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Rhinos, Lions, Ox and More: Old World Taxidermy Like a Private Field Museum

By Justin Breen | August 22, 2014 5:40am
Old World Taxidermy
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DNAinfo/Kyla Gardner

PALATINE — George Swiderski's home looks more like an exhibit hall at the Field Museum.

The 73-year-old founder of Old World Taxidermy boasts an incredible display of preserved wildlife, carved wood art and other collectibles from around the world.

Many of the hundreds of big-game prizes — including lions, leopards, bison, tigers, musk ox, grizzly bear, wolves, springbok, warthogs and fox — are ones he successfully hunted on expeditions all over the planet.

Justin Breen says Swiderski's home is fascinating:

The former Chicago resident and his wife, Slawa — also an accomplished hunter — will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary Saturday at their northwest suburban home. About 100 of their family members and closest friends will pack the Swiderskis' backyard — which mirrors the flora of the Prussian estate where he grew up — for the festivities.

 Old World Taxidermy in Palatine
Old World Taxidermy
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"The bottom line of my story — it should be an example for someone, particularly a younger person who wants to be on a similar path as myself, to follow," Swiderski said in a recent interview, in a Polish accent while he puffed on a pipe filled with Hunters Blend tobacco.

Over the past two years, Swiderski has hand-written his life's words on paper. His wife has typed them, and the couple are finalizing a process to publish their book: "Once Is Enough: You Live Only Once, If You Do It Right."

They are hoping the book, which will be about 400 pages, will released by the end of this year.

A Passion For Taxidermy

Swiderski's childhood was spent in northern Poland. The son of a forester, he learned to hunt as a young boy, seeking mink, beaver, jackrabbit, otter, wild board, robuck and red fox.

"Pelts brought serious money," he said.

Swiderski's parents and older brother came to the United States in the late 1950s, and he followed them in 1960. At 19, he departed Poland with $6, and spent $3 on a pewter miniature Eiffel Tower in Paris that he still has today.

"Half of my fortune was gone," Swiderski said, laughing.

For 12 years, he resided in the city, first in Ukrainian Village, then Portage Park near Six Corners. He had to wait two years for Slawa to exit Poland, and the couple wrote scores of love letters they crafted into a compilation "Jurek I Slawka," translated in English to "George and Slawa." Their love letters will be featured in a chapter in the upcoming book.

In Chicago, Swiderski studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago during the day while working evening hours as a cloth cutter for Hart Schaffner and Marx, a high-end men's wardrobe company. The experiences prepared him for work in taxidermy, which began as a hobby but turned into a full-time profession when the couple went to Palatine and he quit his job because he said his bosses wouldn't let him go on a week-long hunting trip for black bears in the Smoky Mountains.

"I never had formal training as a taxidermist," said Swiderski, who can command thousands of dollars for his work. He also sells some of the animals he slayed.

"I looked at it with great passion," he added. "My background in fine arts probably contributed to my success in this field. Always the goal has been to give as much life to the [animals] as possible."

The Swiderskis have traveled the globe, but their favorite destination has been Africa, which they've safaried 13 times, staying for at least four weeks every occasion. Most of their adventures have led to big-game kills, which have found their way back to their spacious home.

George's most cherished hunt was of an African leopard, while Slawa is most pleased with the giant-horned kudu she brought down with a single shot of a 30-06 Browning hunting rifle.

The couple have hosted countless children's field trips to their home, which rivals any museum's collection.

"Sometimes kids will say, 'Aren't you afraid to go to sleep with all those animals?'" Slawa said. "And I said, 'They're harmless at this point.'"

Slawa, who has 50-plus big-game kills to her credit, prides herself on killing all of them with only one shot. Both she and her husband stress their worst nightmare is wounding an animal.

"I have to be 100 percent sure that each shot I take is deadly," Slawa said. "I have one animal to hunt, and I get one bullet."

George concurred, saying he's had that mindset whether he's hunting in the crisping heat of the Kalahari Desert or 40-degree-below icebox of the Canadian Arctic. The book will document both, with a chapter devoted to his hunt of musk ox far north of the Arctic Circle.

"I'm writing about my experiences in life," he said.

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