Doug Barnes, right, explains to Barry Smith mounting techniques he used for his mountain lion entry in the 2008 Colorado State Taxidermy Championships held during the weekend at the Holiday Inn of Craig. There were 120 entries in the event featuring taxidermists from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

Photo by Hans Hallgren

Doug Barnes, right, explains to Barry Smith mounting techniques he used for his mountain lion entry in the 2008 Colorado State Taxidermy Championships held during the weekend at the Holiday Inn of Craig. There were 120 entries in the event featuring taxidermists from Colorado, Utah, Wyoming and Montana.

Art and science

Colorado State Taxidermy Championships come to Craig

And the winners are

Best in Category

Novice Division:

Reptile: Dawson Butler, "Toad"

Gamehead: Austin Butler, "Antelope"

Professional Division:

Reproduction: Duane Mittlieder, "Arctic Grayling"

Gamehead: Mark Zimmerman, "Mule Deer"

Masters Division:

Bird: Andy Hajek, "Redhead Drake"

Fish: Mike Ross, "Brown Trout"

Reproduction: Jeff Mourning, "Grayling"

Gamehead: Tom Weickum, "Cape Buffalo"

Large Lifesize: Dirk Bawden, "Leopard"

Best in Show

Mike Ross, "Brown Trout"

For a taxidermist to mount a mammal, such as an elk or bear, they first measure the distance between body parts - distance between ears, from eye to ear, from jaw to front leg, etc. Skin the animal and make sure all meat and fat is separated completely from the hide.

Turn the ears inside out. Cut the lips so the hide lays flat.

Salt the hide twice during 48 hours before sending it to a tanner. The hide will return as workable leather and be ready for mounting.

To mount the hide, a taxidermist may order a manikin from a known supplier that fits previous measurements or may have made a cast of the animal's body after skinning.

Changing views

Mark Zimmerman, 40, owner of Bullseye Taxidermy in Craig, started working as a taxidermist full time about four years ago.

At the 2008 Colorado State Taxidermy Championships at the Holiday Inn of Craig this weekend, Zimmerman took home the professional division's Best in Category award for his mule deer gamehead.

Competitions weren't always full of congratulatory ribbons and plaques for Zimmerman. But, he said, perfecting the craft and perfecting the animals he works on - to make them as real as possible - became as much a passion as the work itself.

He said his first competition was a wake-up call. He wanted to leave before he entered.

"But I had a friend in Grand Junction and one in Baggs (Wyo.), and they told me don't expect to go in there and win," Zimmerman said, "go in there and expect to learn."

Zimmerman seems ready for bigger contests.

His most recent Best in Category award is his fourth for gameheads, he said. At the next competition, he will be forced to move up from the professional division into the masters.

Zimmerman, a life-long hunter and animal lover, sees animals differently after being a taxidermist. A piece is not just a head or a trophy, and an animal's most minute details are sometimes a captivating study for Zimmerman's pursuit of perfection.

"Most people try to tell some kind of story with their mount," he said. "A lot of times it's from a hunting experience. Or maybe I was out one day and I see an elk or something. It's funny, I'm not interested in the size of the horns or anything now. I'm really interested in his ears, what he does with the muscles in his ears."

Art and science

About 120 mounted mule deer, elk, moose, buffalo, leopards, bears, birds and fish neatly lined up in aisles and on walls this weekend.

One other mule deer gamehead belonged to Drew Mundo, 36, of Grand Junction.

This weekend marked Mundo's first foray into taxidermy competitions, he said. He earned an outfitter's choice award and a blue ribbon from the judges - which marks a first place contender - but eventually would lose Best in Category to Zimmerman.

Mundo was, at one time, an art major at the University of Northern Colorado until he met a taxidermist and the two became good friends.

He was not unaccomplished in art. At age 16, a bronze elk sculpture he made won a contest and was shown in New York City and Europe.

Taxidermy is not lower than other mainstream art, Mundo said.

"This is painted," he said, pointing to subtle patches of dark and blonde fur on his deer's face, "because these colors fade over time.

"This isn't meat in here," Mundo said, pointing to lines of smooth musculature underneath the deer's neck. "There's Styrofoam underneath, and it has to be sculpted to look right, to look real."

Looking right and looking real is paramount in taxidermy, said Clint Weber, 48, a taxidermist of 25 years and owner of a meat processing and taxidermy business in Baggs.

A taxidermist has to be creative with a mount to tell a story, but one can't put merely anything that might have a story into a competition.

A taxidermist has to be dedicated to learning the biology of his or her subjects, or else the work won't be real.

"It takes lots and lots of time and dedication," Weber said. "Lots of reference study with a specimen. Lots of hands-on work, lots of creativity and getting your hands dirty."

The master

Mike Ross, of Elizabeth, started in taxidermy in 1984. About 12 years later, he left his job painting cars to become a full-time taxidermist.

Ross, unlike Zimmerman, Mundo and Weber, specializes in fish. At the State Championships, he took home Best in Show for a brown trout, about 16 inches long, mounted on top of a wood base with slivers of reflective mirrors running left and right.

Ross has been a national champion and a world champion. He has judged at competitions and taught seminars for others trying to perfect the craft.

Other taxidermists said fish are too much work, too much detail. A fish loses all its colors after it dies, they said, and a taxidermist has to recreate that without it looking painted.

Ross, seemingly uninterested in how much time goes into one piece, only said that he loves fish.

"I'm a fisherman, and I love to fish," Ross said. "I fish all the time. That's just kind of my thing.

"I've loved this - loved wildlife - since I was a kid. I would go get a dead bird out of the yard, go work on him when I was 12 years old. The fact that they were live animals at one point, I guess I'm trying to preserve that."

Try to understand

Andy Hajek, Colorado Taxidermist Association president, and Dawayne Dewey, who served as one of two competition judges this weekend, said a taxidermist's fascination with wildlife could be called an obsession.

"To a point," Hajek said. "This is more like a culture. It's a way of life."

It's a heightened appreciation, Dewey said.

"Like (Hajek's) redhead drake," he added. "Seeing that specimen is the same feeling you get when you sit in a duck blind for hours and hours, and a group of redheads comes over the horizon. It's an appreciation of wildlife that transitions into the work."

Such a transition demands an attention to detail and an earnest connection with the outdoors, Dewey said.

"Taxidermists have to be experts in a number of fields," he said. "We sculpt. We tan skin. A taxidermist needs carpentry skills, basic mechanical skills, needs to know the anatomy of the specimen he's working with. And I firmly believe we're artists.

"We're artists in every sense of the word."

Although some may consider taxidermy a morbid talent, Dewey said he could not imagine a person would walk into a showroom of the caliber found in Craig this weekend and still hold contempt for the work displayed.

"I think that person, when they walk into a room like that, they would have to be amazed," Dewey said. "Just the fascination with art and the challenge of it."

Taxidermy has a valuable history people might not consider, he said.

"Before photography, before color photography, before movies, before any of that," Dewey said, "the world found out about wildlife through taxidermists. They were hunters and conservationists that knew to save the wilderness, they had to bring it to people. They took them into the museums, into the cities. With different scenes they showed people what the animals were like, animals that people didn't even know existed at that time."

Much like people then may have turned out in large numbers as Dewey said, attendance in Craig was high.

Hajek said the average number of entrants in other parts of the state during the last five years was about 80, compared to the 120 this weekend in Craig.

The championship will be back next year for sure, Hajek said.

"The people here, wildlife is a part of their culture," he said. "The hunting, the fishing. It's great."

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