It's minutes before the entry deadline at the most prestigious taxidermy competition in the United States, and animals fill a sprawling expo hall like a frozen stampede.
In one corner, a competitor fluffs a bobcat with a blow dryer, and a man uses a toothbrush to smooth a buck’s fur.
In another, a taxidermist wearing magnifying eyeglasses rearranges individual turkey feathers with tweezers while another paints a little eye shadow above a deer’s eye. “It gives that lifelike look,” he said.
This is the 2019 World Taxidermy & Fish Carving Championships, which gathered some 1,000 experts in the art of bringing the dead back to life at the Springfield Expo Center.
At stake? Some of the most important honours a serious taxidermist can claim.
“This is basically the Olympics of taxidermy,” said competitor Ashley Barrett, of Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, US.
He has already won two Best in the World titles, the equivalent of a taxidermy gold medal.
And the competition is stiff – in more ways than one. Cougars appear to dive off their stands. A giant tiger looks ready to pounce. Wolves fight. Turkeys strut. Wild goats race down a hill.
“I’m a little intimidated, to be honest,” said first-time competitor Keith Kinzel of Red Bud, Illinois.
Kinzel groomed a pouncing coyote with a dog brush and his wife’s blow dryer just before rolling it into the competition hall.
He spent 113 hours on the piece, including three hours adjusting the whiskers. He took another whole night making sure the ears were at the anatomically correct 45° angle for the pose.
“There are so many skills you need to learn to be decent at taxidermy,” said Kinzel, who runs a taxidermy business that caters to Southern Illinois hunters.
“You’ve got to paint. You need to know the habitat. You’ve got to learn how to sew. You need to know anatomy, art, zoology. You need to know it all.”
They put every one of those skills to the test.
The structure of the competition is a bit like the Westminster dog show, except that these animals happen to be dead.
Subcategories divide some 550 entries into groups as specific as “Whitetail Deer Heads: Long/thick hair, open mouth” and “Turkeys, strutting”.
There are categories for animal rugs, fish, waterfowl and “interpretive taxidermy”, featuring the more experimental work.
Past winners included a dinosaur. This year, there were two long-extinct prehistoric birds, a jolly beaver morphing into a wood log and a cougar blending into a rock in the shape of Texas.
When the entries are all in and every hair settled in place, judges get to work prodding noses and running their fingers through the fur that competitors just obsessively combed.
Wendy Christensen, one of two women tasked with judging the small mammals, stands about an inch away from a beaver with a wide-open mouth. “Now what is your story? Why are you yelling at me?” she asks the beaver. “I like there to be a clear emotion.”
Christensen worked doing taxidermy for 35 years at the Milwaukee Public Museum and has a handful of world titles herself.
She began learning the craft when she was 12 through a correspondence course.
She moves on to a bobcat. “Oh, is he soft,” she says, feeling the fur. She sticks her finger in the ears and gives them a tug. “Good ear connection.”
She looks at the legs. “Muscle is bulged out all wrong.”
She puts her hand under the tail and feels the cat’s rear.
“I know it’s a little weird,” she says as she feels around for the detail work. “I have to feel them up a bit.”
After an initial look, Christensen pulls out a laptop and looks at reference pictures for each animal.
She dictates thoughts to a writer who fills out a detailed judging sheet with categories like “eyelid shape”, “naturalness of hair patterns”, “odour”, “tail to body junction” and “proper location and shape of the sex organ.”
Christensen looks for total anatomical accuracy, a high level of difficulty and creative flair.
The biggest point-scorers pull off the equivalent of a quadruple axel in the taxidermy world: Taxidermy that requires metal work to keep the animals in gravity-defying poses.
Open mouths are another major feat, requiring taxidermists to use supplies typically used in dental offices to make moulds of the animals’ mouths. They then need to find the right paint to make it look like the animal might blink and walk away at any time.
The finished results aim to wow and rack up points. A raccoon appears almost electrocuted in midair as another raccoon bites its tail. A bear has a slight grimace as it climbs onto a prickly pear cactus. A coyote licks its lips, suspended above a partly devoured deer head with all the insides showing.
Heather Miller, who runs a taxidermy business in Halifax, Pennsylvania, attempted to get extra points with the baby skunk she brought sitting in a curled position on top of a yellow flower.
“I named him Lil’ Waylon,” she said. “I wanted to show difficulty by showing all the paws because those are super hard, so I thought, ‘OK, I’ll have him just chillin’ on a flower.’”
Though she tried shampooing the fur many times, she couldn’t quite eliminate the skunk smell.
“Lil’ Waylon is a little stinky, so that may take some points off,” she said. “But I like him anyway.”
All of them are ‘MacGyvers’
Next to the competition hall, a trade show peddled everything a taxidermist could need. White animal forms that serve as a base hung on booth walls next to companies advertising tannery services and fake vegetation.
But most competitors rely on more than traditional taxidermy supplies in their work. Every taxidermist is a “MacGyver”, said Derek Plaisance, of Hammond, Louisiana.
“I go into Sally’s (Beauty Supply) and they know me by name,” said Plaisance, who specialises in lizard taxidermy. “I’m a regular.”
Taxidermy tool boxes at the competition included butter knives, grapefruit scrapers, dog shampoos, sheen used to shine up horse coats, and bleach from beauty stores that is perfect for cleaning skulls.
Many of the competitors are what you might imagine: Men wearing Cabela’s hats and camouflage shoes. But women are squarely in the mix too, including Amber Engels, who works for Matuska Taxidermy Supply and is an instructor at the company’s taxidermy college in Northwest Iowa.
She spent years employed as a florist but got into taxidermy by designing all the plants around her spouse’s mounts. Soon she became an expert in the field.
“To me, it’s pure art,” Engels said, as she prepared a bobcat mannequin for competition.
Then there’s the female-dominated subgroup that’s been ruffling feathers in the taxidermy world for the last decade: “Rogue taxidermy”, traditional taxidermy’s rebellious cousin.
The movement is dominated by millennial women who are more likely to live in Los Angeles or Brooklyn than rural Iowa.
Though some of their work is hyper-realistic, most comes with an edge.
They might make a hot pink baby chick with two heads, a hair clip using a starling skull, a small alligator made into a clock, or a taxidermy chimera (an animal with a lion’s head, a goat’s body and a serpent’s tail.)
One member of the movement, Divya Anantharaman, of Brooklyn, carried a black vintage armadillo purse to match her dress and entered a restored Victorian automaton of a realistic turquoise bird in the competition.
When you turn a key, the little bird opens its beak and sings, jerking its head inside a delicate golden cage.
“I think it should stand out,” Anantharaman said.
The big winners of the competition took home a few thousand dollars each, but most competitors said the glory a title brings in the small, often misunderstood, world of taxidermy is the real prize.
“It might take me 30 years,” said Jeremy Judkins of Salt Lake City, who tried to top his elk from the last competition by placing this year’s elk tilted on its antler. “But, one day, I’ll win that world title.” – Tribune News Service/St Louis Post-Dispatch/Erin Heffernan