The phrase "stuffed animals" usually elicits images of pale blue teddy bears and soft pink bunnies. But the State Taxidermy Competition features real stuffed animals – deer, bears, ducks and wolves. Dozens of taxidermists from several states gather at the annual event to show their art.
Four little kids point and smile as they walk past displays. Animals of all sorts are preserved and presented at the taxidermy show, and these children find their favorites. One likes a deer, another a mountain lion and a third prefers the pheasants.
Their dad has his favorites, too. Josh Bakker is a taxidermist from Doon, Iowa. He’s one row over from the rest of the family.
"I haven’t seen everything yet, but I really love that little duck there, that cinnamon teal. It’s just beautiful," Bakker says.
Bakker couldn’t compete this year, but he attends to see other taxidermists’ work and talk with people in his profession. They work with real stuffed animals. Bakker says he loves taxidermy.
"[I love it] mainly because I love wildlife and to work with the animals that I love and the challenge of it," Bakker says. "We break them down very much before we build them back up."
Taxidermy is not for the squeamish. Taxidermists carefully take dead animals apart to preserve their features. Bakker says they sculpt the foam that sits beneath the animal’s hide and position the pheasant or fish or bison for display.
"They have to be posed realistically and naturally. Then the feathers or the hair has to be clean and fluffy like it would be in real life," Bakker says. "The eyes – if he’s looking at something, they have to reflect that."
Walking down the aisle at the show, more than one hundred sets of eyes from deer, birds, fish, foxes and more stare. Up saunters Randy Nelson. He agrees to an interview as long as it’s only the microphone, no video camera. In the same breath, as the red recording light illuminates, Nelson says radio isn’t a good medium to talk taxidermy.
"And I can say, boy, this feather is smooth and nice and colorful, but unless you touch it and look at it, you don’t appreciate it," Nelson says. "Trying to describe this thing, I can describe that duck. It’s really good. You’ve got the ice scene underneath there. You’ve got the feet paddling underneath and you’ve got all that stuff, you lift it above the ice so you can look underneath the ice and see all the cool stuff in there and you know most people never notice that."
Nelson is from Minnesota, but he’s traveled the globe. More than 20 years ago, Nelson won at the world taxidermy show for a bird nestled into a winter environment. Since, he specializes in crafting habitats and exhibits. Nelson says habitats enhance good taxidermy mounts.
"It’s like makeup on a woman. You take makeup off a woman, she’s not so pretty, right? You put the makeup on the woman? She’s gorgeous. Eh, there are some natural pretties, but you know it’s a cool way to think of it," Nelson says and laughs.
Speaking of women, meet the Secretary/Treasurer of South Dakota’s state taxidermist association.
"I enjoy doing it. I help with the bases and stuff, and I do hope to do taxidermy some day as a woman," Glenda McNutt says. "We are seeing a lot more female taxidermists coming to the field, and there’s a lot more female hunters."
McNutt is from Doland, and she's one of those women who hunts and fishes. She says her husband led her to taxidermy, and she is active in the association because she values the passion these professionals demonstrate.
"I enjoy going to these shows all over and seeing the work and the different creativity and the art," McNutt says. "It’s just… There’s so many hours that go into these pieces."
Her fellow association officer Kyle Monteith uses the same adjective: art.
"This is an art. Just like a painting is or anything like that, this is an art. This isn’t something that we just hurry and rush to put this stuff together and don’t care what they look like," Monteith says. Our full goal, our focus is to make these as lifelike as possible."
He notes participants in the competition care deeply for the animals they preserve. Monteith says the rules require showing animals respect. That means tasteful displays without cruelty. Monteith is enthusiastic about his craft.
"That’s probably something called biophilia that’s associated with every taxidermist; it’s just this innate desire to want to know wildlife," Monteith says. "It’s just like when we’re growing up. The first time we ever get to see a deer, I’m sure everyone’s hair raised on our heads and we got all excited about it, and that’s kind of what makes us want to mimic that with the species we mount up."
Monteith says modern taxidermy techniques offer professionals and hobbyists clean, reverent means to appreciate wildlife.
"Maybe taxidermy was a little bit messy and, I don’t know if gory is the right word, but just kind of dirty 20 years ago," Monteith says. "Now it’s something so clean that I guarantee you most of these specimens that are in here, the deer, the birds and stuff like that, these guys have washed these animals, the hides, so much that they’re cleaner than the clothes that we put on every single day."
The state competition obviously attracts taxidermists and hunters; but Monteith says taxidermy displays also offer kids and adults a chance to see nature up close and grasp its majesty.
Visit the South Dakota Taxidermist Association website for details about the organization and its competition.