The Inside-Out Museum: Cabela’s in Connecticut

March 23, 2013 — When I posted last November about my safari into the taxidermy of the outdoors retail store Kittery Trading Post, I was informed on the OTIS Facebook Page about a similar store called Cabela’s (thanks, Samantha). Turns out, there are two within a couple of hours of me, so I dropped by one, ending up in New Haven, Connecticut (the other near me is in Scarborough, Maine).

If the Kittery Trading Post is like your local nature museum, Cabela’s is more like a full-on natural history institution.

Cabela’s is a chain of some 40 outdoor equipment stores spread across all of North America. The stores are massive, and the fact that I’d never heard about the company says a lot about my skin pallor, I think.

The whole thing started in 1961 when Dick Cabela tried to sell some fishing lures in a classified ad in Wyoming. That simple act butterflied into an absolute empire of outdoor retail and media. Here’s a video of Cabela himself being interviewed in his mansion of taxidermy, all of which are creatures he and his wife hunted across the globe.

But I don’t really care about Cabela’s as a retail store or as an entrepreneurial success story. I care about it for its dead animals.

The habitat inside Cabela’s is the same as in Kittery, outdoor clothes and equipment, anything else you’d want when your roof is sky. Unlike Kittery, though, the taxidermy that decorates the store is of a more exotic sort and isn’t constrained to local beasties. And the way they display it is awe-inspiring.

The store has two floors, but was built to be open so that there is a large central area that extends to the ceiling. A gun check attendant greeted us at the door, and I could see a two-seater airplane hanging from the ceiling. But these details didn’t register until later. Because dominating the entire central area of precious retail space was…a mountain.

Covered in taxidermy.

It’s like somebody stuck their hands into the gift shop of a conventional natural history museum and then flipped the whole thing inside out so that the purchasables surrounded the exhibits.

On that mountain, the animals were posed in active stances, coyotes fought each other, a bear poked at a wasp nest, a fox made off with a pheasant in its jaws. Things with horns and antlers capered. A waterfall splashed down into a pool from above.

The real surprise was under the mountain, though, since it contained a giant aquarium full of freshwater fish of immense proportions. And a lots of black eels for some reason, swimming through the autumn-tinted fronds of submerged oak trees.

Which seems like a weird aquarium feature, except that it matched the rest of the store, which was decorated in a permanent autumn. That was especially true of a back room that was set up to be a museum of local fauna. In this case, moose, deer, and Yale students. An animatronic outdoorsman kneeled in front of a rustic tent and told us things that I couldn’t really hear over the sight of two enormous moose locking horns.

On the second floor, besides more massive floor space full of guns, reels, and other things my baby-soft hands have never hefted, was a full restaurant and an exhibit of African animals that ranged in size from a small genet to a large elephant.

From the railing of the second floor, we also got a great view of the central feature, revealing even more animals that it was impossible to see from the ground floor.

To put the whole place in perspective, on the way out I bought chocolate-covered bacon on a stick at a dinner truck, and it wasn’t even in the top three highlights of the visit.

UPDATE: I've since visited a second Cabela's, this time in Maine, which featured a carnival-style shooting gallery, a 100-pound elephant skull, and Jeff Foxworthy-brand jerky. Pics here.