Big trophies: Where the wild things live forever

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by Eric Ginsburg

Most of Kyle Kesselring’s work space looks like any other corner office might: family photos and trophies on the deep shelves behind his desk, an autographed Dan Marino poster in front of it, binders and stacks of paper-clipped sheets, highlighted invoices, pictures of kids’ sports teams featuring him as a coach.

Given that he’s an executive in the transportation industry, other items adorning his office make sense too, including a substantial American Airlines map of the world hanging on a wall, a small globe turned to Africa and a model tractor-trailer placed on a shelf.

But what stands out most about Kesselring’s office are the heads mounted high on two walls.

There’s a deer head, and one of a wild pig, too. More unusual and staring at him out of the corner of the room is an impala, one that his father shot on a hunting safari they took together.

There are less obvious signs of Kyle Kesselring’s devotion to hunting in his office. A series of pictures each the size of a sheet of paper are displayed under the glass on his expansive wooden desk, commemorating his three children’s successful kills and the biggest animal he’s taken down: an Alaskan brown bear.

Hunting isn’t limited to a hobby, passion or way of life for Kesselring, though: It’s also his business model.

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Kesselring, an affable wide-shouldered man with a cleanly shaved head and red cheeks, sat behind at his massive desk holding a faded purple FedEx cup as he explained how his unusual business began a decade ago.

The Hagerstown, Md. native moved to Greensboro as a Guilford College student recruited to play lacrosse. There he met his wife and majored in business management, heading directly into the trucking industry after graduation. After 12 years with Roadway Express and five with FedEx, Kesselring broke off a piece for himself.

His company, named Highways & Skyways, is located in a building buried on the back side of Piedmont Triad International Airport, practically beyond city limits. What began as four people and one driver evolved into a business with more than 100 employees and additional offices in Atlanta and Charlotte.

People would call Kesselring and inquire about whether he could ship big-game trophies — animals like lions, bison, elephants and bears. Despite his background in the industry, Kesselring couldn’t find anyone who specialized in it, but the phone kept ringing and he kept making it work.

Eventually Kesselring decided it made sense to formally step into the void. About 10 years ago he founded Trophy Transport, a company that shares space and resources with his existing business but with the sole aim of shipping hunting trophies.

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Kesselring doesn’t come over to this part of the building very often, he said as he stuck one of a dozen keys on a ring into the door at the far end of the complex. He walked towards a fuse box, flipping breakers in the windowless storage room that would be big enough to get lost in if it wasn’t so empty. Gargantuan metal shelves split the space in half, and a second set four rows high lines the wall. It’s an eerie space, silent except for Kesselring’s footsteps and the buzzing lights as they slowly came to life.

At first the room was unassuming — from the corner by the there was almost nothing to see other than a boat directly ahead. But on the other side of the shelves, behind thick drapes of plastic and resting on stands and blankets towards the far corner, he keeps the menagerie.

Bodiless elk with a mantle of horns stared blankly up at the lofty, corrugated metal roof. A bear mid-growl held the name of the man who killed it on a tag placed in its mouth. A pride of lions struck various poses balancing awkwardly near each other towards the wall. A wolf snarled; resplendent fish lay on their sides with mouths open; two bundles of antlers sat wrapped in thin plastic atop a wooden palette.

Kesselring pulled the plastic off a type of sheep called Marco Polo, with spiraling horns, that was hunted in Tajikistan.

“Just think how many years it takes to grow a horn like that,” he said. “It’s just phenomenal.”

He estimated it cost at least $40,000 just to “harvest” one — the term used by big game trophy hunters — and possibly significantly more, let alone the taxidermy and shipping.

Observed from up close, the base of the Marco Polo’s horns looked like blubbery wrinkles. It was difficult to remember it was once alive, rather than a replica like the fake rock and snow patches that served as its stand. Kesselring is right: It’s an astounding creature, but it wasn’t even the most impressive piece on the floor.

It’s nearly impossible to fathom just how mammoth a rhinoceros is until coming face to face with one. Or rather face-to-snout. Kesselring isn’t a small man — he certainly looks like a former lacrosse player — but this towering rhinoceros’ small horn likely measured as tall as Kesselring’s head and its larger horn appeared as long as his spine.

“The average American couldn’t even fit some of these pieces in their living room,” Kesselring said.

Arguably the most gripping statue is of two male lions, posed leaping through the air, each with only a paw on the ground, fighting over the carcass of a zebra. Dramatic and remarkable, for sure Kesselring said, but only a five out of 10 compared to what he sees each year at the Safari Club International, which is “like the NRA but even bigger.”

The lion-zebra trio is the most elaborate sculpture of once-living animals in the warehouse, and Kesselring has been storing it for the owner for six years now. The man, who of course pays rent for his prizes, also owns most of the other hunting trophies that occupy the four-row high wall of wrapped animals.

