How a Lac-Saint-Jean taxidermy shop turned to Hollywood for pandemic survival

·3 min read
Taxidermist Angelo Gagnon displays a series of fake deer meet props he's made for an HBO mini-series. As the international market for stuffed animals has dried up amid the pandemic, companies like the one employing Gagnon are reinventing themselves.
Taxidermist Angelo Gagnon displays a series of fake deer meet props he's made for an HBO mini-series. As the international market for stuffed animals has dried up amid the pandemic, companies like the one employing Gagnon are reinventing themselves.

(Catherine Paradis/Radio-Canada - image credit)

In the village of Normandin, just west of Lac Saint-Jean, the company is well known for its fur clothing and accessories, as befits a local business in a town that has a wildlife reserve just outside its civic limits.

But Bilodeau Canada's usual business has largely dried up in the pandemic, particularly its long-standing specialty: taxidermy. The international market for stuffed wildlife has dwindled to almost nothing as international air freight has slowed, so the company has turned to a different one. Hollywood.

In the workshop that bears his name in the company's headquarters, head taxidermist Angelo Gagnon is putting the finishing touches on an unusual project.

"I'm working for an American mini-series. In the story they're in a pandemic and it's a return to the earth, so they need to hunt a deer to survive. So we've stuffed a whole deer to make it flexible, so it looks like it was just hunted," said the artisan, who has honed his craft for 30 years. "Then, in the following scenes there's going to be deer meat hanging from the ceiling, so we've reproduced the four quarters of meat and back filets."

The animal and the faux meat will be featured prominently in a series that is supposed to air on HBO in 2022. It's called Station Eleven, and is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel. The show is among several productions that have managed to keep shooting despite pandemic disruptions.

It's a welcome lifeline for Bilodeau, and it's one of several in fact.

Taxidermists at Bilodeau Canada have perfected the mechanization of stuffed animals thanks to wirelessly controlled motors.
Taxidermists at Bilodeau Canada have perfected the mechanization of stuffed animals thanks to wirelessly controlled motors.

Taxidermists at Bilodeau Canada have perfected the mechanization of stuffed animals thanks to wirelessly controlled motors.

"For this kind of contract, we probably have double what we had at the same period last year. It will never bring back what we made [in terms of revenue] last year, but it keeps everyone busy. They're fun contracts, they're a nice challenge and it allows us to develop new skills," said Samuel Bilodeau, the company's director of international sales. "It's like a balm on the wound, that's for sure."

The Normandin firm first became involved in silver screen projects in 2006, when it developed and manufactured a number of remote-controlled beavers for the Québec-France coproduction La rivière aux castors.

Some of the company's costumes and products were also featured in the U.S. film A Night at the Museum. It has also contracted its services to any number of Quebec-based productions like Horloge biologique and Le vendeur.

Fewer international clients

In a regular year Bilodeau Canada, which has 90 employees, exports the bulk of its products to collectors, museums and government departments in 27 countries. But the pandemic has put a stop to all that.

"It's been a complicated year. The international side has slowed down, there's less travel so fewer planes in the sky and transport costs have exploded. That's to be expected, there's less supply. Lots of clients have delayed their orders," Bilodeau said. "Depending on the part of the world, we could be talking about a 40 per cent increase in air freight costs. A box that cost me $6,000 to send to China last year is costing me $11,000 this year."

The good news is the cinema and television market has allowed owner Mario Bilodeau to keep investing in business development despite the pandemic. He's just poured $700,000 into a new multi-purpose exhibit space.

"We're going to show mechanical animals, robots, and animals that talk. All sorts of little things ... that are out of the ordinary," he said.