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Rich yet? Nope: Ojai taxidermist becomes Internet famous

By   /   Friday, September 30th, 2011  /   Comments Off

Does being famous on YouTube instantly lead to higher sales for your small business?

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Chuck Testa, owner of Ojai Valley Taxidermy. A humorous commercial for his taxidermy shop has become a viral sensation on YouTube, but Testa says it’s otherwise business as usual. (Stephen Nellis photo).

Does being famous on YouTube instantly lead to higher sales for your small business?

Nope. Just ask Chuck Testa.

Over the past few weeks, Testa has become an Internet sensation thanks to a cheesy YouTube commercial for his business, Ojai Valley Taxidermy, that has gone viral with nearly 5 million views.

The spot was the brainchild of Rhett & Link, a North Carolina comedy duo whose reality show “Commercial Kings” specializes in campy, low-budget YouTube spots for mom-and-pop businesses. The theme is that Testa’s stuffed wildlife is so realistic, you might think it’s still alive. “Nooooope,” Testa informs the viewer. “It’s just Chuck Testa.”

The commercial garnered 2 million views in a matter of days, and Testa’s monotone delivery of “nope” became an instant Internet meme.

View the video:

 

But for all the buzz online, it’s business as usual at Testa’s shop in Ojai. On a recent day, he was using a set of calipers to take detailed measurements of a coastal blacktail deer’s head before packing the hide in salt to preserve it.

Aside from selling a few “Nope!” branded T-shirts and receiving a lot of strange voicemails on his answering machine, the commercial hasn’t done much to boost business. “No, none, zero. I’m still broke,” Testa said.

But Testa displays the scrappy optimism of a small-business owner. “I think that might change. When you set the bar at zero, there’s nowhere to go but up.”

The Internet has reduced Testa and his business to a catchphrase that will fade in a few weeks. But behind it all is a complex man whose path to business has been defined by passion and struggle.

The passion for taxidermy started when Testa was a boy. His mother would walk him past a taxidermy shop in the Echo Park area of Los Angeles, where he was captivated by an elephant in the window. Later, Testa took up hunting pheasants because they were tasty but also because he found them beautiful, and preserving that beauty is what prompted him to try taxidermy.

“I ordered a kit out of the back of a magazine for $9.95. ‘Mount your pheasant with professional results,’ it said. All it took was $10 and 25 years of pain and suffering, and now I’m a professional,” Testa said.

He started in taxidermy as a business after a painful divorce. After 19 years of marriage, he found himself alone with his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A friend with a dilapidated commercial space in Ojai made him an offer: He could use the real estate to start a taxidermy business if he put in time and work to fix the place up. “So I took my shot,” Testa said.

Today, he has mounted nearly anything that can be hunted both near and a far, from California black bears and boars to Cape buffalo and rhinoceroses from Africa. It’s an art that has taken years to perfect. The animals are skinned, and the skins are cured with salt and then professionally tanned. Then it is up to Testa to fit them to sculpted mannequins. He takes careful measurements to select a mannequin that will get him in the ballpark, but the final fitting involves a lot of delicate handwork. “We make the mannequins fit the skin,” Testa said. “We don’t fit the skin to the mannequins.”

Internet fame has brought its share of challenges. Someone bought the www.chucktesta.com domain name and is trying to resell it to Testa for an exorbitant amount. He’s received a viable enough death threat that he is beefing up his security monitoring. And he’s been called a Nazi. (In the commercial, his cap seems to bear a Nazi SS emblem).

It is indeed an SS emblem, Testa explained, but it was inadvertent. The hat is part of his collection of World War II-era military artifacts. The collection began with helmets and other gear his father brought back after landing at D-Day and marching to Berlin. Testa still puts on his father’s field gear as part of a battle reenactment group, which is where he won the SS hat.

In his window hangs an American flag sent to him from Afghanistan by an active-duty soldier. “Any of the combat guys get special treatment from me. Especially if they’re being deployed, I want to get them their mount before they go,” Testa said. “It’s the least I can do.”

Before the commercial, Testa had been supplementing his income with consulting work in Texas. “A taxidermist should never be caught up. He should always be backed up six months. I was done three months ago,” he said. “I’m back to hobby status. I’m not out of business.”

This deer hunting season, he’s doing roughly the same amount of business as last year, which he’s thankful for. But hunting in the Golden State is on the decline, he said.

While he’s good humored about his Internet fame, he expects it will pass. He said he’s looking forward to the annual meeting of the California Association of Taxidermists early next year in Sacramento. Last year, about 30 kids showed up interested in learning taxidermy. These days, one of his main goals aside from staying afloat financially is passing on his skills and knowledge to the next generation of taxidermists.

“I would like to take the time to teach a kid before this passes away,” Testa said.

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