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Most of the people hunting animals of this magnitude live in the Northeast, Kesselring said, adding that many have trophy rooms and multiple homes. They are doctors, lawyers and big entrepreneurs, he said. A large part of the business is catering to the top 1 percent, and on a given day Trophy Transport’s delivery teams may be in Texas and Minnesota at the same time, and Florida three times a week.

“We’re talking about the kind of money that you and I will probably never have the chance to see,” Kesselring said.

An avid hunter himself, Kesselring said he keeps several trophies in his farmhouse in addition to the few in his office, but his is far from a trophy room.

“I’m still a working guy,” he said. “I don’t have that kind of money.”

There are different types of big game hunters. Some may pursue the “Dangerous Five” — lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino — others are hooked on a certain species.

One client was shipping four brown bears — which can cost near $20,000 apiece to hunt, Kesselring said — followed by a polar bear.

Other hunters are stuck on sheep, wanting to collect one of each the way some children pursue Pokémon cards.

“I honestly think some of it is a sickness,” Kesselring said of those who are addicted to “harvesting” each kind of sheep.

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Trophy Transport started with an emphasis on shipping cargo from taxidermists to owners, focused even more narrowly on the niche market by providing uncrated delivery that keeps costs low and is better for the environment, the company’s website states.

The transportation business also moves trophy rooms between clients’ properties, warehouses the sculpted animals for later shipment and occasionally delves into shows like the Safari Club International convention in Las Vegas.

Kesselring’s operation is pulling in a lot more business lately, and it isn’t just due to the company’s name and reputation circling. Part of it, Kesselring said, is a reaction to politics. Wealthy hunters appeared to hold their breath before the 2012 Presidential election but moved forward with plans such as relocating trophy rooms despite the outcome, he said.

Between now and May, Trophy Transport has contracts to move 11 trophy rooms. That’s more than the last two years combined, he said, almost too much to keep up with. The hauls vary in sizes, but the largest in the company’s history filled five tractor-trailers.

Not all of Kesselring’s customers are pursuing big game — Trophy Transport ships a lot of pheasant mounts, swans and ducks. Animals lined the wall in a separate part of the shipping company’s facility last week, including a full ostrich, a bison head, a bear and a waist-high hyena with a torn up animal leg in its clenched jaws.

The entire operation is run out of the Greensboro facility, mostly moved by ground transport but occasionally shipped by air. Despite the company’s proximity to PTI, its air transport flies out of other cities.

There is an assortment of ways people hunt for trophies, including private reserves called “concessions” and with special licenses such as a governor’s tag. The associated costs range widely as do the rules, even for the same animal in different parts of the state or county. In the eastern part of North Carolina, Kesselring said, wild pigs are a favorite target. Turkeys are popular, too.

“We have excellent white-tailed deer,” he noted.

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Kesselring knows about hunting deer in the state firsthand, but it isn’t where he honed the skill. As a young kid, his uncle taught him to hunt. Kesselring cherished their excursions, panicking if the rain poured that it wouldn’t happen, but his uncle always came. Now his uncle travels here from Maryland every April for the turkey hunt with him.

“He definitely broke me into the woods,” Kesselring said.

It took four years of hunting before he would snag his first deer — the laws were stricter then, including a shorter hunting season. At age 12 Kesselring got his own beagle, and would traipse through the woods with it and a gun for half days hunting.

He would bring back his haul to eat, sometimes more than enough.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” he recalled his mom saying on occasion. Still, they would always eat what he brought back.

With three kids of his own, two daughters and a son who all love to hunt, Kesselring holds them to the same standard.

“I instill that in my kids, too,” he said. “Don’t kill it unless you’re going to eat it. Don’t kill 15 squirrels because you can.”

All of Kesselring’s hunts aren’t strictly focused on bringing home the (turkey) bacon. His most recent big hunt involved a trip to Alaska off the Bering Sea, a 13-day expedition with one other person. Kesselring was flown in during the small window for hunting brown bears, and at the end of the hunt, they found a brown bear.

It charged, getting as close as eight and a half yards away, Kesselring said, before he shot and killed it. That bear is his biggest, and toughest, prize yet, he said.

Hunting for trophies is “a completely different level” than the treks with his kids, but even the animals from big-trophy hunts are used in their entirety, often eaten by locals, he said.

Kesselring makes a point to eat at least some of every animal he kills, but said he still sees a significant distinction between hunting for food or for a trophy room.

Even when he is hunting with his kids though, there is an ulterior motive and benefit.

“I absolutely have a passion for spending time with my kids in the woods,” Kesselring said. “Passing on that tradition to the next generation, I feel like, is a responsibility.”

Hunting can teach them confidence, but it is also a chance for him to bond with them, alone as the sun comes up or hiking through the woods in the dark. There’s not much else to do in that environment besides talk, something other fathers of teenage daughters in particular can likely appreciate, he hinted.

“You get so little free time as it is,” he said. “I can’t think of a better place to spend time with my kids.”

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