The following excerpt is from Chapter 2, The Champions.

Having driven 1,400 snow-slick miles from Cody, Wyoming, Ray Hatfield was now in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza in Springfield, Illinois, pushing a brass luggage cart with a snow leopard perched on it. He pushed it onto the elevator, rode up to the ninth floor, and then rolled it down the hall to room 918, where he placed the leopard on one of the double beds, its rosette spots curiously blending in with the oak-leaf pattern of the bedspread. Hatfield walked slow circles around the leopard, inspecting it for imperfections. In his hand was a gunmetal silver blow dryer.

Hatfield runs Nature’s Design Taxidermy, a big commercial studio, which serves mostly hunters. He is tall and soft-spoken with tawny hair and aviator eyeglasses that adapt to the sunlight. On the drive to Springfield, Illinois, he had stopped to deliver several trophies to customers: elk and deer, a buffalo, an ibex, and a Marco Polo sheep. A few mounts—including the snow leopard—got wet when melting snow leaked into his cargo trailer. Under normal circumstances, damp capes (“cape” is the term used for an animal’s pelt or skin), if quickly caught, are an easy problem to fix. On this day, however, Hatfield couldn’t risk even a minor flaw. “I’m trying to get all of its hairs separated down to the skin and make all of the hair patterns lie in place,” he said, clutching a wire brush that rapidly filled with soft golden fur. “Everything has to be just right for the competition.”

Hatfield’s expectations of winning a ribbon with his leopard were hopeful, not high. In this he was realistic. Three hundred fifty taxidermists from twenty-two countries were competing for twelve Best in World titles and $25,600 in cash prizes. For the next five days Springfield would be to taxidermists what Atlantic City was to beauty queens and Indianapolis is to race car drivers: the most extraordinary gathering of competitors in the field.

But Hatfield wasn’t here only to win medals. No one was, actually. That was just the pretext. Taxidermy competitions have long been the single most important place—outside of natural history museums—where taxidermists have highlighted their artistry. Indeed, the American taxidermy competitions of the early 1880s gave rise to a new movement in artistic taxidermy. The winners went off to work at the leading museums, transforming their halls from dreary morgues of systematic classification into artificial jungles and deserts and reefs. And elevating taxidermy’s status was a goal in Springfield as well. Hatfield, for one, was slated to lead a two-day seminar in which he’d demonstrate how one expertly preserves a leopard. Equally important, the World Taxidermy Championships (WTC) offered him a rare opportunity to talk shop with world-class taxidermists from the Milwaukee Public Museum, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, the Smithsonian, and museums throughout Europe. Bird men from the United Kingdom were flying in, as were fish carvers from Switzerland, Midwestern cat-ladies with a motherly devotion to lynx, bobcats, and tigers; and Team Sweden. Arriving from Russia came Vladimir Sukchare, who in 1977 helped excavate and preserve one of the Zoological Museum of St. Petersburg’s Siberian baby mammoths. And,—accompanied by her father in matching red polo shirts that said Amy’s Animal Art—was doe-eyed Amy Ritchie, a home-schooled teenager from Midland, North Carolina, whose business cards read: Preserving the beauty of God’s creations. Among the elite were skilled amateurs from what many rural outpost and small towns in America, people who prepared deer heads in their garages or plaster-cast fish in family-run shops. All were converging for a long weekend of friendship, competition, and —as the World Show’s glossy brochure put it,—“inspirational fellowship.”

The lobby of the Crowne Plaza was a veritable Noah’s ark on luggage carts. A taxidermist from Nebraska carted a prairie chicken and a mink; a competitor from Pittsburgh had a black squirrel and a freeze-dried snowshoe hare. Green sandpipers, cougars, geckos, a Bengal tiger, Brant geese, chum salmon, marmots, rattlesnakes, and snapping turtles were being wheeled this way and that in the eccentric migration. The bellhops stood by and watched. They had nothing to do, really, because only a slacker would hand over a mount that he had been preserving for a year or more to the untrained hotel staff.

Cradling a red-tailed hawk in his arms was a taxidermist from Indiana, who paused to say that his raptor wasn’t a raptor at all. It was fake. “It’s a re-creation made out of turkey, chicken, and goose feathers,” he explained as if it were perfectly normal to turn chickens into hawks. He was entering it into the show’s most fascinating category: Re-Creations. According to the WTC rulebook: “Re-Creations are defined as renderings which include no natural parts of the animal portrayed…For instance, a re-creation eagle could be constructed using turkey feathers, or a cow hide could be used to simulate African game.”  Imitation or not, this hawk looked ready to stalk prey in Lake Springfield’s wetlands.  Here—in a shimmering convention hotel among chain restaurants and endless highways—a dead circus was coming to life.

The participants, many of whom were from blue-collar families or had grown up on farms, considered themselves outdoorsmen and hunters, and they reflected a distinctly American approach to taxidermy, one linked to hunting in the spirit of Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett. Lured by the infinite bounty of the unexplored wilderness, early white hunters considered the American West a sportsman’s paradise (a sportsman being someone who hunts for pleasure, not profit; someone who does not, for instance, shoot wolves with machine guns from airplanes, but rather gives his prey a “fair” fight in the wild). The most emblematic American sportsman of later generations was Theodore Roosevelt, whose Boone and Crocket Club (1887) promoted what Karen Wonders describes in her book Habitat Dioramas assportsmanship through travel and the exploration of wild country, through the preservation of big game and through the scientific study of animals in the wild.” In the early days of the Republic big trophies, such as those displayed by Thomas Jefferson at Monticello, were thought to disprove the European claim put forth by French naturalist Compte de Buffon and others that animals shrank and became muted in the new world and men lost their virility. Once that theory was debunked, a sizable moose head (or a record marlin) became more personalized. Rich sportsmen from Europe and the U.S. wanted their kills and catches preserved to commemorate their prowess as marksmen and adventurers. Soon the American West was dotted with taxidermy firms such as Jonas Brothers in Denver, whose trophies glamorized the thrill of the hunt  and who also did amazing museum mounts. Today the big commercial firm Animal Artistry in Reno, Nevada, which has prepared mounts for General Norman Schwarzkopf and country music singer Hank Williams, Jr., sustains that tradition.

In the gleaming lobby of the Crowne Plaza, however, one could not easily discern mere hunter from true sportsman. Nevertheless, the guys in line did seem to know everything about the species they had prepared for competition.

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© 2009 Melissa L. Milgrom  All rights reserved.