By David Brand
A flock of exotic birds line the windowsill at Cypress Hills Taxidermy Studio, their feathery crests frozen aloft as they stare out at Metropolitan Avenue in Middle Village.
Despite their splendor, the parrots are castaways, old pets turned into plumed sculptures by John Youngaitis, Queens’ lone taxidermist. Youngaitis inherited his business and learned the trade from his father, who founded the taxidermy shop in Cypress Hills in 1958.
“I apprenticed there coming up,” Youngaitis said during a visit Sunday. He was dressed in blue jeans and a Harley Davidson tee over a black long sleeve shirt that covered the tattoos creeping up the backs of his hands. “As a kid I lucked out. I got to grow up around taxidermy.”
Over the years he has learned a lot about his craft, as well as the business of taxidermy. One lesson: don’t stuff and mount other people’s pets unless they pay upfront. As in the case of those birds, too few owners come back to collect their critters and settle their tab.
As Youngaitis honed his skills in Brooklyn, his unique craftsmanship made him pretty popular in school, he said.
“For show and tell, I’d bring in something with taxidermy and the kids would get a kick out of it,” he said. He would pass around an antler here, a turtle share there. “The teachers would tell me to go to some other classrooms and show the other people.”
In addition to local game, Youngaitis worked on rare beasts. His father contracted with local zoos that sent him animals that died in transit. He remembers comforting a sick baby elephant until it died. He later skinned and mounted it. A stuffed monkey from South America climbs a wall above the cash register.
About five years ago, Youngaitis, who lives in Glendale, sold the building in Brooklyn and moved the shop to Middle Village.
Near the door, a black bear stands with its arms spread — another Youngaitis handiwork. One wall features a menagerie of hoofed mammals — deer, antelope, a wooly ram and a massive kudu. The opposite wall is covered in a bunch of buck busts, along with a large fish and some local fowl. Most are for sale.
A giant brown bear from Alaska looms in front of a window and a wild boar hoofs the floor nearby. The stretched skin of Youngaitis’ 19-foot pet python hangs above a doorway.
“It was like a dinosaur,” Youngaitis said. “It was so freaky big, I had to do it.”
These days, Youngaitis mostly works on creatures native to New York. Black bears have become more and more popular as their population increases in and around the state, he said.
“And I’m getting coyotes which I never used to get,” he added. “Deer, fox and raccoon are pretty much the same.”
Then there’s the skunk with small pins in its muzzle mounted on a two-by-four on the floor of the show room. It’s Youngaitis’ most recent display, and it’s also for sale.
“I always wanted to do a skunk. They’re cute, actually,” he said. “You just have to watch out for the glands near the tail.”
This newly stuffed specimen was struck in the head by a car cruising along Metropolitan Avenue, he said. It probably wandered from the safe cemetery across the street from the shop, he said. The scent glands didn’t burst, which enabled Youngaitis to scoop it up and skin it.
He said he tosses the innards into the trash and a private sanitation company carts it away.
“It’s just meat,” he said. “Any store would have left over meat, it’s like a supermarket.”
As Youngaitis talked, a passerby entered the shop and scanned the room of stuffed creatures.
“I’m like in shock right now,” the visitor said. “This is damn good. This is some next level shit. This is called taxidermy right?”
Youngaitis nodded and let the young man tour the room. He said he is accustomed to visitors and welcomes them, most of the time.
“Saturdays are when the families come in. I call it my museum without glass. You can touch everything,” he said. “Sometimes I don’t answer if I need to get work done. If everyone takes a half hour I’m losing hours of work.”
“I don’t blame them though,” he said. “I’d stop in, too.”
Fewer people hunt these days, but Youngaitis said the shop continues to thrive. Lately, Brooklyn bars have begun purchasing the taxidermy animals in order to capture a rural lodge aesthetic, he said.
Youngaitis has refrigerators packed with beasts in the back room, which he keeps off limits to visitors, including reporters. He said doesn’t want people to see how the sausage gets made. Or how the creatures get skinned.
Sometimes, however, business can be too good.
“It’s not like it was in my father’s day, but I still get a lot of work. It’s hard to get out because the hunting season is very busy,” Youngaitis said. “If I steal a day or two to hunt I’m lucky, but once November comes, there’s no getting out of here. It’s busy 24/7.”