Welcome to the World Championships of Taxidermy

SPRINGFIELD, ILLINOIS. Day one of the competition. With solemn concentration, two men are aiming the beam of a five-cell Mag-Lite into the nostrils of a mounted whitetail deer. The septum has good colour and texture, they say. Yes. very good texture. Especially in the upper area, which is often overlooked. And the vein work. Look at that vein work. Lovely. Particularly captivating, though, is the conspicuous drop of mucus seemingly oozing out the lower left nostril. Epoxy sculpt? Hard to say, apparently.

A careful digital probing of the opaque, glistening ball in question reveals no further intelligence. The two men drift into silent, brow-furrowed, crossed-arm, chin-holding nostril appraisal, occasionally breaking to summarize their analyses onto printed form sheets provided for that purpose.

Not wanting to interfere, I linger a polite few steps behind, watching intently, hoping to glean some insight into what it takes to win the 1999 World Taxidermy Championships. The nose is good, no question, but the teeth, evidently, are another matter. The two men examine the teeth with the gusto of sleight-of-hand enthusiasts trying to decode a magician’s trick. One of them, a mustachioed, red-cheeked man with what you might call a generous profile, is whispering excitedly to his colleague and then, triumphantly, a revelation: “Sheep’s teeth! You know what? They’re sheep’s teeth! I ain’t never seen anything like that.”

The teeth do look a little different, now that he mentions it. But the other man remains silent. Undecided, perhaps. He continues eyeing the teeth without responding, apparently lost in a reverie of contemplation. Meanwhile, an older man in a crisp, felt cowboy hat and tight jeans sidles up to me, leans in, points to the silent man and whispers in a slow, measured drawl: “That’s Joe Meder. He knows white-tails as good as anyone in America. He raises them in his backyard. He’s with these animals every day. He’ll give them things to eat so that he can watch how their mouths move, how their tongues move, the colour of the tongue, the rotation of  the eyes. It’s what fascinates him.”

“Hmm,” I respond. It’s the only thing I can think of at the time, but it’s an appreciative hmm. Interesting. I suppose it is kind of fascinating to watch other animals eating, especially ones that don’t have the advantage of hands to hold the food. The few times I’ve seen it, I’ve enjoyed watching a horse eat an apple. Those big soft fleshy lips that move in unexpected, dexterous ways, and then the awesome crunching power of massive molars. But even more fascinating, to me at least, is this man’s fascination.

We stand together for a time, the man in the cowboy hat and I, observing the judges in their own ruminations.  I’m eager to hear Meder’s response to the sheep’s teeth issue, but sadly, he gives none. After scribbling down some more notes, the pair moves on to the next animal, another whitetail. Good job on the pupils, but the cartilage at the base of the ears is positioned poorly. Also, the wrinkle in the deer’s eyebrow—it’s not right. A real deer with its head cocked to the side this way would have a different wrinkle. A thicker wrinkle.

Then it’s on to the next animal. Then the next. It’s going to be a long day for the judges. The elegant, chandeliered ballroom of the Crowne Plaza in Springfield is packed with more mounted animals than I have ever seen. Almost seven hundred of them, of every kind and species, in myriad poses, mostly from the United States but many from Canada as well as Australia, New Zealand, Spain, Germany, France, Austria, Russia, various African countries. The ballroom is off limits to the public right now while the judges perform their work. Each judge has been assigned to a particular category: life-size mammals; whitetail deer; game heads; fish; birds; reptiles, amphibians; re-creations: mixed groups. Smaller non-hangable mounts are displayed on tables at one end of the ballroom, but the number of mounts has defeated the available table space so dozens of entries lie on the thickly carpeted floor. Wandering among the tables I almost step on a prairie rattlesnake and the momentary horror of nearly crushing somebody’s prized entry is almost as acute as if the snake had been alive. There are also examples of taxidermy for taxidermy’s sake—a humongous lobster, with claws the size of boxing gloves; an alligator snapping turtle; a mother mouse and her brood. The mouse family is astonishingly lifelike. As if to prove it, the author of this creation, Raymond Kowalski, has positioned beside it a picture of the animals in their raw, unprocessed form for the judges’ benefit. The mice are arranged exactly as they are in the photo, and they are perfect. I can’t believe how lifelike they are. The detail in the paws, ears and whiskers goes beyond anything I have ever seen. Stunning.

Then I read the label affixed to the entry and make a somewhat disappointing discovery. The mice haven’t been taxidermied in the sense that I have always understood it—they’re real mice that have been freeze-dried. It’s considered a sub-category and, from what a nearby judge tells me when I ask him, it includes only small animals because the freeze-dried thing doesn’t work so well with the big fellas. Smell is the problem. Upon his encouragement (“Go on, give ’em a whiff”), I smell the mice. There’s something faint here, hard to pin down, but not as far as I can tell particularly mousey. Somehow this is disappointing, though I must concede (not ever having smelled live mice), perhaps accurate.

