Images by Aaron Yoshino.
Taxidermist Orion Enocencio of ‘Ahiu Hawai‘i.
From sea level to the slopes of Mauna Kea, wild boars roam the Big Island, destroying native plants and pakalolo patches. Gangs of turkeys scurry through the forests of Ka‘u. Hybrid sheep call lava flows and dry scrubland on Saddle Road home.
Wild donkeys roam hungry and free in Waikoloa, and upland, various birds thrive on local flora and fauna. The Big Island is a hunter’s dreamland – plenty for the stomach, and plenty for the wall.
In 2001, Orion Enocencio was a 20-year-old hunter awaiting the birth of his first child and wondering how he would support a family. Little did he know that his life and the art of reconstructing animals would soon intersect.
Eleven years later, it’s a clear day in Puna, and Enocencio holds the leathered skin of a hybrid sheep. Strong tradewinds move its black wool, and the once moist and full lips of the animal are still shiny and supple.
“I was having my first kid and realized I needed to hustle, I didn’t want to struggle,” he says, nonchalantly using both hands to shape an ear filled with Bondo putty (an automobile body filler). His father, whom he credits with “everything,” suggested taxidermy. Slightly baffled, Enocencio asked, “Where am I gonna learn taxidermy? And my dad said my uncle would teach me,” he recalls, moving on to the other ear.
What one may assume was a natural progression from life as a hunter turned out to be a labor of duty, not love. His inauguration into a taxidermist was driven by the need to provide. “I was kinda forced into it,” he remembers.
“Growing up it was hunt, fish, dive. We put food on the table that way. But this was so irritating, required so much patience. I just didn’t want to do it, but I did,” he says, placing a set of curled horns onto a ram manikin.
Practice paid off, and soon the new dad was producing quality mounts. He found himself landlocked in Wisconsin for six months at taxidermy school to expand his skills. Noting all elements of the process, Enocencio says, “Taxidermy isn’t just art. It’s welding, carpentry, science, sculpting and plumbing.”
Seven children later (all boys), he’s practicing taxidermy full time under ‘Ahiu Hawaii, the adventure, hunting and taxidermy company he and his wife Kulanihiwa started after he was forced to give up another career. At one point Enocencio was the ultimate oxymoron – hunter, taxidermist and Humane Society officer.
When a higher-up decided his personal life didn’t blend with his professional life, he was given an ultimatum: Stop hunting or get fired. “It was a hard one. Lose my job, or quit something that I grew up doing, that was part of me,” he says, placing golden-brown glass eyes on the manikin. “So, I said OK and got fired.”
With skins coming in from outer islands and the mainland, ‘Ahiu’s business is expanding. “We’ve tried to open a shop but landlords are like, ‘You want to do taxidermy in here? That’s weird. Sorry.’ No one will rent us a space,” he says, drawing from memory as he transforms the ram’s face from a blank canvas into a lifelike combination of curves using paper-mâché and a carving tool.
But this taxidermist is a far cry from the stereotypical ones portrayed in movies, creepy guys working in dark cluttered rooms. His organized, open-air workshop is adjacent to the family home in a well-manicured yard. Sunlight permeates every nook and cranny, and a day at the office for Enocencio requires an ‘Ahiu T-shirt (silk screened in the workshop), surf shorts, rubber slippers and a permanent smile.
Soon the skin is snug on the manikin, hugging its curves like it once did its skull. After tucking in the eyelids and lips with flat metal tool, the mount is complete. The moment is a culmination of a 6-month process – skinning, tanning and fleshing (done in the only pressurized drum of its kind in Hawai‘i), prepping the mannequin and rotting the horns off the skull.
Inspecting the ram, Enocencio addresses the significance of his first name. “I don’t think my parents named me after Orion the Hunter. I don’t know why they picked it,” he says. Well, it’s a perfect fit. And that ram? It looks eerily real.