NORTH LIMA -- Paul Thomas does not sit around and wait for big-game hunters to show up on his doorstep to have their catches preserved for posterity. He goes where the action is and consequently has a two-year waiting list for his services.
Thomas, 62, has been a taxidermist for 43 years and considers himself one of the oldest taxidermists in Ohio.
As a teen-ager, he taught himself taxidermy by taking a correspondence course offered through Popular Mechanics magazine.
"I started out with small animals like squirrels, raccoons and pheasants. There weren't many deer in Ohio back in the '50s," Thomas said.
First shop: In the mid-1960s Thomas lived in a small house on Thalia Avenue in Youngstown. He built a shop on the property and began advertising to hunters in Pennsylvania, who brought in deer and black bears.
At about the same time, Thomas and his wife, Marti, were married. They moved to their current home on Market Street across from Pine Lake and opened a taxidermy shop in Columbiana in the early 1970s.
For a year, Thomas worked as a siding contractor in addition to taxidermy. Then he quit the siding business to concentrate on taxidermy.
"That was scary," Mrs. Thomas said.
In 1973 the couple took a gamble.
"I borrowed money to take my first trip to British Columbia to a hunting camp," Thomas said. From there, my business took off. I had to spend money to make money," he said.
Like so many other businesses in the area, Thomas felt the ripple effect of the 1979 steel mill closings. He was forced to close his shop in Columbiana, and he opened his current shop at his home.
Hunting camps: In addition to drumming up business, he and his wife also spend time hunting at camps they visit.
The couple took their first trip to South Africa in 1994 to a 300,000-acre hunting camp. About 33,000 Americans go to South Africa to hunt each year, he said.
"Big-game hunting is an expensive hobby. If a hunter gets a big brown bear up in Canada, he has to pay the owner of the camp $15,000. A lion costs $43,000. That doesn't include the costs of travel, accommodations and my fees for mounting," he said.
His fees vary, depending on how much work needs to be done.
During hunting season he can spend anywhere from 10 days to 10 weeks skinning and butchering the catches and then preparing the hides to be shipped to a tannery in North Carolina. After the hides are tanned, they are sent to Thomas' shop, where they are mounted.
Thomas worked on animals from 15 safaris last year. He averages about 400 animals a year. He also does work for museums, including a yak he just completed.
"I've mounted a lot of world records, and it has taken me 25 years to build up my reputation to be trusted with those animals," he said.