WALKING AROUND the ballroom, I notice that a small percentage of taxidermists have succumbed to the dubious practice of titling their entries. There’s a baby alligator snapping at a muskrat (“Close Encounter”); a small perch faced off with a juvenile walleye with a lure in its mouth (“He who Hesitates…?”); and my personal favourite, a bull moose bugling for a mate (“Come Hither to Me”). There is at least one entry that actually needed a title to make any sense. It’s a mount of a strangely colourless Iargemouth bass called “A Blind Man’s Catch.” The author of this mount is no doubt quite pleased with his inventive interpretation, but earlier I overheard one judge who felt it was just a sneaky way to avoid painting the thing.

I’ve also noticed that when it comes to style, taxidermists fall into three schools of thought. The first group subscribes to a dioramic approach. Here the taxidermist expresses some imaginary backwoods encounter among animals; predatory confrontations seem to be the most popular motif. There’s a raccoon chewing on a crayfish, a coyote with a bobwhite in its jaws, a fox chasing a ringnecked pheasant, a fox chasing a grouse, a fox kit eyeing the hooks on a jitterbug (which is strange and off-putting), a black bear killing a beaver, a lynx chasing a weasel, a largemouth bass engulfing a duckling, a huge whitetail buck bounding away from a leaping cougar (both full body mounts—you’d need a big room for this one). Other dioramas have more of a wistful, overly sweet Disney feel to them. A black bear cub peering over the edge of a Coleman cooler; a duck nipping at a too-curious fox kit.

The second approach seems to value a gritty, true-life representation—taxidermy nouveau. Taxidermists take special pride in accurately portraying an “attitude”—a whitetail wrinkling its nose and testing the winds for signs of danger, or a bull elk sharpening its antlers on a tree branch, or a pair of largemouth bass courting over a spawning redd. A lot of them show the animals as you might see them in the wild. Torn pectoral fins. A deer with a damaged ear, maybe from an encounter with a bear, or maybe something less dramatic, a run-in with a barbed-wire fence. Or maybe a glistening ball of snot. One mount of a moose shows the animal midway in developing mature antlers. Long strips of torn velvet hang from the still-pink tines, glistening with fake blood. But rightly or wrongly, some sense of decorum remains—there are no defecating bobcats or coyotes tenderly licking their nether regions.

And then there is the classic mount by devotees of the nineteenth-century aesthetic. Flawless beast in majestic pose, the way Victorian artists depicted animals for their upperclass clients. Nineteenth-century paintings and tapestries needed to show animals with the qualities aristocrats most admired, which also happened to be the same ones they felt they themselves possessed. Poise, strength, courage, domination. Imagine a regal stag on the label of an expensive single-malt Scotch and you get the idea.

Though the very first records of taxidermy date back a couple of centuries earlier, the history of animals in art goes back much further. It goes back, actually, further than recorded history, to the Palaeolithic polychrome ochre paintings of bison in the caves of Lascaux and Altamira, and other rock shelters throughout France and Spain. Usually, these memorialize the climactic moments of the hunt, but there are also wonderfully artful renderings of animals on their own. Even older are the rock engravings of North Africa, when the Sahara was a game-filled oasis. And even older than those, the so-called skeleton paintings of Australia, by the best guesses, some 50,000 years of age. I think about this as I flip through some of the taxidermy supply catalogues lying on one of the tables. It makes taxidermy seem like a noble craft, connected with the very genesis of art. Then I see a picture of a mounted armadillo on its back, slugging beer out of a can of Budweiser held with all four paws.

THE TAXIDERMY supply catalogues came from downstairs, where in adjoined conference rooms retailers are hawking the strange tools and materials of the profession. The attention to realistic detail in modern taxidermy has reached exacting, pedantic heights. By one of the booths I overhear a woman saying in a serious, earnest voice: “I’d love to talk to you about making saliva bubbles.” At another booth a man is gushing with admiration over the nictitating membrane over the fake eyes on a whitetail mount. “He’s got the extension perfect and the gloss and black edges fade perfectly.”

Taxidermy mushroomed into a business around the time when travel to Africa opened up. Hunters returned with hides and took them to upholstery shops to have them literally stuffed with cushion filler. People still use the expression of “having an animal stuffed” today, but taxidermists don’t much appreciate it. The original efforts of the upholstery shops never rose above a crude, ignoble likeness to the original animal–like barbaric stuffed toys–and taxidermists have never lived it down.

