GARNER — It takes a lot of muscle to prepare and mount a 600-pound Hyde County black bear.
So much so that Diane Raver Braswell spends about three hours a week working out at Rex Wellness Center simply to meet the physical demands of her business, Diane’s Wildlife Taxidermy.
Braswell’s shop, at the end of a windy, gravel road at the edge of Garner, is filled with the hunting and fishing trophies of her family and customers – including deer heads, turkey, ducks, fish, a zebra and a buffalo head.
Out of the 915 licensed taxidermists in North Carolina, only 68 are women.
At first, hunters were hesitant to give Braswell work.
But she soon won their trust by guaranteeing her work.
“ ‘Let me try your trophy. If I don’t do a good job, then you won’t owe me,’ ” Braswell told her clients. “Over the years, they would tell their friends.” Now, she serves generations of hunters, she said.
Braswell broke into the macho business 35 years ago, after her father, Duane Raver, a wildlife painter and a fisheries biologist and editor for Wildlife in North Carolina at the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, introduced her to taxidermy.
“It was how I got started because he would bring home bird wings and stuff to paint by,” Braswell said.
Braswell ended up enrolling in a yearlong taxidermy program at Piedmont Community College, then Piedmont Technical Institute in Roxboro.
“We would spend a whole quarter on fish, a whole quarter on birds, deer heads, and then small animals,” Braswell said.
After graduation, she advertised her taxidermy skills in the Yellow Pages, and took in business in a rented house in Raleigh that she shared with roommates.
When the business didn’t take off, she took a break and landed a full-time job as an interior landscaper.
But a few years later, she tried again.
This time, Braswell rented a space in Garner, put up a billboard on U.S. 70, and ended up setting about 50 deer heads a year.
“That really helped build my business up,” Braswell said. “It mushroomed at that time. … Those three years is what really got my name out there.”
After Braswell became pregnant with her son, Lewis, she and her husband, Chip, decided to build a shop, complete with a crib, next to their house.
And the business continued to take off.
“I was up to 100 deer heads a year, and probably that many of the waterfowl,” Braswell said.
Braswell eventually became overwhelmed with the extra work and lack of vacation, so she cut off her Yellow Pages ad and her landline. The bottom fell out of the economy and business dropped significantly.
Now, Braswell is back down to about 50 deer heads a year, assorted small animals and the occasional exotic animal. And she’s currently working on three black bears – including that 600-pounder from Hyde County.
“I need my head examined for taking those jobs,” Braswell said.