he says. "It's more sane, I guess."

For the longest time squirrels avoided the Nadeaus' front yard in Mitchell, Illinois, a small town north of Granite City, comprised largely of bars and cheap motels. "It's like they knew what I was doing," he laments. Chris Nadeau joins in: "They probably all told each other, 'The squirrel man lives there; don't go there.' It was kind of funny."

A good taxidermist, even one who dresses up a squirrel in a ballerina tutu, will closely study live animals in the hope of creating a more natural-looking pose. Nadeau has lured the neighborhood squirrels — "my little buddies," he calls them — back to his yard by scattering peanuts. These days, they come to visit around five-thirty each morning, just before Nadeau leaves for his day job at Fresh Warehousing in East St. Louis.

"They look at me like, 'What's he doing now? Who's he working on today?'" Nadeau says.

Nadeau is 51. He's tall and burly with bristly silver hair and a mustache. He has two faded blue tattoos, one on each arm, which he acquired during a hitch in the Army in the '70s. A hunter for most of his life, he began to mount his own animals 25 years ago, after his regular taxidermist passed away. In the beginning, Nadeau practiced on the road kill he found along Highway 44; he still has a coyote head from those days on his living-room wall.

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