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Landscapes, Special Wildlife Edition 2008

Mounting Memories

A taxidermist preserves memories for critically ill children in the Catch-a-Dream program.

Danny Ratliff

Photo by Debra Ferguson

Danny Ratliff

Danny Ratliff knows all about working hard to achieve a dream.

For years, the Cruger, Miss., native dreamed of opening a taxidermy business to serve the active hunting community around his hometown. But as his parents aged, their family-owned department store demanded his involvement. As the store’s buyer, he maintained a hectic travel schedule that left little time for learning a new trade or building a business on the side.

But the lifelong hunter’s taxidermy dream was never far from his thoughts.

Learning His Craft

After work one day in 2000, he drove to Mantachie, Miss., seeking guidance from veteran taxidermist Ben Mears.

"I watched him mount deer and he showed me how to do it," recalls Ratliff. "I bought all the materials I needed from him, did my first mount and took it back to him, and he told me everything I did wrong."

His first tough lesson was followed by more training, including seminars on how to mount ducks. While still helping with the family store, Ratliff gradually grew his taxidermy hobby into a thriving enterprise.

"Ben had told me it would take 10 years to build the business, but in five years it had grown enough to be a full-time business," he says.

Freezers Full of Projects

Now, eight years later, Ratliff’s workshop is full of completed and partially finished mounts. Antlers hang from the ceiling, and his freezers are full of waiting projects.

His annual work cycle begins in September, when local hunters return from western states with trophy elk, mule deer and bear. From October, when bow season opens, through the end of January, white-tailed deer fill every available nook. "I average about 150 deer each year, although I’ve done as many as 180," says the Land Bank South customer.

Helping Kid’s Dreams Come True

A seasoned taxidermist these days, Ratliff chuckles at his early work and points out his recent prize mounts.

But the wall that brings the proudest smile is the one displaying pictures of three grinning youngsters decked out in camouflage. The children are Catch-A-Dream participants — seriously ill youngsters whose dream is to experience a hunting or fishing trip — to whom he has contributed taxidermy services.

Ratliff is one of hundreds of Catch-A-Dream partners nationwide who donate their time and talents — from taxidermy to guiding services to travel — to Catch-A-Dream participants annually.

The Catch-A-Dream Foundation

The Catch-A-Dream Foundation was founded in 2003, born from the vision of Outdoor Life magazine writer and field editor Bruce Brady Sr. of Brookhaven, Miss. Before Brady died of cancer in 2000, he shared his idea with friends and family — an idea that ultimately resulted in an organization that would grant hunting and fishing trips to terminally ill children. Land Bank South was among the organizations that helped push the idea forward.

"We thought there might be half a dozen kids in Mississippi interested, but we had no idea where the funds would come from," says Marty Brunson, Catch-A-Dream Foundation executive director. The first year after Brady’s death, the group received seven applications and granted them all. Last year, 43 young patients’ hunting and fishing dreams were fulfilled. All told, the foundation has granted 181 trips.

The foundation is housed at Mississippi State University and jointly administered by the university and the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

"Danny is one of many taxidermists around the country who provide services to these youngsters, and commits annually to helping one child who hunts in his area," said Brunson. "We are fortunate to have outfitters from Alaska to Florida willing to donate their time."

Time Is of the Essence

With these projects, Ratliff is well aware that time is of the essence.

"What I do has to be done quickly, so when I get their mounts in, everything else takes a back seat. These kids are often short-lived, but when you meet them, they are just so happy to be living," he says. Recalling one of the young hunters, Ratliff says, "His eyes just lit up when he saw his deer mount." The young man died two months later.

"If you feel bad, you just look up at those pictures on the wall and realize you don’t have it so bad," Ratliff says.

For more information, or to support Catch-A-Dream, phone (662) 325-8149 or visit www.catchadream.org.

– Article by Sarah Harris
– Photo by Debra Ferguson