Kennewick man gets to stuff, save national icon

KENNEWICK -- Taxidermist Leon Mathews has stuffed his fair share of birds, but he recently had a rare chance to work on a majestic bald eagle.

The owner of Avian Artistry & Taxidermy of Kennewick was excited when a Native American man hired him to stuff the country's national bird.

"It's quite a thing to see," he said of the massive bird, with a wing span almost 7 feet across. It's the first time he has worked on a bald eagle.

The bald eagle is protected by a 1940 law, but it is legal for Native Americans to possess the feathers and birds as long as they don't kill the birds, according to Dennis Wiist of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Wiist runs the National Eagle Repository near Denver. When an eagle is found dead or dies in captivity, it often is given to the repository, which is run by USFW.

There is a waiting list of Native Americans wanting eagle feathers and whole birds. Mathews' client, who lives in Nevada and did not wish to be named, waited 2 1/2 years for his bird, Mathews said. Wiist said the wait is shorter if they want just feathers.

The majestic bald eagle is a powerful symbol in Native American culture. The feathers are used on headdresses and costumes, and in religious ceremonies and healing rituals in tribes around North America.

Wiist has been matching dead eagles with Native Americans for 15 years.

When bald eagles are found dead or injured and can't be saved, they are given to Native Americans to use for cultural and religious purposes.

Last year, all or part of 2,336 bald and golden eagles were given to the repository. From those birds, the repository filled requests for 1,276 birds, Wiist said. The remaining parts and feathers, along with other partial birds, were used to fill another 3,901 requests.

Wiist talks to almost every person on the waiting list to make sure he knows exactly what they are looking for. He still remembers one older woman who had been waiting for eagle feathers for some time.

Wiist said the body of the bird arrived and was crawling with maggots.

He called the woman to tell her the feathers she was waiting for would be shipped soon -- he just needed to clean up the carcass before removing her feathers. He was surprised when the woman told him to stop.

"She said, 'Don't you dare! I have to have the full body to give it a proper burial,' " Wiist said. "This is very sacred to them."

The bald eagle Mathews worked on had been electrocuted.

Mathews spent about 11 hours on the eagle project. He carefully removed the skin from the bird and stretched it over a body form, removed marrow from the eagle's leg bones and replaced the eyes with glass replicas.

Mathews, 55, specializes in birds. He does every type from tiny hummingbirds to large trumpeter swans, turkeys and pheasants.

He grew up in Pasco and started dabbling in taxidermy as a hobby when he was a teenager. He started doing it full time in 2005 after a career as a salesman and bread delivery man.

"You feel like you could be a surgeon," he said. "I've been doing it for 40 years, and I still struggle with it every day."