Levoyed “Chipmunk” Heagwood wished he had followed his dream of being a taxidermist sooner.
At 59, Heagwood, owner and operator of Chipmunk’s Taxidermy Inc. of North Little Rock, has been a taxidermist for the past 28 years.
But he’s considering cutting back on some of the African game he handles and the number of deer he mounts. Lately, the number of animals he handles has soared, resulting in more than a year wait for some customers. Last year, his company handled more than 600 animals and this year he expects to do about the same amount.
Part of the reason for his surge in business is that there aren’t a lot of new taxidermists replacing the ones who have retired, he said.
That has Heagwood concerned.
He said younger generations don’t want to put in the work it takes to be a successful taxidermist.
“It’s just the younger generation is more into technology and other stuff than physical artist abilities,” he said.
It’s difficult to track who is coming into the profession in Arkansas. Arkansas is one of 22 states that doesn’t require a taxidermist to be licensed.
“You do not have to have any kind of certificate or certification,” said Dennis Huggs, a former president of the Arkansas Taxidermist Association Inc. and owner of Huggs Taxidermy of Hot Springs. “You could say tomorrow that you are going to be a taxidermist and start taking in stuff.”
Levoyed Heagwood, “Chipmunk” to his friends, and the lifelike art he creates as a long-time taxidermist. (Mike Kemp)
The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) said it’s not considering requiring a permit from the commission for taxidermists. In an email, the AGFC said its primary concern is that any animals be obtained legally. Otherwise, any oversight is outside the commission’s mission or authority.
Growing up in West Helena, Heagwood considered himself a “big hunter,” pursuing deer and ducks and enjoying fishing as well. “It was all about the outdoors,” he said.
But he recalls, as a child, walking into a building and seeing a mounted duck or deer on the wall and standing mesmerized.
“I just loved the art of taxidermy,” Heagwood said, but he didn’t know how to break into the industry.
“Back then, taxidermists didn’t want to share their information,” he said.
Northwest Taxidermy of Post Falls, Idaho, offered classes, but to attend and do the course work, Heagwood would have had to quit his job as a foreman for Mechanics Lumber Co. in North Little Rock.
“I couldn’t afford to do that when I had a wife and newborn,” in the mid 1980s, Heagwood said.
Instead, in the early 1990s, Heagwood met a taxidermist who worked out of his garage in North Little Rock and who offered to give him some pointers on how to mount a duck and other animals.
“What he showed me wasn’t what I called quality work,” Heagwood said. “It’s just like today, people try to mount animals, and they really don’t know how. They don’t have the artistic ability.”
About that time, Heagwood learned about the Arkansas Taxidermy Association. He joined and attended conventions and competitions in several states while learning the trade.
“I spent the next eight years studying,” he said.
Heagwood said he was driven by a will to succeed. The first time he went to a taxidermy convention, as the winners of the competitions were announced, he told his wife that one day he would be the one winning the awards.
Within a few years, he did. In 1999, he won his first of many Arkansas Taxidermy Association awards for his depiction of a mother duck on a log with six babies mounted beside her.
By 2001, Heagwood decided it was time to quit his full-time job and make a living as a taxidermist. Hunters would bring him “a dead animal and you take your skills to make this animal look as though it’s alive.”
He opened Chipmunk’s Taxidermy in a 1,950-SF building in North Little Rock and has been in business ever since.
One of the hardest parts of the job is prepping the bird skin and the deer hide for the mount, Heagwood said. From there, he makes a mold for the head and body, but the bird’s feet are real.
A beautiful mount starts with how the animal is cared for after it’s been harvested, Heagwood said.
He said for optimal results, the bird should be frozen. “The better field care you give to your bird or whatever you decide to have mounted, the better the job the taxidermist could do.”
As his business continued to grow over the years, Heagwood needed more space.
In September 2018, he moved the company to 10024 Highway 165 in North Little Rock, less than a 10-minute drive to Clinton National Airport.
The location attracted more business as out-of-state hunters from across the country would drop off an animal they harvested on their way to the airport.
The company saw the number of birds increase from between 200 and 250 annually to 350 to 375. And the number of deer mounts jumped from 180 to more than 250.
“I believe it’s more hunters,” Heagwood said of the surge in business. But he also believes “quite a few taxidermists have more or less gotten old and retired. And it doesn’t leave a lot of us out here.”
Looking back on his career, Heagwood said he’s glad he decided to become a full-time taxidermist, even if he does consider himself a late starter.
“It was the greatest thing I’ve done,” he said. “I wish I’d been doing this for 40 years instead of 28 years.”