Now the method of choice involves mannequins—the shaped forms of animals made of polyurethane over which the taxidermist fits the hide. Without question, whitetail deer haul in the majority of money for the American taxidermist (a few million of the animals are shot every year in the United States), and this is obvious even from a quick glance around. Deer forms come in every incarnation—walking, standing, lying down, browsing, rearing up, sneak, semi-sneak, walking/sneak, walking/full sneak—with a choice of right turn, left turn or straight: full shoulder or half shoulder: open mouth or closed.

For the taxidermist whose clients range farther afield, the biggest taxidermy supply companies—Research Mannikins, Van Dyke’s, WASCO—can supply just about anything he or she (there are a surprising number of women in the business) might need. For example, the range of forms for exotic hoofed animals is comprehensive, an education of its own: bangtang, addax, chamois, duiker, eland, gnu, hartebeest, lechwe, klipspringer, sambar, tahr, tsessebe, oribi, reedbuck, grysbok, springbok, blesbok, bontebok, steenbok, Grant’s gazelle, Thomson’s gazelle, oryx, kudu, muntjac, topi, roan antelope, dik-dik, nyala, blue-bull, rusa deer, axis deer, fallow deer, red deer, sika deer. As for forms of other animals, name your beast, from African elephant to flying squirrel, they’ve got it.

BACK IN THE MAIN BALLROOM: Not only are there more mounted animals here than I have ever seen, there are some animals here that I have never seen. On one of the display columns beside the main doors there is an agile-looking creature about the size of an average city squirrel that appears to be some kind of miniature primate. I had no idea these things existed. Even more striking, this mini monkey has a V-shaped streak of shocking white hair that lends it an uncanny resemblance to Vincent Price. The label below identifies it as a golden lion tamarin.

My surprise at discovering this little fellow, however, fades quickly into disgust. Is there some poverty-stricken country in Africa desperate enough to sell permits to wealthy Americans for tamarin hunting? Who’d want to kill one of these cute little bastards? What’s wrong with these people?

But after a little digging, I find out that a lot of the animals at the show were not shot by anybody (and also, that tamarins come from Brazil). Taxidermists, some of them anyway, apparently have contacts at their local zoos and if interesting critters suffer untimely deaths (or, presumably, timely ones, too), they get a call. Others were wild but have died accidentally and somehow wound up at the taxidermist’s shop. Either way, the mounts come with all the paperwork to prove their lawful provenances. Taxidermy, it seems, has moved into new territory, courting a new kind of client. Today, mounted animals are not only for the hunter or fisherman wanting to preserve a moment of glory. Some people just like to have them.

This, I suppose, might also explain the mount of a rare gyrfalcon with a puffin in its talons. I wondered about that one, too. But the truth about the gyrfalcon is even more surprising. It wasn’t shot by a hunter, it wasn’t a roadkill, and it didn’t die in an ugly collision with some zoo’s Plexiglas enclosure. Astoundingly, it was never alive in the first place—it’s a re-creation. No part of it came from a real gyrfalcon. It’s made of chicken feathers and plastic and yet to my eyes, it’s indistinguishable from the real thing. If you’re the kind of person who likes gyrfalcons enough to want one in your living room just for the sake of the occasional admiration, then re-creations are, of course, your answer.

Re-creations (also known as replica mounts) are also making inroads on traditional skin-mount taxidermy, especially when it comes to fish. Retailers are already coming up with ways of capitalizing on this trend. Downstairs, at the Star Fish booth, you can buy a replica mount of a largemouth bass fully formed: ‘Action pose! Thin flexible fins! Eye sockets in! Full mouth detail! Lips done! Gills already done! Lower fins moulded on! Soft fins easy to trim!” All you have to do is add paint, and if you’re not too handy with a brush, you can buy stencils to give your project a paint-by-number ease.

Of course, this kind of pre-fab mount is not the kind of thing you see in the competition. The fish here are all originals. There’s one in particular that catches my eye. It’s a largemouth bass (the other staple of the American taxidermy industry) leaping out of faux lily pads with gills flared, its cavernous bucket-mouth wide open,inviting the onlooker to gawk at the superb detail inside the mouth. (Open-mouthed mounts, a kind of taxidermic bravado, get extra points from judges.) Whatever material this guy has used mimics the gullet of a real bass perfectly—wrinkled, squishy, smooth. Like beef tripe. The lips are finely detailed with an authentic-feeling raspiness and the gills have a life like flow to them, not rigid and crude, but dynamic and liquidy. The irony of the methods and materials of modern taxidermy is that they’ve evolved to such a high level that a good replica mount looks more real than a skin mount ever could. You couldn’t get real gills to look as lifelike as fake gills. When replicas first came out, fishermen shunned them because they didn’t look as good as skin mounts. Not anymore.

