MAN AND BEAST: “There’s a story behind every animal,” Warren says. Though he has trouble remembering some of them.
Cicadas buzz in the trees that line Lanshire Drive in Lake Highlands. Inside the modest ranch home of the Landwermeyers is one of Dallas’ premier trophy rooms and a stop on the Dallas Safari Club’s annual tour of homes. Berta Landwermeyer opens the door.
At 83, she is still a gracious, soft-spoken belle. Her hair is teased and sprayed. Her lipstick is a subtle shade of pink, like the inside of a deer’s ear. She offers iced tea and apologies for the enthusiastic licks of Happy, a plump Chihuahua that tumbles across the floor. Hanging back and slightly suspicious is her husband, Warren Landwermeyer, 84, a retired seed king, dressed in khakis with a knit shirt of the same color. It is open at the neck, and a few hairs of iron and silver poke out. Around his neck hangs a bolo tie with a gold ingot of a ram.
“I wanted a trophy room I could enjoy and not just go visit,” Warren says. His voice is weak. He is impossibly hard of hearing. “Most modern hunters kill a white-tailed deer and don’t know where to put it. The old-fashioned way is to let your trophy room be your hunting area, versus having them all through the house.”
He saunters past the foyer and kitchen, and through the cozy living room with Happy a safe distance behind. Suddenly, the back half of the house falls away. The carpeted landing on which the couple stands opens to an exotic jungle. The sight is breathtaking. There are monkeys, forest buffalo, leopards, and deer. A life-size silver-tip grizzly (“the kind that Teddy Roosevelt hunted”) stalks the staircase. Above it hangs a polar bear skin with its mouth open in a perpetual snarl. The strange Mongolian saiga, an antelope with a long proboscis by which it can thaw tundra, stares unblinkingly. The massive, 16-foot walls are lined with bleached antlers like driftwood washed ashore after a storm.
Taxidermy is to hunters what a journal is to writers, a kind of distillation of life’s memories. “There’s a story behind each animal,” he says.
Berta nods knowingly and says she often finds Warren downstairs, lost in thought, recalling the wild pleasures of pursuing tracks across the African continent—Tanzania, Nimibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe.
His is the last legal white-eared kob killed and taken from Ethiopia. His is one of the last polar bears shot in Siberia before the Russian government forbade their hunting. His is the largest Argali bagged on the Steppes.
“I shot that polar bear in ’64,” he says.
“You mean 1967,” Berta gently corrects.
“What!” He leans in, earpiece whistling.
“In 1967. On the ice breaker ship,” she says louder.
“That’s what I meant.”
In total, the old man has 175 mounts to his collection. They are ordered roughly by continent and then by species. Some years ago, he walked into his trophy room, looked up, and realized all he could see were snouts. So he called up taxidermist William Flagg, then owner of the Flagg Group in Dallas—whose work with papier-mâché, plaster of paris, and straw is legendary in taxidermy circles—and had him redo all of his head and shoulder mounts so they were angled down for better viewing.
Few of the mounts snarl, snap, or rear up on haunches. Flagg convinced the Landwermeyers that more natural poses would be easier to live with, like looking at the paintings of Monet in your living room instead of, say, Francis Bacon.
“Back in the old days, taxidermists did it themselves,” Warren says, bemoaning the now popular technique of stretching capes, or hides, over a prefabricated form. “You could see the worth of the man. It’s an art form. They are your Picassos, the ones that really create a picture from scratch.”
One mount, perhaps from some artist’s cubist period, features scalp and horns of the tiny dik dik. Its legs, no thicker than a pencil, were sawed off and attached at angles.
Given the enormous investment in the natures mortes, the light and temperature of the trophy room are strictly controlled. Unfiltered air carries dust, not to mention insects and moisture that slowly eat away at hair and hide. Artificial light brightens the room and spotlights individual pieces, whereas sunlight fades the fur of such conspicuous beauties as the life-size Bongo, a forest buffalo, with its kohl-eyed mask and red hide ribbed with one dozen thin white lines as if painted by brush.
