I met Chuck Testa in October 2017, with photographer Myles Pritchard, while doing a story on the pretty Californian town of Ojai.
“You probably thought this deer was alive. And this coyote was alive. And this pheasant was alive… Nope. They’re not. They’re dead. They’ve been taxidermised by Chuck Testa.”
Do TV commercials for local taxidermists normally become web phenomenons? Nope. Especially when they’re shoddily made, terribly acted and feature a central character talking about himself monotonously in the third-person. But Chuck Testa’s TV commercial, made in 2011, has more than 17 million YouTube views.
The commercial was made in 2011 as part of the Commercial Kings reality TV show, but was destined for relative obscurity until a Reddit user called LunaMcLovin wrote: “This is probably the funniest low-budget commercial I have ever seen.” The Internet kicked into gear, the “Nope” memes and parodies started flowing. Suddenly America knew Chuck, or at least a version of him, and he became a very modern kind of celebrity.
We meet Chuck while doing an otherwise very different story. We’ve been meeting boutique owners, locavore chefs and small-scale farmers in the pretty Californian town of Ojai – and, as is custom, asking everyone we meet about other interesting characters in town. At Caravan Outpost, a trendier-than-thou Airstream trailer park, one of the owners had told us about “this taxidermy guy on the edge of town who was a YouTube sensation a few years back”.
So, here we are, despite Chuck not remotely fitting into our narrative. He lets us into his man cave, in a converted garage out the back of his clapboard suburban home. There are hundreds of taxidermied animal heads in the space, which is crammed to the rafters with other stuff: old taxidermy books, model dinosaurs, Action Man figures, frayed newspaper clippings, hunting photos, dusty rosettes, car license plates, an electric guitar…
The radio channel is playing only The Beatles (“they might even by underrated,” he argues), and in one corner of the room is a collection of vintage Hot Wheels model cars, which he says “changed the world… all other model cars are uncool”. In another corner, there’s a skeleton in army gear, with a gun, a nod to Chuck’s other hobby, doing World War II reenactments. Around the place there are illustrated posters of Chuck and the word “Nope”, modelled after Shepard Fairey’s Obama “Hope” image.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out Chuck’s political persuasions. The Hillary Clinton nutcracker gives a clue: “Is America ready for this nutcracker?” asks the box. The sign saying “Extremely Rightwing” rather hammers home the point.
Chuck is shoeless, and wearing a green cap that reads “Nope. Chuck Testa” on one side. The short peak is turned up. He’s 61, and describes himself as “transvertical”, which is his way of saying he’s short. And he’s far more engaging and engaged than the Chuck you see in the adverts, or even on the various web-based comedy shows he appeared on later.
Chuck first got into taxidermy around 1982. He’d been fascinated by stuffed animals as a child growing up in Culver City, Los Angeles, and “couldn’t budge from the windows of taxidermy stores… there was just something about the process that fascinated me”. So, in the early 80s, he found a beginner’s taxidermy kit advertised in the back of Outdoor Life magazine, and ordered one.
The rest is history, though Chuck says he’s never been a natural – unlike his current apprentice, a 15-year-old girl who he talks up as something of a taxidermy prodigy, who first showed serious talent when she made animals out of Play-Doh. Sadly, she can’t come and say hello, as she’s at school.
When Chuck’s video went viral, he says he got threats from animal rights activists – and he’s still bothered, and a little hurt, by what he sees as misconceptions around what he does.
“The myth is that I hate animals,” he says. “The truth is that I love animals. In fact, I’m obsessed by them – the amount of time I spend looking at animals and trying to make them anatomically accurate, you can’t and wouldn’t do that if you didn’t love and respect animals. It’s a shame that a lot of these PETA types don’t even try to understand that.”
The myth is that I hate animals. The truth is that I love animals.
Chuck, like most taxidermists, doesn’t kill animals, at least not now. He hunted a little in the early days, but it was only so that he could get skins with which to practise his taxidermy. He won’t do pets, especially dogs – he has five of them, all rescue animals. He says the whole industry is heavily regulated so that he can’t do endangered or protected species.
The PETA argument against taxidermy is summarised here, but Chuck argues that a) a lot of hunting is beneficial to both animal and human communities and that b) not many animals he mounts have been killed specifically as trophies. “An animal can get killed for all kinds of reasons,” he says. “I get a lot of old zoo animals that died naturally. Do you bury them, throw them away, or do this? We’re turning animals into pieces of art, and they say that’s barbaric.”
What’s not in doubt is that good taxidermy is an involved process, which can take up to ten months, and can never be mechanised. The animal has to be skinned, salted and dried, and its skin sent to a tannery, before it gets to Chuck. He then makes bespoke moulds to fit the animal in question, using mould-makers, clay and two-part foam. Just about every part of the animal has to be moulded, or made from the scratch, except for the eyes, which come in packs of ten or 20, attached to strips of cardboard.
A white-tailed deer, the most mounted animal, might take 20 hours of work for Chuck, but a full-sized animal will usually take more like 40. On one wall, he points out the head of a 2,800lb Holstein bull, which he says “took even longer than that”. With a deer head going for about $750, Chuck says he “has to hustle to make 30 bucks an hour”.
You have to be fastidious to be a taxidermist. Chuck often judges at competitions in shows. “You get really deep into the anatomy of the animal. The head or neck is at slightly the wrong angle, or the ears are slightly too far back. You sound like a dick, but you’re right.”
Chuck the taxidermist and Chuck the Internet celebrity seem like different creatures, even if the website for Ojai Valley Taxidermy bills itself as “The Home of NOPE”. While he’s obsessive about his craft, for the advert he just said to the producers: “Do whatever you want. I don’t care.”
They filmed the commercial over three and a half days, mostly in and around Chuck’s house. “The bear in the commercial wasn’t finished, so when we put it in my bed it was all dirty,” he remembers. “You can actually hear my wife yelling at me in the background.” The kid who sees the antelope is his son, one of his five children, who later pops in to say hello.
Chuck says that the ad didn’t help his taxidermy business much, but “it was fun” – so, when more opportunities came up, he said yes. He was the star of Mounted: Chuck Testa and Friends on Carbon TV, a web-based outdoor living channel, which mostly involved weird characters coming to his taxidermy garage. “This ain’t no damn reality show,” goes the trailer. “It’s just reality – Chuck’s reality.”
There’s lots more of Chuck’s reality on YouTube, too – as a guest on shows, giving taxidermy tips or just showing off his dogs. “For me, it’s mostly about saying: what the Hell,” he says. “If it’s fun, I’ll do it.”
It seems a decent enough philosophy, and I ask Chuck what he’d do if he were President. “I’d make sure there was a dog in every garage,” he says, without missing a beat. “Then… just be who you are. Live and let live.”