It’s a testament to the patience of Greg Robertson’s parents that he enjoys a worldwide reputation as a taxidermist. “They were very supportive of my... messy hobby,” says Robertson, noting that they once gave him five whole Arctic foxes—his best Christmas present ever. That was back in the 1980s, when Robertson was a teenager toiling away in the basement of the family home during his spare time. Today, he is famous as the founder of Robertson Taxidermy Ltd., operating out of a shop in Yellowknife’s Kam Lake neighbourhood, where he produces mounts for clients ranging from sport hunters to international museums. His trademark skill? Creating lifelike scenes that depict the life of his subjects as well as their habitats and behaviours. One of Robertson’s best-known pieces greets visitors at Yellowknife’s airport—a depiction of a polar bear on an ice floe, mid-stride, chasing a seal as it escapes down a breathing hole.
At its peak, Robertson Taxidermy employed about seven people. Business has declined over the past several years, however, due to changes in hunting regulations and a U.S. import ban on polar bear hides. Not that Robertson is complaining. Although he now works alone, he remains at the top of his game. Here, he talks about how he got there.
“It was my dad who convinced me to buy the property out in Kam Lake. I’m still on this property. He fronted me the loan for a down payment...
“I moved out to Kam Lake in 1991 and I have to admit, those first three, four years were pretty tough. We had a lot of great local clients but it wasn’t really enough to keep the business going strong. It wasn’t what made the business back then. We eventually broke into the sport hunting industry—the caribou outfitters, muskox outfitters. We got our ‘in’ there. We started with the local caribou outfitters. Just picked up one at a time, over the years. We eventually branched out into the outfitters in the Mackenzie Mountains and throughout Nunavut and the northern part of the NWT. It took a while, but we eventually got more support as the word got out.
“Eventually, I scaled the business right back as a lot of changes were happening. There’s no more outfitting for caribou in the NWT. The Americans closed importation of polar bears into the U.S. [in 2008] and we had to scale back a little further. It was things out of my control that scaled the business back. But it was a good move. I wanted to branch out anyway into more museum work. I enjoy it all but there're just aspects of the taxidermy business I enjoy more, which is the full mounts. There're a lot more storytelling and action we can put into it... My main customers now are natural history museums in China.
“There were certainly animals that were a lot more challenging than others but I wasn’t really ever afraid to try anything.” (That said, Robertson does admit he might be intimidated by a full-mount of a walrus, with all of its folds and warts and creases.) “It’s a trade that you never stop learning. It’s impossible to recreate life 100 per cent in taxidermy. You just do the best you can. If you keep that mentality, you progress. Every year you’re better. I’m still not where I want to be as far as realism. I still figure I’ve got another—well, the rest of my life. I may never achieve it. But it’s a lot of fun trying to get there.”