And yet, and yet, there are some old skin mounts that have something about them that a re-creation, albeit perfect in every way, can never match. I especially like the kind of mounts that modern taxidermists revile—really old mounts, the ones with brittle, cracked, varnish-coated fins, unmistakably real imperfections on the skin, greasy mandibles and gill covers that have yellowed with age. They’re like artifacts from the wild past, the kind of mount you might see in a hardware store in some small northern town on the shores of a good fishing lake, the only tangible, authentic reminders of some tantalizing, long-forgotten fish story.

Though I’ve never had a fish mounted myself, I did have an artifact once. I was about 13, and it was my first brown trout, a wonderfully ugly hook-jawed male with a big leathery adipose fin and black and red spots the size of marbles. I kept it in my freezer, fully intending to mount it when I had the money. Occasionally, I’d dig it out from under one of my mother’s casseroles and proudly show it to anybody I thought might be impressed. But eventually, some years later, that freezer broke down and either my mother or father threw it away, I don’t remember. I don’t keep artifacts anymore.

THE RESULTS ARE IN. In the Professional Division, the lobster with the giant claws has taken first place in the fish/reptile/amphibian reproduction category. (I guess the organizers hadn’t planned for a crustacean category.) The gyrfalcon-and-puffin takes second in bird re-creations. And Raymond Kowalski’s mouse family is good enough for third place in freeze-dried life-size mammals.

A notch higher on the competitive scale is the Master Division, where the best of the best duke it out. Ken Walker, from Alberta Beach, Alberta, wins the blue ribbon—known in the industry as a World Title—for mammal groups with a mount of two running wolves. “I nearly fell down the escalator when I heard.” Walker tells me. Walker, who’s been a professional taxidermist for 21 years, spent the better part of a year to complete the wolves, and he took two months off from his regular work to get his piece to the point where he was happy that he’d done the best job he could.

Trying to showcase my new-found knowledge of the finer aspects of taxidermy, I ask Walker how he replicates nictitating membranes,  “I use a very fine paintbrush and make them out of an epoxy and put them in during the finishing process so I can even them out and place them. That way they’re not moved by the drying process, and I can reference the depth of the membrane according to eye rotation and things like that.” Once again, all I can muster is an appreciative hmm.

Walker also offers me a few other production details: how he got the tiny hairs inside the wolves’ ear canals to reattach themselves to a latex cast and how he concealed the seams where he sewed them back on, so the judges wouldn’t find them. How he first made a miniature clay sculpture of the wolves and then hand-carved and sculpted an original form out of Styrofoam. How he cast the teeth in silicone mixed with an ivory-coloured pigment and how he got them to look like they extended beneath the gums. How he removed the lips from the hide, cast them, and made new ones out of latex so they would look soft and shiny. He points out to me that at the World Championships, where the competition is tough, the difference between a first- and second-place score can be just a single point. “I’m willing to work for six months just for that one point.” The final tallies, however, were even closer. Walker won by only half a point.

“That’s everything I wanted. I was ready to go home then,” he tells me. But Walker’s wolves then went on to win the taxidermist’s dream award, the Best of Show, which is decided by secret ballot from all 20 judges. “I like to think that I have a lot of things to come in my career, but I don’t think there will be another moment that will go beyond this.” he says.

So what was it that made Walker’s wolves better than everyone else’s mounts? For the answer, I track down judge Joe Meder, who I’ve learned–since seeing him appraise that whitetail mount’s nostrils on the first day—is not only an expert when it comes to whitetails but also on taxidermy in general.

“With some pieces, there’s just a certain flow to them–movement. Every time you walk by, that mount catches your eye. Usually when you walk through these shows your eye will be drawn to certain items. That doesn’t mean they’re going to be the top items, but a high percentage of the time they are the ones that do end up winning. Every time you walk by it–maybe you’re on your way to judge another piece–you just sort of have to glance at it and say, ‘Nice.'”

A mount with vitality is the goal of every good taxidermist. The technical aspects are to be expected at the World Championships. Just about all mounts in the Master Division are highly detailed and realistic. But not everyone, Meder tells me, can make a mount that brings the animal back to life. “A good mount will invoke emotions in you, just like the moment you looked down the sights. When you see an animal like that they’re so beautiful that you want to preserve them. You don’t want to see them just waste away and go back to the earth.”

The reasons for wanting a mounted animal in your living room—to relive the bittersweet moment of a hunting success—are strange, atavistic, ironic and in the end slippery to communicate. But, on some level, I think the cave painters of Altamira would have understood.