WILLIAMSBURG, Mich. -- These wild animals won't bite you if you touch them. And they won't flee if you're near.
At Guntzviller's Spirit of the Woods Museum, the wildlife is approachable, fascinating and quite dead.
Voss Guntzviller is a taxidermist, and he created a tourist stop showcasing hundreds of animals that once roamed the woods of Michigan, but now in their stiffness make close encounters safe and easy.
"Part of it was for education," said the 68-year-old. "We have a lot of youth and kids, a lot of people who don't see what we have in the outdoors. And to take the time and wander around the woods, a lot of people don't have that. So when I built this museum I thought people could come in here and they could see everything right up close, just like you would see in the wild."
Voss has always loved the outdoors. Like a lot of Michiganders growing up in a rural town, he spent much of his childhood outside -- camping, fishing, hiking through the woods. And hunting.
His dad and his uncles taught him how to hunt when he was a little boy, just like most kids he grew up with. And it's bothered him that every year, he sees fewer people heading out into the woods when hunting season rolls around.
It bothered him that with dozens of school districts within a short drive of his museum, there have been very few teachers leading kids here to learn about Michigan wildlife.
But it bothers him most that the kids themselves don't seem as interested as they once were in outdoor sports like hunting, fishing and trapping, traditions that were once commonly passed down from fathers to sons and from uncles to nephews.
"I think they're missing out big time, you know, because there's nothing like being out in nature," he said. "You see the different animals that are out there. It's the smells, it's the noise of the cricks running. You know, there's a lot of things you don't get by watching TV or sitting on the couch, sucking on a soda."
That's why he built a museum full of dead animals -- to show people what they could be seeing alive in the wild if they ventured outside. To spark an interest in nature among kids. And to say that hunting is a part of life, and that if you eat meat you should hunt it yourself sometimes so you know the consequences of your choices.
"You don't take killing an animal lightly. You don't let an animal suffer," Voss said. "But this way you know where your meat comes from."
Like a lot of boys raised in Michigan, Voss learned how to hunt from his dad.
Marvin Guntzviller grew up in then-rural Northville at a time when the woods were the main source of entertainment for a country kid.
"They didn't have TVs, and they were lucky if they had radios, so in his dad's lifetime, kids to do something. They went outside," said Voss' 63-year-old wife, Patricia, who runs the museum's gift shop. "His dad could name every bird as it flew over, and it was because he was outdoors. Now, kids get home from school, turn the TV on, watch a cartoon, or they're playing some game or whatever, and if they go outside it's to go to some theme park."
An old man with a little taxidermy shop near Marvin's house taught Marvin the trade, and he rounded out the lesson with a mail-order correspondence course. At 15 years old he mounted his first animal -- a prairie chicken shot by his 13-year-old brother Harvey. And by 1928 Marvin opened his own business in Northville.
Like him, Voss became an outdoorsman early on. "I was born into it," he said. "There probably wasn't a frog or raccoon or muskrat safe on our farm. I had a BB gun to start with, and I'd go down after school when pheasant season opened. I'd sit there and shoot 'em with a pellet gun. I probably wore that gun out."
And Voss passed the sport down to his own sons, the way his dad did to him.
"They had BB guns when they were born," he said, and he was being literal. "They each got a gun and a fishing rod. I couldn't take the gun in the hospital, but I took the fishing rod in."
By 1971 the whole family moved Up North and brought the taxidermy business from Northville with them. It was just like starting over.
"The last year we were down there I did 400 dear heads a year," Voss said of Northville. "The first year we moved up here -- 36. People didn't know us."
To make ends meet, they planted a cherry orchard on adjacent land, raised elk and deer for money and meat, and did dock and hoist work for nearby boaters. Gradually, business grew. So did people's curiosity -- many would stop by the shop just to see the taxidermied animals. Voss realized they might be worth showcasing in their own room. It took seven years for the family to build.
There are birds in flight. A deer in repose. A bobcat about to pounce. A fawn foolishly sniffing the face of a skunk. All with paintings as backdrops to evoke the seasons, while a recording of mammal sounds and bird calls plays in a loop through overhead speakers.
Dominating it all are thousands of American Indian arrowheads glued in framed arrangements around stern portraits of famous Indian chiefs on the walls. They were collected by Voss' grandfather growing up on a Highland Park farm a century ago. "He would be plowing behind the mule and he had a tin can wired to the handlebars of the plow, so he's plowing along and picking up artifacts and throwing them in the tin can," Voss said.
The overall effect of the bird calls and the stuffed animals and the Indian artifacts and the antique guns is to step back in time to an earlier era in Michigan history, the heyday of the pioneers, when tribes and settlers existed uneasily alongside one another, and everyone lived simple lives off the land.
"Everything was in my head. I knew what I wanted to do, but I never had any drawings. I just knew what I wanted to do," Voss said of the now-popular tourist stop. "My wife and I spent so much time in there, but now when you see people's reactions, it just makes you feel good."
