On a table in the small brick building behind Steve Toher’s Beighton terrace house there sits, staring at the door, the head of a 500lb Indian tiger.
In a bin next to it, soaking in preserving solution, is the complete skin of a 9ft Boa constrictor. On the wall there are a couple of mounted owls. On the desk sit a selection of stuffed rats, badgers and birds. And in three freezers out back there’s a dead cat, ferret and the head and hide of a deer.
Neighbours in this quiet street - Queens Road - still talk about the day a full African lion was wheeled out to a waiting truck.
“That got a bit of an audience,” recalls Steve. “I guess it’s not every day you see the King of the Jungle being carried down your street.”
Welcome, reader, to the workshop of Sheffield’s only taxidermist - and the only man in the UK fully accredited as a reptile taxidermist.
For more than 30 years Steve has skinned and stuffed everything from 15ft Nile Crocodiles to pygmy shrews you could hold in your hand. He’s done orangutans, vampire bats and iguanas. You know the deer at Weston Park Museum? That’s his. So is the ecological scene where a rainbow boa snake prepares to eat a marmoset monkey which itself is about to make dinner of a butterfly. He’s done displays for London’s Natural History Museum and Edinburgh’s National Museum Of Scotland.
He’s done more roadkill than he can remember and is regularly commissioned to preserve family pets. Hence that cat in the freezer. What kind of person would have their deceased pet mounted for the living room? “Pass,” shrugs Steve, 49. “I’ve always buried mine. But I’m happy to do it for people if that’s what they want.”
In short, if it exists there’s a fair chance Steve has stuffed it. And sometimes even if it doesn’t exist, he’s done that too. He was once called in to create a model of a woolly mammoth.
He’s so well-renowned that at one point during today’s interview Sheffield Theatres phone him. There’s a scene in an upcoming play in which an animal is skinned. Producers want to know how that would have been done in Victorian England. Can he tell them?
“I can,” he says. “But it will take a few minutes. I’ll call you back.”
The first thing Steve wants to do when he invites The Star into his workshop - a surprisingly clean room to say the work which goes on here - is debunk a couple of taxidermy myths.
First things first, he doesn’t technically ‘stuff’ animals.
Steve - who was raised in Broad Lane in the city centre then Hackenthorpe - skins his subject before measuring its body and carving an almost exact replica from closed-cell polystyrene. He sculpts more detailed parts into a polyurethane model. He then fits the skin around this creation and sews it up.
“Would I say it’s art?” he ponders. “Well, that sounds pretentious but yes, I think it is. Not everyone can carve an exact replica of an animal’s body.”
The second myth he wants debunking is that this is a profession which is somehow morbid.
“It’s the exact opposite,” he says. “This is a job that’s all about life. I love nature. It’s my passion. If you wanted I could reel off the Latin names of more than 1,000 beetles. I have thousands of pounds worth of books in the house. Taxidermy allows people to study natural history. As for it being gruesome, it’s no more bloody than a butcher’s work.”
If just one child has been inspired to learn more about nature after seeing one of his hundreds of animals, he says that is a job well done.
He got into the career because of his own childhood passion. “When you’re brought up in the city,” he notes, “seeing anything that isn’t human is a big deal. I’d see a pigeon and be fascinated.”
He grew older, became a bird watcher and insect collector, and one day found a dead blackbird out in the woods.
“I wanted it preserving but it would have cost too much,” he recalls. “So I decided to learn to do it myself.”
He went to the Weston Park Museum’s taxidermy unit (long since gone) and asked if they’d teach him. Impressed by this young teenager’s enthusiasm, they agreed. Within a couple of years, his ability was such they started commissioning him to do small jobs.
“I was at art college by that point,” he says. “But by the time I left I had enough contacts to do taxidermy full time.”
He set up his own studio in Walkley and has been doing it ever since. He moved to Beighton in 1987.
For the record, he tends not to do game heads of animals which have been hunted.
“There’s not much call for it in South Yorkshire,” notes Steve who is married to civil servant Julie. “Plus, it’s not what I’m about. I’m a naturalist. That doesn’t sit well with hunting.”
The tiger head, he explains, is part of an old rug which he’s been commissioned to repair.
“I feel blessed to have been able to make a living from doing something I love,” he says.
Now, there’s just one more simple goal he wants to achieve: to be named the best taxidermist in the world. There’s a championship every two years in the US. Taxidermists from across the globe go there to show off their work and compete for the title.
“Logistically it would be difficult to get to because you have to get your animals out there,” he says. “But I’d like to have a crack at it. I think I’d stand a chance. It would be nice to do it just once.”