A S A YOUNG CHILD IN BOMBAY,
Thakorial Mistry upset his parents mightily by zapping a pigeon with a borrowed BB gun and stuffing it for display. Hindus, who revere living things and believe in reincarnation, aren't supposed to do that sort of thing, after all. But Mistry says the art of taxidermy has intrigued him for as long as he can remember.
"Even in India, people in the neighborhood were fascinated with my stuffed animals, although they thought I was crazy," recalls Mistry, who arrived in the United States in 1971 with degrees in chemistry and zoology and about $6 in pocket money.
After an apprenticeship with a Virginia taxidermist (during which time he skinned and stuffed a world-class 1,142-pound blue marlin), Mistry struck out on his own in 1976.
Today, "Thak," as his friends call him, operates three taxidermy studios in Maryland and Virginia, making him the busiest animal stuffer in these parts. Fortunately, his wife, Jyotana, his two brothers and several other relatives lend a hand.
"People think it's strange for a Hindu to do this kind of work," says Mistry, stroking the neck of a snarling grizzly bear mounted on a polished oak base, "but I love the grace and beauty of the finished product. I work at this job for hours, and it's pure pleasure. There's no 5 o'clock quitting time, you know? You can't just do this for the money."
Perhaps. But taxidermy can be quite profitable, what with more than 200 deer, two dozen bears and innumerable geese, ducks, pheasant, rabbits, snakes and fish going under the Mistry scalpel each year.
"You have to be fast in this business to be successful," he says bluntly. "I'm the fastest there is, and I can skin a small animal without so much as drawing a drop of blood."
Mistry is constructing a spacious showroom near his home in Brandywine to house a growing menagerie. A platoon of mounted caribou heads, a full-grown lioness and scores of other stuffed and freeze- dried fauna are stored in an anteroom awaiting installation in their new home.
"People can come here and see the quality of my work while they're dropping off their squirrels, rabbits, cats and dogs or whatever," Mistry says proudly.
Cats and dogs?
"Certainly," he says. "People love to preserve their pets -- cats, dogs and even parrots and boa constrictors. I have a special feeling for this. Sometimes I'll spend a whole day on one dog. I take a lot of pride in doing pets."
Is there any animal Mistry won't handle? How about a cow, the animal revered above all in the Hindu religion?
Mistry's eyes light up. "Why not? Bring it in and I'll take care of it. This is America!"