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Taxidermist gets ‘battling bucks’ ready for CNN newsman

Grayson Roberts, Leesburg taxidermist, holds the molded form for the second head of his “fighting bucks” project, commissioned by CNN newsman Anderson Cooper. Roberts said the project has taken more than a year, but is competition quality. When completed, the two bucks will stretch 12-14 feet in length and will be displayed in Cooper’s living room. (Staff photo: Jim West)

Grayson Roberts, Leesburg taxidermist, holds the molded form for the second head of his “fighting bucks” project, commissioned by CNN newsman Anderson Cooper. Roberts said the project has taken more than a year, but is competition quality. When completed, the two bucks will stretch 12-14 feet in length and will be displayed in Cooper’s living room. (Staff photo: Jim West)

LEESBURG — Around a year and a half ago, Leesburg taxidermist Grayson Roberts got a call from a customer and friend, Duncan Moore, who said he had an interesting prospect for him. Seems that Anderson Cooper, well-known reporter with CNN, was looking for a taxidermy job and maybe Roberts could do it for him.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, that would be pretty cool if it’s true,’” Roberts said. “But I got some buddies who are always playing jokes.”

Roberts knew, however, that Moore’s brother, Charlie Moore, is an executive producer for the CNN news show “Anderson Cooper 360.” Cooper wanted something “special” in the for his home. Moore said Cooper told Roberts and had asked him to recommend someone.

In a month or two, Roberts got a call from Cooper.

“That’s when I knew it was real,” Roberts said.

Cooper’s proposed project was to have two full-grown Georgia whitetail bucks locked in mortal combat — right there in his living room.

“He told me what he wanted,” Roberts said, “but he had one stipulation. He said, ‘I want them to be just like they walked into my living room and started fighting.”

Roberts was shaken just a bit by that stipulation, he said, because it meant there could be no base mount — no pedestals. Both deer would be free-standing. While he’d done plenty of full-sized animals, none of them had been free-standing, Roberts said, and that presented certain challenges. All eight legs of the animals must touch the floor at the proper points and provide the required support, otherwise the gentlest push could knock them over and cause damage to the piece.

“Anderson sent me some pictures of two red stags he bought,” Roberts said. “They’re about 700 pounds each. They were free-standing, so I said ‘Oh. Well, if you got that, I can do it. I’ll figure it out.’”

Roberts set out to find the proper deer bodies and “racks,” he said. Anderson had told him he wanted nothing less than a “competition” piece of work, worthy of display at any museum.

The bodies and heads were of whitetail in Lee County, Roberts said, purchased from hunters who didn’t care about keeping them as trophies. The two 10- and eight-point racks are “sheds” from north Georgia, antlers that fell naturally from bucks that were growing new ones.

“I told Anderson he could have an average set of horns or something really nice. We talked about artificial racks you can buy, as big or small as you like. He wanted real ones,” Roberts said.

Roberts has nearly completed one of the bucks — a serious-faced 10-pointer that when alive would weigh around 200 pounds, Roberts says. He’s lost a bit of balance and is trying to recover. When his worthy opponent is complete — in around two weeks or so — their antlers will be locked like bony Velcro. Together the deer will stretch around 12 or 14 feet, Roberts said, a little big for an average-sized room.

Cooper is anxious to receive the piece, Roberts said, and has called about it from time to time, but competition taxidermy doesn’t happen overnight. Roberts said that in response to one of Cooper’s recent calls he sent a picture of progress made so far.

“Holy cow!” is what Cooper said, according to Roberts. “I really am excited now.”

“I know it’s a long process to have it done,” Roberts said. “He didn’t know me and I didn’t know him. But now we know it’s getting done.”

Roberts, 42, got started his start in taxidermy in 1996, he said, after reading up on the subject and watching a lot of videos.

“It was something I’d always wanted to do. A buddy of mine had killed a deer. I did one or two the first year, in the spare room of our duplex,” Roberts said.

Now, Roberts operates Grayson Roberts Taxidermy from a well-equipped shop at 2736 Palmyra Road. It’s a place where any number of deceased and preserved wildlife may be discovered, including turkeys and other birds, fish, and more exotic critters such as grizzly bears, wild goats, moose or elk shipped in from customers across the country.

The mostly self-taught master taxidermist honed his craft by participating in competitions, he said, where, win or lose, the judges go over the entries with a critical eye. In his display room sits a pedestal-mounted dear head with the ribbon of a Grand National Champion.

“I put 75 hours in that deer,” Roberts said, “and that’s part of the reason I don’t compete anymore. It just takes too much time away from my customers. And by the time you get it done, you’re burned out.”