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Preserving his legacy

Former Gainesville man leaves memoirs of his taxidermy career to his family

POSTED: December 19, 2010 1:30 a.m.
/For The Times

Joseph Hurt's wife Barbara stands between two zebra's preserved by Hurt for a Noah's ark exhibition in a creationism museum.

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Sometimes Christmas celebrations don't go exactly as you plan.

Just as Joseph L. Hurt Jr. and his family were prepared to load up the car and head to grandma's in Gainesville, the phone rang.

Instead of a last-minute request to pick up a forgotten item from the grocery store, the caller had a different request.

"This particular call was from a place called Lion Country Safari, located about 30 minutes south of Atlanta," Hurt said.

"They had just lost a beautiful giraffe and wanted to know if I wanted the entire animal to mount for my collection."

Most people would probably think they were the target of a prank call, but not for Hurt, a talented taxidermist.

That call was something of a Christmas miracle.

"Unless you are a dedicated taxidermist and very enthusiastic about your work, you can't quite grasp how excited I was about the prospects of skinning and preparing an entire giraffe," Hurt said.

Although he was ready to head down to the safari and get to work, his wife, Barbara, was a little more reluctant about abandoning their holiday with family.

"I reminded her that this is a once-in-a-lifetime thing and we really shouldn't pass it up," Hurt said.

Hesitantly she agreed, and with his wife's blessing Hurt hit the road. A few hours later, he returned to their home, with the giraffe strapped down in the back of his pickup truck.

"My family got pretty used to me bringing animals home — I did a lot of work at home," Hurt said.

So instead of spending the day with aunts, uncles and cousins, Hurt's four children spent the day playing at home, while dad preserved his prized giraffe in the basement.

That was 1973, but it wasn't the first, nor the last, time that Hurt's taxidermy business created an unexpected Christmas memory.

With a taxidermy career that started when he was just a kid, Hurt has many stories to share — some funny, some inspiring, but all with life lessons.

As the grandson of a man who didn't share much about his life, Hurt was determined to leave a different legacy for his own grandchildren.

Around 10 years ago, Hurt began writing down his stories to share with his grandchildren. Now those stories have been compiled into a book, "The Making of This Man: Tales for My Grandchildren."

One of the most interesting things that the Gainesville native has done with his life was to enroll in a mail-order taxidermy course when he was just 10 years old. That decision quickly turned into a lucrative career.

"For three or four years, he bought all of the Christmas gifts for all of (us kids) with the money that he made," said Jack Hurt, the taxidermist's younger brother and a Gainesville resident.

"He was very generous."

Hurt also used his money to buy himself a handsome leather jacket, which came to a most unattractive end.

As a still green taxidermist, the nearly 11-year-old was presented with a unique opportunity to mount a skunk for the promise of $8.

In his beloved leather coat, Hurt carefully got to work. Unfortunately, his training hadn't warned him about the skunk's scent glands.

"When he cut those glands, that smell got all over his jacket," Jack Hurt said.

"My parents made him take a bath on the back porch. My mom made him bury that jacket in the yard."

Not only did Hurt lose his beloved jacket, he also missed out on collecting those $8 since the would-be customer didn't want the mounted animal with the foul scent.

"I learned one thing from that experience — never mount another skunk," Hurt said.

In addition to that aromatic memory, Hurt shares a number of other life lessons in his book, a gift that has proven to be invaluable for his grandchildren.

Hurt has been commissioned many times over the years to work on various projects requiring his preservation skills, some for the state Capitol in Atlanta, the Smithsonian, Disney World and even the Ringling Brothers Circus.

Hurt helped restore the diorama in the Civil War Cyclorama in Atlanta as well.

Since originally recording his stories, Hurt has been diagnosed with Parkinson's.

"I call it a condition, not a disease," he said.

The condition has made writing — and sometimes talking — a bit difficult for the 74-year-old. Had he not started his collection of stories when he did, he may have never been able to share his tales with his grandchildren.

"I think it's important for children to know about their grandparents," Hurt said.

"I wanted them to know what I've done in my life."

 



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