To reach El Dorado, guests must venture down Port Republic Road, passing four concrete lions and a white wooden gate before squeezing between two overgrown shrubberies.
Once there, a bespectacled Gregory Speck appears, using his arms to create a path through the bushes. “Welcome to El Dorado,” he says, with a Southern lilt that hasn’t faded even after 38 years of living in Manhattan, N.Y.
The house was given its name after a paint job Speck had completed in 1988, changing the battleship-gray exterior to yellow in an effort to cheer up the place for his dying mother. The dwelling acquired the additional moniker “Animal House” a few years later, when Speck began filling it with what eventually became a 200-plus piece taxidermy collection.
When guests enter the front door, 200 pairs of eyes and the musk of mink coats greet them.
The specimens are thoughtfully arranged: A badger and wolverine look up with curiosity beside a group of weasels, ermine and a river otter reclining with one paw over its belly.
A Canadian lynx with fluffy white paws holds court with two gray foxes, a red fox, a Columbian ground squirrel and a thirteen-lined ground squirrel. And a majestic wolf, named Max, stands atop the grand piano among family photos and pictures of Speck with some of the many celebrities he’s interviewed during his career as a celebrity journalist in New York City, ranging Katharine Hepburn to Lauren Bacall.
In his Manhattan apartment, which he recently listed for $3.395 million, Speck keeps an additional 200 pieces of taxidermy – including a mountain lion, a standing bear named Smokey, and a mute swan he found laying dead on the side of the road and had stuffed.
It’s enough to fill a hall at the American Museum of Natural History next door, where he has spent hours researching and looking at specimens.
Speck and his Manhattan apartment were recently featured in The New York Times, as his extensive collection posed somewhat of a marketing challenge.
To physically remove the collection would be too great a task, so the listing agent came up with a virtual solution: Offer two sets of photos, one as-is and one with most of the taxidermy edited out, enabling potential buyers to visualize the apartment without the animals.
Speck says the “political incorrectness” of owning taxidermy doesn’t bother him because he didn’t kill any of the animals – he’s not a hunter. He, as he says, amassed the collection in the early ’90s, when PETA rose to fame for promoting its messages by throwing red paint on women wearing fur, and he acquired the museum-quality specimens for very little because people didn’t want them.
Over the course of three years, Speck invested roughly $50,000 in his collection.
“When I got those first six big shoulder mounts and realized there were many high-quality taxidermy pieces out there, I decided I would try and create a museum,” Speck says. “I thought I would see if I could get each of the various disciplines that were legal to possess: African antelope, fur-bearing North American mammals, North American game birds, Asiatic pheasants, reptiles.”
“When I go after things, I do it in a big way,” Speck says. “Such as interviewing all those movie stars for Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine and then turning it into a book, `Hollywood Royalty.'”
Speck says his friends and family couldn’t believe his newfound fascination. “They were shocked,” he says, “fascinated, but shocked.”
He recalls how they would say, “Greg, I didn’t know you were a big game hunter,” and he would respond, “Well, I’m not a big game hunter. I’m not a hunter at all, but I do love these animals.”
At the time, he lived in the Manhattan apartment with his wife, Pinky, who died in 1999. When he started bringing the big antlered and horned animals into the apartment, she called them her “cavaliers.”
“She would put her fingers up like this and do a little dance,” Speck says, placing both pointer fingers on his head like horns. “She thought they were beautiful.”
From a young age, Speck has been interested in zoology and considers himself an amateur zoologist. He’s been on African safaris and visited many of the great zoos through out the world, but says there’s no way he would want to run one himself.
“This is the next best thing,” he says. “My animals are very quiet and they don’t make a mess.”
As he gives a tour of El Dorado, Speck is able to name every specimen in his collection, as well as share how he acquired it.
“This is the dining room, of course we’re having duck,” he says pointing to a table with six different species of duck perched among candlesticks and bowls of shells. While the room can’t be described as cluttered or messy, there isn’t enough space to eat a bowl of cereal.
“Here’s the living room. This is an arctic fox and these are all the North American grouses. The ruffed grouse, which is native to here, sage grouse, prairie chicken, spruce grouse, blue grouse, and a sharp tail grouse,” he says, naming each off as if calling roll.
Speck drives from Manhattan to El Dorado once a month to pay the bills and make sure everything is in order. When the maid comes, he carries each specimen outside, one by one.
“This is a Kodiak bear, native to Alaska,” he says, pointing to a rug draped over a meticulously made bed in the spare bedroom.
“These are white-tailed prairie dogs with a European hare, and over there are black-tailed prairie dogs with a nutria,” he says, gesturing to a threesome situated on the dresser.
“This black coyote was shot killing sheep in southwest Virginia,” he says, pointing to a coyote grouped with two foxes resting their hind legs on stacks of books.
He passes by the bathroom, the only room in the house void of taxidermy.
“Flying squirrel, I haven’t looked at him closely for a while,” he says, examining a tiny wall mount above the doorway for at least half a minute.
In the kitchen, fish line the walls: northern pike, walleye, various trout, striped bass, and a muskellunge.
Speck’s favorite piece in his Harrisonburg home is Max, a wolf who was reported to be the alpha male of the Yellowstone National Park wolf pack until he got out of the park one night and was shot by a Wyoming rancher. Speck acquired the pelt, had it mounted and placed it atop the grand piano.
Many of the pieces in his collection were road kill that he found, picked up and had mounted.
“I’m not afraid of them,” he says. “I’ll pick them up, take them home and put them in the freezer, or take them straight to the taxidermist … feathers literally fall off a bird if it’s not frozen right away.”
Once, Speck even found a buffalo head in the freezer of Red Front Supermarket in Harrisonburg. The owner had a bison herd and the largest male became extremely belligerent and started knocking down the fences, so they slaughtered him and sold the meat as steaks.
The head was so magnificent that they chopped it off and had it stuffed, but the man’s wife wouldn’t let him hang it in the house, so he kept it in the grocery freezer. Speck took the mount off the man’s hands.
The last specimen Speck acquired was a capercaillie, the world’s largest grouse. While vacationing in New Zealand, Speck got into a conversation about ornithology with a Swedish doctor and mentioned a specimen native to Sweden he would love to acquire. It turned out that the doctor had them living in his backyard, so he brought one with him when he visited New York a few weeks later.
He says he tells people not to touch the animals, but many can’t resist – one woman wanted to know if she could sit on the mountain lion, to which Speck says he responded: “It’s not a toy, it’s a work of art.”
With his Manhattan apartment on the market, Speck is considering other homes for his animals, but at present, he intends to keep them together. He estimates the full collection to be worth between $500,000 and $1 million, today.
However, the man who runs the Virginia Museum of Natural History offered to take them at his own expense, an option which Speck says would be a great help.
“The logistics of moving these things is really something,” he says. “I have rented vans on occasion to take big animals that I had stuffed here to New York, but the idea of moving 90 shoulder mounts, … I get upset thinking about it.”
Speck says he will probably rent another apartment in New York City after he sells his Manhattan property. He plans to bring the 200 pieces housed there to Virginia.
Speck admits that there are a few pieces with which he would be reluctant to part, if he does decide to donate them.
“There are probably a dozen that I have real affection for,” he says. “I’m not really attached to the shoulder mounts as much as I am to the ones that look like they could be real pets. Max does look like a great big dog.”
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 16, 2014, issue of The Daily News-Record.