It all started with a polar bear.
When he was a kid, Rene Escamilla accompanied his father to a bank in downtown Brownsville, where his young eyes beheld a stuffed version of the shaggy, fearsome predator. The St. Joseph Academy student told his friends about the encounter but they didn’t believe him. Neither did they believe Escamilla — born in Brownsville but raised in the country near San Benito — when he told them about the birds and snakes he’d shot as a country dweller.
But when Escamilla went to one of the brothers at St. Joe, a Brother Dominic, and told him about his encounter with the polar bear, the teacher explained “that’s taxidermy.”
“I said well how do they do that? I couldn’t even pronounce the word,” Escamilla told the Herald. “He said, well, you preserve the animal. You go through certain steps and all that. And I got interested in it.”
Every day he had more questions on the subject for Brother Dominic, who did some research and found a taxidermy school in Omaha, Neb., that offered a correspondence course by mail.
“It was $20 for 12 booklets,” Escamilla said. “Every month they would send you a booklet, and I begged my dad for I don’t know how long to give me $20 so I could give it to Brother Dominic so he could order me this course. Finally he gave in and he gave me the money, and I gave it to Brother Dominic and he ordered me the booklets. That’s how I got started. I didn’t go full blown on it, but during the summer I would try to do a bird here, a bird there, a snake or a frog or something.”
When he got older he transitioned to deer, but then graduated from high school and served in Vietnam. Escamilla returned home with his interest in taxidermy intact, and set about honing his skinning, fleshing and mounting skills, with results just this side of professional. He was accepted to a taxidermy school in Phoenix and moved to Arizona.
“I came back and opened up my business and I’ve been here ever since,” Escamilla said.
Deer and exotics such as nilgai and ram are the most popular animals to get the treatment, he said, though Escamilla has also done zebras, puma, mountain lion, African lion and bears — black and grizzly, though no polar. The biggest animal he ever worked on was a giraffe, he said.
“I had it in my shop,” Escamilla said. “I think it was about an inch off the ceiling from the shoulder to the head, and my ceiling’s 10 feet high.”
He described taxidermy as a craft and an art, one that requires a lot of patience. Just like mastering a musical instrument, getting good at taxidermy requires a lot of practice, Escamilla said, reckoning that he’s “pretty good at it” after all this time.
But now it’s time to move on. After 46 years, Escamilla Taxidermy on Military Highway is closed, with Oct. 23 the last official day of business. Escamilla said it’s because of the coronavirus pandemic. He doesn’t want to bring home the virus to his family, including his grandchildren, one of whom has heart problems.
“We decided as a family to go ahead and close shop,” he said.
Escamilla says he’s been trying to get the word out so people won’t keep showing up with dead animals. He said customers have been calling asking “what are we going to do?” Most of his clients are repeat customers. Escamilla said he’s never wanted for business and hasn’t needed to advertise in a long, long time. He said he wanted to send out a “special thanks” to all his friends and customers.
“I’m very appreciative of all of them that kept me in business for so long,” Escamilla said. “Because of them I’ve kept my doors open. I try to do the best I can, and I just want to thank every one of them.”
He said he knows he’s going to miss it.
“Sometimes I get emotional,” Escamilla said. “That’s just part of it I guess.”
He said he’ll probably do a taxidermy project now and then for his own satisfaction, plus there’s plenty about country life to keep a man occupied.
“I’ve got a small ranch outside of Brownsville and I’ve got some horses and goats and chickens and all that,” Escamilla said. “I have a garden and I plant all kinds of vegetables and stuff like that, so that’ll keep me busy. And I like to work with wood also, so I have a lot of tools. That’ll keep my busy. At least I hope so. I hope I don’t get bored.”