In one room, two brown and white bobcats stretched out, pushing off with their hind legs and grasping for a flying chuckar. In another room, a red fox looked to the side, a tiny prairie dog dangling from his mouth. Frozen in time, it will be taking that step forever.
Taxidermist Bernie VanOverbeke worked behind the fox, stretching hide from a bull elk over a foam head, making sure he left no gaps around the glass eyes.
VanOverbeke is known throughout Wyoming for his lifelike mounts of small mammals.
That’s where taxidermy is moving, toward more realistic scenes of wild animals. Recent advances in forms, molds and tools allow taxidermists like VanOverbeke, and his boss, Lynn Stewart, to make your prized mule deer look more like it did in the meadow and less like a head staring down from a wall.
As it becomes easier for taxidermists to add habitat to mounts — such as foam rocks or chemically-preserved sage brush — more people want something unique. Customers used to ask for a fox mount. Now they come in with a prairie dog and want the whole scene — grass, dirt and all.
“It’s a combination of being a painter and a sculptor,” said Stewart, who owns Stewart Taxidermy in Dubois.
“We’re artists; we just work in a different medium than people actually think about.”
Carl Akeley, considered the forefather of modern taxidermy, hunted across the globe at the turn of the century. He used his animals to make exhibits for many of America’s top natural history museums, including the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Critics praised his exhibits for their lifelike qualities and scenes. He paid attention to every detail on both the animals and the surrounding habitat.
“What Carl Akeley did is what we try and recreate,” Stewart said.
To do that, taxidermists are moving away from some of the old methods — such as wood-slat forms and paper-mâché — and turning to more modern foam forms. Foam allows taxidermists to mold animals to any position the customer wants, including grasping for a chucker.
Decades ago, taxidermists often had one-size-fits-all forms. If the form didn’t quite fit the animal, the taxidermist stretched or cut the skin to match. The results weren’t often pretty, especially after years of drying.
“It’s just like if you think of people, we all have different sizes and shapes, none of us are the same. That’s the same for animals,” Stewart said.
Tanning is one of the biggest improvements. Decades ago tanners used organic chemicals like arsenic and salts, and the hides would shrink and fade over time. Now synthetic tanners give taxidermists a more stretchable hide with hair and color that may last forever.
Plastic, too, has made taxidermy easier, more durable and lifelike. Before, taxidermists either molded the jaws out of clay or plaster. Or, they used the original bone which could break down, attract bugs and possibly smell. Plastic also offers the customers more options. Certain jaw sets can make a badger look calm and relaxed, or fierce and growling.
Scott Guenther, a Casper taxidermist, used a plastic jaw set when he mounted a coyote holding a bird. The coyote’s teeth and gum lines are cleaner and more refined than they would have been with bone mounts and molding, giving it a more finished look, he said.
Avid hunters and collectors often want something more than just another mount in their rooms of trophies.
“More and more today you’re seeing complete rooms devoted to complete scenes and dioramas,” said Dawayne Dewey, owner of Dewey Wildlife Studio in Cody.
Dewey has installed waterfalls, realistic foliage and even sound systems.
He just finished a mountain scene for a hunter from Washington who bagged the North American Grand Slam of wild sheep: four types from across the continent. Each sheep stood in its own habitat on a mountain, but the habitats all blended together.
“The mountain comes apart and is transportable. It was the neatest piece we’ve done in a while,” said Dewey, who’s been a taxidermist for almost 27 years.
The increased focus on art has changed even in the five years that Guenther has been in the business.
Guenther recently completed a half-moose mount for his father. The moose appears to be rising out of a marsh, its front legs, head and torso carefully preserved. Rock and dogwood trees surround the animal.
“This is much more artistic than I thought it would be 10 years ago,” he said.
Reach Open Spaces reporter Christine Peterson at (307) 460-9598 or email@example.com.