Fur Real

Meet taxidermy's hair Jordan, the man who brings dead animals to life.

He has dominated his game like nobody before him, and, possibly, like no one ever again. He burst on the scene in the mid-1980s after a solid but unremarkable college career. After turning pro, he redefined the rules of his sport's endorsement deals, and his image was omnipresent in the media.

Later, perhaps having grown a little bored after his fourth championship in a row, he toyed with the idea of branching out into a totally new arena, shocking observers with his audacity. Leave that to the specialists, they scoffed: To even suggest that you can leave one domain and simply take up a second at such a high level is an insult to the practitioners of the latter.

I am talking, of course, about Littleton's John Lager, the best competitive taxidermist the country has ever seen. Two weeks ago he sewed up his fourth consecutive Best All-Around Taxidermist award, besting some half-dozen finalists at the American Taxidermists Association annual convention in Columbia, Missouri. No one else has won two titles. Primarily a walleye-and-ptarmigan man, the 62-year-old recently put the taxidermy world on notice by hinting that he might be ready to move on -- into trout, perhaps, or even wood ducks.

The real John Lager and one of his equally lifelike specimens.
The real John Lager and one of his equally lifelike specimens.

"It's a very specialized area," he concedes. The stuffed-duck people are very particular, real niche-occupiers, not especially nice to interlopers. "But," he adds, "I think I could do it." It's not just a pipe dream, either. If anyone could breathe life into a dead duck, John Lager could.

"Taxidermy," he says modestly, "is not rocket science. And I should know."

Although he's an accomplished outdoorsman, Lager's manifest destiny in superlative animal mummification was not at all clear from the start. He attended the University of Minnesota, learning as much as he could about structural materials. The outdoor lifestyle attracted him to Colorado after graduation, so he took a job and moved west. Eventually, he worked his way into management at Martin Marietta.

Like many teenage hunters, he had dabbled in taxidermy early on. His uncle had given him how-to books, and he had clumsily mounted a couple of his own trophies. It was nothing spectacular, but the idea of combining craftsmanship with hunting and fishing caught Lager's attention, and he filed it away in the back of his mind.

As he approached the twilight of his career as a rocket scientist, he found his thoughts turning more and more toward dead-animal restoration. He finally cleaned out his desk in 1987. "It's like a guy who always wanted to be an artist and eventually quit the accounting firm to give it a shot," he says.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Taxidermy is many things to many people, but at its heart, it is love. "It's kind of twisted and it's kind of not," admits Tom Shankster, a longtime hunter and taxidermist who works with Denver-based trophy-preservation pioneers Jonas Brothers. "Some people look at it as having a corpse on the wall. But it's really an attempt to preserve the beauty of the animal and make it last as long as possible."

That may have always been the goal, but it wasn't always the effect. In the 1800s, the work was usually performed by furniture upholsterers, who jammed rags and cotton (or, in one famous case involving a rhino, rocks) inside pelts and then quickly sewed them up into vaguely animal-shaped furniture.

"This practice produced some terrible-looking mounts and gave taxidermy a bad reputation which still haunts the profession to this day," notes one history of the profession, adding that "professional taxidermists still shudder and take offense at the term 'stuffing.'"

Taxidermy has long been the stamping grounds of good-ol'-boy hunters and fishermen guided by an age-old question: Now that I have killed it, what do I do with it? Among certain hunters, there was a perverse pride in having a mangled reproduction tilting on the den wall. It finally took an outdoorsman with the soul of an artist -- a taxidermic Hemingway-- to nudge the practice onto the path of true craftsmanship.

Carl Akeley had firmly established guy creds. While stalking prey in Africa just before World War I, he was trampled by an elephant. (Technically, this represented an actual error in judgment. But still!) On the same trip, he killed a leopard with his bare hands. He eventually succumbed in 1926, on yet another expedition to the Dark Continent, working on what would later become a mountain-gorilla diorama.

Like many hunters, Akeley liked keeping his animals around for future viewing at his leisure. But unlike other hunters, he also had the sensibility of a sculptor, and over his career, he developed a method of molding lifelike bodies around meticulous skeletal mounts. Although Akeley's work was done primarily for museums, his techniques eventually filtered out into the commercial taxidermy business.

To this day, there are still plenty of examples of bad taxidermy -- cockeyed eyeballs, upside-down joints, curling pelts and thoracic lumps unrecognizable in nature (stop by Ole's Bar, just over the border in Nebraska, for visuals). Generally speaking, however, the business has become more and more fastidious. Today top taxidermists can make shotgun-shattered carcasses look as though they never lost a step.

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