Once the museum opened, Voss expected nearby schools to flock here, jumping at the chance to teach kids about the outdoors. But few did.
"All the schools and all the people I talked to, they all pretty much had the same story -- they said it cost too much for a school bus driver, and I told them that's not right. I said that's just an excuse."
A simpler explanation was behind this, he believed. "There's guns and dead animals in here," he said. "And some of the teachers don't want that. The public school system, a lot of it has gotten so liberal, they don't want kids hunting. They tend to discourage them."
It isn't like the old days, back when most Michigan schools routinely gave kids a day off for opening day of deer rifle-hunting season. Back when opening day in Michigan rivaled Thanksgiving as a holiday, and kids like him looked forward to it every year.
Maybe, Voss thought, it's because kids are more interested nowadays in their electronics and smartphones.
"It's just like I tell people all the time -- right there you got a kid with a club, one kid with a BB gun, and a frog sitting on there," Voss said, pointing to a display case with an antique copy of American Boy magazine, published in Detroit from 1899 to 1941, whose cover painting showed two armed boys standing happily and ominously over a frog on a log. "That's 1913. Now you'd have two kids sitting on the couch playing video games with each other. They don't get outside. They don't see all that stuff anymore."
Maybe it's because a lot of kids grow up without dads in their lives and have nobody to pass down the hunting tradition to them.
"Nowadays you have half the kids in divorced families, so the mom takes them one way and the dad goes and does his thing by himself," Patricia said.
Maybe it's because there's been a shift in society, and more people view hunting as cruel or distasteful.
"Like most blood sports, hunting is dying out quickly as a new generation recognizes that animals are part of our environment and not just there to kill for fun," said Moira Colley, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. "They're sensitive beings and they feel pain just like we do, and it's becoming more obvious that people aren't OK with just killing animals for fun."
Regardless of the cause, the drop in hunting numbers is real. Though there have been occasional spikes in the overall downward trend over the years, the total number of all hunting licenses issued each year in Michigan has fallen by almost 25 percent since the late 1950s, from just over 956,000 in 1959 to 719,850 in 2017, even as the state's population has increased 21 percent.
The decline in youth hunting participation is even more pronounced lately, with total hunting license sales in Michigan going from 83,042 in 2012 to 65,688 in 2016 among the ages 10-16 group, a 20 percent drop, and from 80,165 in 2012 to 70,459 in 2016 among ages 17-24, a 12 percent drop.
The DNR sponsors several initiatives to encourage interest in hunting and fishing among kids in Michigan, said Hannah Schauer, communications coordinator for the DNR's Wildlife Division. "We believe it's really important to get kids outside to, first of all, just kind of build that appreciation for Michigan's natural resources and outdoors, and for us to be able to pass down those hunting traditions."
Like a lot of families, the Guntzvillers have their own ways of keeping hunting traditions alive.
On opening day every year, they'll be up and out before the first light of dawn and head to their deer blinds a few miles north of the museum, on a plot of land in the northern woods that Voss bought years ago.
They'll usually bring along the young boys of the family, as Voss did this year when his 9-year-old grandson, Wyatt, who shot his first-ever deer, an 8-point buck, as Voss sat with him in their blind. "It was more exciting for me to let him shoot that deer than it would've been for me to shoot it," Voss said.
They'll usually wind up with a freezer full of meat for the winter, which Patricia will use to make venison stew, venison meatloaf or venison chili -- once-common winter dinners in Michigan among hunting families. "I've had women tell me, 'I don't want to eat anything like that,'" said Patricia. "And I said, 'What's the difference if you buy it on a piece of Styrofoam wrapped in cellophane?' I said, 'You're just not doing the work.'"
And they'll usually bring home another animal for the museum, to stand alongside the others and perhaps inspire children to go outside and see such wildlife for themselves. And maybe, Voss hopes, even to hunt it themselves.
"It seems that people, they're concerned about the environment, but a lot of them don't understand that wildlife conservation goes along with it," he said. "It's just like they want to protect all the deer and not harm any animals or do anything like that. The thing is, you'd have thousands of deer-car accidents a year in Michigan if you didn't have hunting. It'd be out of control. They get disease and get sick and everything else."
He stood next to a display full of forest animals like fawns and squirrels and foxes, forever holding perfectly still in a heavenly likeness of nature, granted in death a form of eternal life.
"It's good that they're concerned about the environment, especially our water quality and stuff like that," Voss said. "But they also need to understand that there is a place for hunting, fishing and trapping."
IF YOU GO ...
Guntzviller's Taxidermy and Spirit of the Woods Museum is located at 11060 South US 31, Williamsburg, Mich. Admission is free. For more information, call 231-264-5597 or go to northernmichigantaxidermy.com
(c)2018 Detroit Free Press
Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.