FLORIDA, January 21, 2015 – Drive up to Ellie Willingham’s home and you’ll find a fairly typical upscale suburban neighborhood with large oak trees, fountains, and well manicured lawns.
Even Willingham’s garage is pretty characteristic in that it serves as her art studio versus a place to shelter her car. But the commonalities end there as the 26 year old college graduate designs and creates fashion items made from pelts that she harvests as a hunter and a trapper.
A longtime outdoors woman, Willingham only first learned to use a firearm in her teens, and didn’t even own a gun till just a few years ago (her mom’s old .22 Remington). Now they are tools of her trade, along with bait, lures, and humane, padded animal traps that she uses.
Winter is a busy season for Willingham, who sets traps on land by permission of the owners.
Willingham took a few minutes out of her day to tell her unusual story of being a professional trapper that lives, and works, in the middle of suburbia.
Sheryl Kay: How and when did you first get into trapping, and what got you interested in the first place?
Ellie Willingham: I’ve been interested in taxidermy ever since I was 10 or 12 years old. I had seen some mounted animals at a nature center my family used to volunteer at, and decided it was something I wanted to learn how to do on my own. The nature center was right next door to a library, so my mom checked out a taxidermy book for me and let me read it. I remember checking out that book so many times afterward!
A few years later my mom got in contact with a local taxidermist who let me apprentice there, and learn from him. I got into trapping while I was apprenticing at the taxidermy shop and met some trappers during my time there.
I became interested in learning how they caught the animals and decided I’d like to try it on my own. I got in touch with the Florida Trappers Association, and took one of their trapping classes, and found it to be something I really, really enjoyed.
SK: Are there any difficulties you encounter while trapping? Are you ever afraid out there in the woods?
EW: Trapping can involve several difficulties–especially hauling heavy steel traps, gear, and animals over long distances which can become quite tiring after a while. Trapped animals can become aggressive as well, but if you know how to handle yourself around them, it’s not too bad.
Trapping isn’t what I’d consider an easy job, but the challenge of it is part of the reason I enjoy it so much. I can’t say I’ve ever gotten downright scared while trapping, though. Sure, I’ve gotten startled a few times by critters lunging at me, or by running into a big sticky spider web or two, but I’m generally more comfortable in the woods than I am in the city, any day.
SK: I understand you’re now using the pelts from your trapping to create fashions, purses, even costume masks. What kinds of pelts do you work most often with and how did you learn to make such a broad array of items?
EW: I work with all kinds of pelts for all kinds of purposes. I frequently use raccoon because they are what I can trap most of in my area. Plus, raccoon skin hats are very popular sellers at the events and conventions where I sell my wares.
For more unique items, I also get some fur from out-of-state trappers, which I can’t obtain here in Florida. Pelts like beaver, muskrat, fox, and mink, which make for very high quality and beautiful items.
I taught myself how to craft with fur, mostly by using existing clothing and hat patterns and altering them somewhat to work better with fur. It took a lot of practice but I eventually got it down to where I could produce very professional, quality items.
SK: I’m guessing you don’t know too many other twenty-something year old women living in the Tampa Bay area who trap like you do.
EW: I don’t know anyone else in my immediate area that traps, although I’m sure there are a few regular nuisance trappers around. I seem to be the only one in the Tampa area who actively traps for fur, though.
SK: You have gotten some really bad feedback from people who don’t approve of trapping, or making clothing out of animal furs. What’s that like? How do you deal with all of that?
EW: I do occasionally run into the animal rights folks who are vehemently opposed to the use of fur, or any animal products for that matter. They have shown up at local events, or spammed up my Facebook page with all kinds of unpleasant remarks. It’s no fun, but I’ve found that the best way to deal with them is to act like the kinder, more polite person, agree to disagree with them but don’t argue back.
Arguing with them will not solve anything because most refuse to try and see things from my point of view and their remarks will only become more heated.
Of course, if someone asks me legitimate questions I will reply respectfully and factually, and if they want to learn more, they’ll tell me, or if they try to start a debate, I’ll politely explain that I won’t get into it with them like that. There’s just no point in it. They won’t change, and I won’t change, and life’s too short for that kind of needless drama.
SK: You also shared with me that you have Asperger’s Syndrome. How does that affect your trapping, and your creative work?
EW: I wouldn’t know if it makes what I do harder or easier because I’ve had this condition throughout my entire life, so there’s really nothing I can compare to. But it’s been said that people with Asperger’s Syndrome have higher levels of perception and senses than quote unquote regular people do, so I suppose in a way it can actually help me when I trap, because I tend to notice smaller details and animal sign that others may overlook.
I also seem to have a stronger sense of hearing and smell than others do, which has for sure led me to a few good trapping spots that might have otherwise been missed. People with Aspergers also tend to be quite creative or artistic, and have very specific, narrow interests.
I suppose this is why I’ve just always had hobbies connected to fur and animals throughout my life.
SK: What advice would you share with parents who may be faced with a child who desires a similar career path to yours, especially if those parents don’t know the first thing about trapping or the great outdoors?
EW: My parents knew nothing about trapping, fur, or taxidermy when I first got interested in those things, but they did support me in my interests and helped me find the resources for learning more about it on my own. So that’s what I’d suggest for other parents who may be faced with a similar situation.
No matter what your child is interested in, even if it seems odd or out of the norm, let them explore it and learn about it and help them find ways of connecting with others who share the same interests. There are all kinds of clubs and organizations existing for just about any hobby or interest group, and usually it just takes a simple Google search or a look through a magazine or local directory to find them.
I am incredibly thankful for my own parents for being so supportive, because if it wasn’t for them, I’m sure I wouldn’t be quite where I am today!
For more information about Willingham’s fashions, visit the Facebook page, Frontier Furs
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