Extinct Possibilities

Once Gary Staab found his calling, the rest was pre-history.

The other Staabs are in the restaurant business. Twenty-nine-year-old Gary likes his critters much older--and colder. He is a paleo-reconstructionist, which means, in extremely introductory terms, that he builds big models of dinosaurs, using real bones and fossils to guide him. There are others who do this type of work, but very few who check their voice mail and find messages from the Smithsonian Institution, the British Museum of Natural History, the Disney people (who are planning a movie that will make Jurassic Park look dinky), and Mom. Mom, in this case, is Rosemary Staab of Grand Island, Nebraska.

"I am rather proud of Gary," Rosemary admits. "I still don't know how it happened, exactly. He got a mail-order taxidermy kit when he was young, but he wasn't all that into art as a child. It's pretty cute when he comes home and some of his friends get to talking about how bored they are at their jobs. 'I don't know, Mom,' he says, 'maybe I just got lucky.'"

There is little scientific evidence, however, to suggest that Gary Staab has ever been bored. Maybe long ago, when he was a Little League catcher, during a slow game. But probably not, since those games were played on the Nebraska prairie, which crawls with bugs.

"I like bugs," Staab says. "I collect bugs. In Borneo, I got these wonderful beetles. I have a real affinity for beetles."

Staab has a real affinity for a lot of "weird critters." The basement of the house he built on the west side of Lookout Mountain is full of them.

"Here is my monitor lizard," he says, stopping before a glass case containing a huge, contemplative, craggy reptile. "He's a real tail-whipper. We handle him only with welding gloves. Here's a male Burmese python. Here's a female Burmese python. If there's one passion I have, it's herps."

Staab does not watch prime-time TV. Instead, he sits down here in front of the glass cages, watching his reptiles, wondering how their skin relates to that of ancient dinosaurs, noting the play of their muscles beneath that skin and then looking up the subject of how muscles attach to bones in some arcane book.

The pythons and lizards in Staab's basement are very much alive. But he gives equal time to weird, dead critters. "What about these?" he asks, holding out what look to be two tiny hooves with no legs attached. "I found them in the pellet of a Komodo dragon, in Indonesia. Oh. Here you go. Here's a mold I made of an alligator leg."

He hands it over. It is hefty, made of rubber, but otherwise seems realistic. On a nearby wall are pinned drawings and posters of orangutans--another species for which Staab has an affinity and may some day end up sculpting. "I got to go to Santa Cruz to dissect an orangutan face," he says. "Wonderful. Another wonderful thing I have is another big lizard who eats chicken eggs."

He approaches another wall, this one covered with pictures of vampire bats and Greco-Roman statuary, "which is basically the recipe for gargoyles," Staab says. His roommate, Lissi Wendorf, makes the gargoyles for sale as garden sculpture. That was just one of their brilliant, mutual ideas. Staab and Wendorf also make holds for indoor climbing walls. Some are shaped like human hands; some look like tiny gargoyles. There are many of these holds around the basement. To use them up, Staab and Wendorf are planning to construct the largest privately owned indoor climbing wall in the state.

To see it take shape, you have to leave Staab's house--and his three fat Labradors collapsed on their own couch--and walk ten feet to his studio, with its vaulted, concave ceiling that is not yet a rock-climbing roof. In fact, the drywall mud is barely dry. Beneath it, though, one half of a life-sized allosaurus--about eight feet tall and three feet wide--is emerging, eyeballs and all. "I make my eyeballs," Staab says. "Not too hard."

Before the allosaurus, Staab made a life-sized model of a camarasaurus for the Gunma Natural History Museum in Okayama, Japan. Not the whole dinosaur, though --just its back leg, "to scale," he explains, "with skin on one side, and on the other it peels back and you see the muscle down to the bone." This model took him two months to build. First, working from scientific drawings, real bone and fossil material, Staab sculpted the leg in oil-based clay. Then he made a mold in silicone and cast it in urethane, painting in the extensive details with dry-brushed oil paint. After that, he went outside and built a fifteen-by-seven-foot crate to hold the enormous leg. From there, it was up to a trucking company to negotiate the rut-filled dirt roads that lead to Staab's studio, load up the dinosaur leg and pack it off to Japan.

"I don't know what I'll do with this allosaur," Staab says, perching on a stepladder to get a better look at its eyeball. "There's a guy in Chicago who might buy it."

"I want that allosaurus he's working on," confirms John Lanzendorf, the guy from Chicago. Lanzendorf, acknowledged to have the world's largest amateur collection of paintings and sculptures of dinosaurs ("paleo-art," as it's called), says he stands ready to buy anything by Staab. "I already own two paintings of his and one bronze," he says. "I paid between $800 and $5,000 for these pieces, and as far as I'm concerned, all three have appreciated in value since I bought them."

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