BELFAST, Maine — Ape-raham is old and dusty and more than a little worse for wear. That’s why the lowland gorilla mascot of Perry’s Nut House is about to get a much-needed makeover at the hands of a capable group of taxidermy students from Nokomis Regional High School.
The gorilla was gently removed from his pine-bough perch Wednesday morning at the iconic Route 1 store by taxidermy teacher Howard Whitten and three of his students.
“He’s going to be different,” Whitten said. “I would like to think you won’t even recognize him. We can’t work miracles, but we can try.”
Perry’s Nut House was founded in 1927 by Irving O. Perry and taken over in 1940 by Joshua Treat, who enlarged the store and added the menagerie of animals that lurked both outside and in.
One of his best customers was Eleanor Roosevelt, who would stop by on her way to Campobello Island each summer. A mention of the Nut House’s wild Maine berry jams in Mrs. Roosevelt’s syndicated newspaper column earned Perry’s Nut House a national following.
The business changed hands in 1972, and the owners continued to sell nuts and fudge to generations of tourists and locals. In 1997 they closed the Nut House and sold its collection of curiosities at auction, including the gorilla.
It was killed in Africa more than a hundred years ago, and Whitten said it appeared to have been skinned in the field.
He gestured at a vaguely menacing Ape-raham using a stuffed iguana that happened to be handy.
“Back then, it was different. People weren’t into the details,” Whitten said, referring to the taxidermy job. “They were more into the big picture. The shock and awe.”
The Nut House reopened under new management a year after the auction, with much of its collection dispersed around the region. Some of its most beloved curiosities — the gorilla, a cougar, a 21-foot long python hide, two iguanas and a 14-foot long alligator hide — had been purchased by a Searsmont woman, who kept them in her barn.
George and Ellen Darling purchased the Nut House in 2004, and a few years later, when the Searsmont woman offered to sell the exotic creatures back to them for a very good price, they jumped at the offer.
“We’re about trying to give it a sense of the old Perry’s Nut House,” said Kim O’Brien, the manager and the Darlings’ daughter. “The gorilla, the alligator and the python were all pieces that people remembered.”
One animal the owners hadn’t known about was an aging baboon, which eventually made its way after the auction to Whitten’s taxidermy class.
When George Darling contacted Whitten to ask if he could help repair Ape-raham, the teacher offered to bring over the fixed-up baboon as a gift.
Darling said that when he learned of the existence of the baboon, he was thrilled.
“I was ecstatic,” he said. “It was quite an addition. It’s back home now.”
The 100-year-old monkey now boasts a new tail, patches derived from black bear fur and a cleaned, spruced-up coat, face and hands.
“We pretty much fill cracks, paint it, make it look beautiful,” said Caitlin Parent, 16, of Plymouth, giving a quick run down of the taxidermy class’ modus operandi.
Before moving the gorilla to a van for transport to Nokomis High School, Whitten, Parent and students Elijah Anderson, 17, of Dixmont and David Moore, 17, of Newport looked him over. They snapped photos of his patchy hide and the visible taxidermy stitches. They also noted that the gorilla was festooned with plastic vines and mounted on a pine tree.
“So, it’s a Maine gorilla?” Anderson asked, wryly.
Whitten shook his head, saying that he is a purist when it comes to the animals he works on. According to the science teacher, the Nokomis taxidermy class is the only one in the country, and students who have worked with him over the years have had some unique opportunities. Those include the chance to refurbish 25 exotic animals donated to the school by the Smithsonian Institution. Two of those animals, a pair of lions, now stand guard in the main lobby of Belfast Area High School.
“I want them to learn an appreciation for wildlife,” Whitten said of his students. “When you get really close to something like this, you get to appreciate the beauty of the animal.”
He said that school officials considered dropping the class when only three students signed up.
“I fought for it,” the teacher said.
His students are glad he did. So far, they’ve worked on birds, the baboon and now are gearing up for the gorilla. They’ll get to work on Ape-raham in a specially-secured cage constructed at the end of a hallway at the high school, Whitten said. There’s a window in the cage, so curious students can take a peek at the action.
“I like animals. I want to be a medical examiner when I get older, and I think it’s good experience,” Parent said. The high school junior added that she has wanted to take this class for two years and was upset when she heard it might not be offered.
Moore said he also had been looking forward to learning taxidermy.
“It’s just so unique, and I like doing hands-on stuff,” he said.