Amongst the Nootka Indians of British Columbia, when a bear had been killed, it was brought in and seated before the head chief in an upright posture, with a chief's bonnet, wrought in figures, on its head, and its fur powdered over with white down. A tray of provisions was then set before it, and it was invited by words and gestures to eat. After that the animal was skinned, boiled, and eaten.
—THE GOLDEN BOUGH*
The words, "trophy room" bring to mind an elderly British lord, recently retired from the Foreign Service or M.I.5. He sits, in our imagination, in his den overlooking the moors. His fingers tremble as he reaches for the gin and tonic. He works at his memoirs on a green felt writing table. A sick twilight glows on the mounted heads, the tusks and fangs. The case of Holland & Holland elephant guns collects a historical dust. The sun begins to squat on the Empire: India is sinking; Africa is sinking.... As the moon rises, his mustache becomes as smooth as fine ivory....
But the image collapses in the 20th century. Big-game trophy hunters have mod hairdos, double-knit golf clothes, Sting Rays and businesses, just like pro linebackers. Instead of Edwardian moors, they live in cities like Albany, Palm Desert, San Antonio and Brentwood. And their trophy rooms, perhaps lacking the paralyzing tradition of their British forebears, are opulent testimony to the continuing appeal of trophy game and its commemoration on den walls.
This is not the haphazard "Gee, I finally got the big one" syndrome we see exhibited on the Masonite paneling of taverns, where the owner's obsessiveness for largemouth bass results in one greasy plaster replica with a flatfish lure poked through its plastic lip, nor is it akin to a two-headed calf hanging over the cheese case in a Vermont general store. No, these are major collections done with completeness and determination. The men in America with the finest trophy rooms have both the time and money to devote to it. They are mandarins of sport, publicity-shy and powerful; they move in closed social circles. And they are at the end of a long line of feudal lords, kings and rajas who have had trophy rooms.
Dr. Richard Van Gelder of the American Museum of Natural History's mammalogy department traces two lines of trophy collecting. One is the tribal, ritualistic and religious practice of primitives that is still evident among the Masai, for instance, who kill a lion as proof of manhood. Of the other line, Van Gelder writes, "Hunting [in 15th-century Europe] was a sport for the upper classes, and death was the penalty for common men who were caught poaching royal game. Sport hunting was a luxury. Strange as it may seem, many species were preserved not for their value as food or as part of the natural environment, but as status symbols of affluence. The common man might have the hide of a cow or a sheepskin as a rug on his floor; the nobleman hung deer antlers and heads from his walls."
The art of taxidermy is some 300 years old. It first appeared in England in the 1650s when the Oxford anatomy museum exhibited a pair of mounted dodoes and a shark. In 1657 one Anthony Smith presented the museum with a stuffed human. But the late 19th and early 20th centuries saw the practice bloom. A full-body mount of a leopard in a hunting crouch on a tree limb (which might cost $2,000 at current prices) is a far cry from the straw-stuffed botches of earlier times; "an upholsterer's art," one historian called it.
Although Americans currently favor either the full-body mount or the head, neck and shoulders, the British still cut the beast off right behind the ears and mount just the head on a board. The French retain only antlers and an occasional skull. This is probably because their more elaborate dinners resemble taxidermy: suckling pigs with necklaces of cranberries and olive slices in the eye sockets, or whiting cooked like arched dolphins and served in shimmering sea-green aspic.
In an effort to find the reasons that men collect trophies and to see what the finest trophy rooms look like, I set out from Los Angeles and traveled east. The landscape is zany: taco stands in giant sombreros, delivery trucks shaped like frankfurters, Toyota dealerships in mock Swiss chalets and a restaurant called something like Cleopatra's Barge, about to sail off into the acrylic smog. Southern California is a surreal Serengeti of passions and tensions, and it is the perfect place to see living history. Even if trophy hunting was the sport of kings in the past, in Los Angeles history and the present come down at dusk to drink at the same water hole.
8TH LARGEST POLAR BEAR SKULL 28"
R.E. WEATHERBY ON FROZEN ARCTIC OCEAN
The monster rears up, baring its fangs, its claws apparently made of titanium. It rises some eight feet above the brass plaque by its foot. The bear is a perfect mount from Jonas Brothers of Seattle. Its fur has a yellow tinge. You can almost see it breathe through the glass case. Although the temperature is a comfortable 75° outside, the fake snow in the bottom of the case looks cold. The whole effect is easy to describe: terror. I walk away carefully and stand by a giant, rugged salesman who is demonstrating the action of a Weatherby .300 magnum rifle to a customer. When the bear stops pretending it is dead and comes crashing through the glass, maybe he can snap off a shot.