“It’s okay to touch it,” Warren says, running a hand down the length of the animal. He made three safaris to the Central African republic before bagging the Bongo. “That forest buffalo came closer than any other to eating my cake, so it’s special to me.”
After six shots, the wounded buffalo charged the hunters with a ferocity that sent the trackers and professional hunters into the trees, Warren says. Altogether, it took 12 shots to fell the beast. The 12th and final was a brain shot.
“It was him or me,” he says. Warren Landwermeyer looked death in the eye and fired. Repeatedly.
On the wall is a photograph taken after the kill. Warren is in his 60s and, with a full white beard, looks like Papa Hemingway. He is crouched with the buffalo, holding up the head. The Bongo has the docile, faintly stupid expression of death.
Warren drifts off into the shadows of memory. He stares up at a row of trophy heads.
Berta quickly fills the void: “I went with him one year and got a white-tailed deer with one shot,” she says, beaming. “Then that was it. I couldn’t look at those big old eyes anymore.”
She also traveled with him on safari to Ethiopia in 1986 when he shot a hippopotamus. The massive jawbone sits on the floor. The creature weighed more than 2 tons. Its molars are 2-inch blocks of ivory, nearly as wide as they are thick. She had never seen a hippo in the wild, she says, and was dumbfounded by how graceful they were.
“They’re beautiful to watch in the river,” she says, holding a gray, leathery hoof. Its toenails are thick as coconut shells. Given its size, they could only bring back the skull and a foot. But the rest of the animal fed a village, she says.
Warren pours himself a scotch on the rocks, hitches up his pants, and sits at the poker table. His knees and back, he says, are ruined from years of hunting elephant. It is the only creature that has managed to elude him. And now that the old man’s hunting days are over, now that he is gripped with the pain and the fatigue of leukemia, he will take that final tale—the story of the one that got away—with him to the grave.
He takes a sip of his drink and, half-wincing, half-smiling, lets loose a low growl. He rues his poor health and curses the elephant. “Elephants have ruined more land and keep other animals from feeding,” he says.
Berta says it’s been hard for her husband to give up the hunt. Their latest trek was to the hospital. Warren received a blood transfusion.
Berta lightens the mood. She puts a pair of sunglasses on a stuffed baboon and claps her hands with delight. She says when they throw a party, Warren sneaks away and places the creature on the toilet. Then they both wait for someone to scream. It still makes her laugh as much as it did the first time.
Warren pulls out the 1994 edition of Hunters Guide to Professional Outfitters, a trade book. Both Warren and an acquaintance of his, John Estes of Highland Park, have their trophy rooms featured in it.
“Ask him about his walrus,” Warren shouts. “Tell him I told you to ask him how he got that walrus! Why, I wouldn’t trade my Bongo for his stinkin’ walrus. He’s bigger and fatter than me, but I can still out-hunt him!” He thumps his meaty fist on the book.
Though he owns several mounts of rare and endangered animals like the dik dik (“Or is it a dyker dyker? Dik dik? I can’t think of it at the moment.”), he scoffs at the suggestion by “tree huggers and do-gooders” that hunters are responsible for the decline of sensitive animal populations. Like many big-game hunters, he reasons that the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on safaris contribute to sustaining African tribes as well as herds of animals sought by trophy hunters.
“I’ve been accused of shooting buffalo out of car windows,” Warren says, “but where will you be able see one now that you want to protect them? How are they going to interbreed and increase? This is a way for us to preserve these animals for our children.”
Like another Safari Club member, Herb Klein, who left his collection of trophies to the Dallas Museum of Natural History, the Landwermeyers plan to donate their mounts. In this way they are contributing to the education of people young and old, people who otherwise would never see exotics in real life, they say.
“You won’t see these in a zoo,” Berta says. She turns and throws her arms around the neck of a giant bear. “I love the grizzly. It’s my favorite.”
“There’s a scar on its nose,” Warren says. “That’s how you know it was married.”
“He always says that,” Berta says, laughing.
J.D. Sparks is a reporter for People Newspapers. This is her first piece for D Magazine.