On a typical weekday morning in Ojai, the sounds of the natural world creep in through open windows: a bird chirping away in a tree, a dog barking in the distance, a box of ravenous beetles stripping the flesh off of skulls in Chuck Testa’s backyard. If you’re Testa’s neighbor, the continuously ringing phone has become as much a part of nature as the formerly living animals he keeps on display in his garage. There once was a time when Testa lived quietly, resurrecting animals into forever poses; that is, until the Internet found him.
As the proprietor of Ojai Valley Taxidermy, Testa’s reputation as a craftsman grew steadily over the years, seeing him travel across the country to stuff and mount elephants, giraffes and silverback gorillas for museums and private collectors. Were it not for a chance encounter with a production company, it might have remained that way.
“The first phone call came in February,” said Testa, standing under an awning in his backyard.
Oliver Lee, his soon-to-be son-in-law, stood close by, acting almost as Testa’s intern, answering phones and arranging interviews. “At first I thought it was a joke.”
The callers happened to be the Commercial Kings, made up of comedy duo Rhett and Link, hosts of the Independent Film Channel program in which small businesses are given a chance to go viral with a customized commercial, often focusing on a silly theme. Testa was to be their pilot episode.
“I did it hoping that if I were on TV I would get some genuine exposure for my business, from more recession-proof clients,” said Testa. “I really didn’t know what I got myself into. I didn’t even understand the whole concept until they came walking in with the camera, and I didn’t know where my shoes were.”
In August, the commercial was finished and uploaded to YouTube. In the video, Testa surprises unsuspecting people with various wild animals, only to soothe their fear by assuring them that the animals have long been dead.
It didn’t take long for the piece to get noticed. Within a week, the video had amassed more than 1 million views. Two months later, at least 6 million viewers worldwide have made the name Chuck Testa synonymous with taxidermy. But the Internet is a tricky venue for celebrities, where sudden stars can get sucked in and lose control of their personalities. Fortunately for Testa, his natural savvy helped him take control of his rapid rise to Internet stardom.
With help from his wife and Lee, Testa started a new venture: selling T-shirts with his image and catchphrase “Nope!” on the back. In his living room sat a box of packaged shirts ready for shipment, and priced to sell at $19.99.
“I’m learning a whole new set of skills, about a whole new world. For a person of my age, I’m finding out what the younger generation is all about.”
But for all the fame that comes with an induction into the Internet canon, the business that got him there hasn’t seen an increase. In fact, not a single new client has shown up at his Ojai shop, which also doubles as his home, since the video’s sudden rise in popularity. Instead, Testa has capitalized on the opportunity by using his appearances to educate and dispel myths about hunting and taxidermy.
Testa and Lee scrambled across their patio to retrieve a mounted fox carrying a realistic bird between its teeth. Inside his home, Lee had set up an interview via Skype with an agricultural class from Kentucky that was eager to see some of Testa’s creations.
“He tries to get taxidermy out there a bit more, about what taxidermy really is, how the business is going and the process,” said Lee. “I know he hasn’t gotten any new customers, but the opportunity for him to teach has grown significantly.”
Testa finished up his Skype session with a “Nope!” to the amusement of the students, and then headed for his garage with his sculptures.
“These kids love me, and I love to educate kids about taxidermy. I love the opportunity to discuss my trade and get it out there.”
After we returned a few dusty animals to their places in his trophy room, a converted garage, Testa took a seat and wiped the sweat from his forehead while Lee took his place in the shade.
“It’s a family deal just like the American dream,” said Testa. “Trying, to keep up with it all is exhausting, but I like it. If people are going to take the time to ask, Hey, Chuck — whatever! I’m going to take the time to answer them.
That’s how it was before, and I haven’t changed.”
To see the commercial and learn more about Chuck Testa and taxidermy, visit www.ojaitaxidermy.com.