My Father, The Taxidermist

If you’ve ever wondered who killed Bambi’s mother, I know the answer.

It was my dad.

Even worse, her head now hangs in the breezeway that runs between my parents’ house and their garage. And if you think deer heads and breezeways don’t really go together, then clearly you’ve never met my father.

So, here are a few things you need to know about Raymond Ritter:

• He loves his wife, kids and dogs.

• He was as athletic in high school as I was dorky.

• He is the biggest Penn State football fan in existence.

• When he read my first mystery, DEATH NOTICE, in which a serial killer attempts to embalm his victims, his initial, shocked response was, “Where do you come up with stuff like that?”

• He has an unwavering moral compass.

• He’s probably the most decent, hard-working, sensible man I know, and my sister and I are better people because we were raised by him.

Oh, and he loves to kill things, drag them to a basement lair and then stuff them.

Yes, folks, my dad is a taxidermist. Not a full-time one, mind you. It’s more of a hobby, although I’m not sure if that makes it better or worse. And while he’s decreased his workload in recent years, he was quite active when I was a kid. We had a freezer in a our basement filled with things he intended to stuff, and it was quite fun to show off to friends. The Freezer of Death, I called it.

Now, I am an animal lover. I’m a semi-vegetarian (seafood, yes; meat, no). The only things I kill are spiders, and that’s because they scare me and deserve to die. Yet taxidermy is something I have always known. It’s as common in Pennsylvania as cornfields and Fourth of July parades. But there’s also something that’s, well, really freaking weird about it. (Exhibit A: The Freezer of Death.) I’m certain all those formative years spent around deer pelts, drawers full of glass eyes and rubber tongues have made me the slightly twisted person I am today.

It also helped my writing. When I first started working on DEATH NOTICE, I wanted the killer to leave a chilling calling card with his victims. I decided to make the calling card be pieces of taxidermy. First, it made doing research unnecessary. It’s easy to write about something when the “research” is basically your childhood. Second, it’s kind of cool and creepy. Third, I knew my dad would get a kick out of it. He did, but still didn’t hesitate to tell me about the things I got wrong. (Curse you, glass eyes!)

There’s also another reason, although not as simple as the others. Growing up, I knew I wasn’t the son my dad had hoped for. He wanted a fellow hunter. He got someone too scared of guns and too fond of animals. He wanted an athlete like himself. He got a kid who couldn’t throw a football or hit a baseball. He wanted someone who liked to watch sports. He got a son who skipped Friday night football games to stay home and read Agatha Christie and Stephen King.

While I wasn’t interested in hunting, playing or watching, I knew I could write. So, when it came time to write my first novel, taxidermy had to be a part of it. For the reasons listed above, of course, but also because it was the only way I knew how to combine my father’s interests with my own. And when it was published, we at last had something in common — a book.

We’re still very different people. We disagree on many things. I know he’d be thrilled if I dove into a juicy steak later today. But I think that book went a long way toward helping both of us come to terms with who we are. And if we ever need reminding, a copy now sits on both of our bookshelves, literally binding us together.

Posted on by Todd Posted in Musings

2 Responses to My Father, The Taxidermist

  1. Ray Ritter

    I thougth the blog was very nice and I am very proud of you and love you.

  2. Todd

    Thanks, Dad!