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.
"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.
As the trade improved, taxidermists began comparing mounts, and in the mid-1970s a handful of local competitions began springing up. By the mid-1980s, the craft had come to be viewed -- at least among its more accomplished practitioners -- as a true art form. Magazines like Breakthrough: The Magazine Devoted to the Serious Wildlife Artist started publishing regularly. Quality steadily improved, and today's best mounts, explains Shankster, "are artwork with fur."
Competitions can be decided by a hair's breadth (sometimes literally). Competitive taxidermists spend hundreds of hours camouflaging stitching, contemplating fish nostrils, inserting tiny wires into toes, sculpting and then positioning eyeballs and their surrounding membranes, scraping ear cartilage and painstakingly arranging feathers and scales one by one -- all in an effort to produce an animal facsimile that looks as alive as an inanimate object can look.
Recently, contestants seeking a still greater edge have started shifting their attention farther inside the animal. There are now molds and forms that give a taxidermist the ability to accurately reproduce, say, every vein and cranny inside a nostril or an ear. "What is going to happen next?" wonders Shankster, who also judges taxidermy competitions. "Put in a trachea and windpipe and make the judge use a Flexlight to check it out?"
The push to make animals appear more lifelike has had one perverse effect: Many competition mounts these days are almost entirely artificial. Not only can the modern taxidermist buy pre-carved foam body forms, but he can also shop for highly detailed, anatomically correct glass eyes (made by specialty shops selling nothing else), teeth and antlers. Nose and ear molds eliminate the need to hand-sculpt these tricky areas. Prefab kits help align everything at its proper angle and position. On many top fish mounts, the only thing "natural" is the animal's skin, pulled tightly over a manufactured form -- and even then, the scales are painted on.
With top prizes being decided for such minuscule differences in preparation, taxidermy judges also consider a mount's "originality of pose" and "artistic composition." Ironically, these have been the last components of the craft to make the transition into art; clunky wood pedestals and old-school presentations (think "pheasant inside a coffee table") can still be found fairly often. Other compositions, such as a deer with an arrow plunged into the turf nearby -- a near miss! -- smack of a bygone era.
But for the most part, gone are the days of the classic "cornered," "stalking" and "attack" poses. Now animals are placed into dioramas that strive to tell a story or to mimic a scene from nature. "If you've got one deer bending down drinking water with fiberglass water drops falling off his lips, that's going to win over a mount that's just staring off straight ahead," predicts Shankster.
It's also worth noting that modern social pressures against hunting have given an economic boost to taxidermists, who say business is booming. These days, bagging a bighorn sheep or a trophy mountain goat is likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. It's more important than ever to keep a permanent record of the accomplishment.
Although he came to the profession relatively late in life, in many ways Lager took the traditional path to taxidermy -- walking the woods alongside his father, Roland, in southern Minnesota. His dad was a slight, jug-eared man who grew up farming. "I'm not even sure he liked hunting and fishing much; I think he just did it for me," Lager recalls. "I love it. I've done it all my life."
Roland directed his son's life in many ways. "Life is tough," he counseled John upon his graduation from high school, "especially when you're stupid." But there were two particular things about Roland that lodged in young John's personality and would later provide him with solid toeholds as he climbed into the taxidermy stratosphere.
One was the elder Lager's perfectionism, a powerful drive to tie up all loose ends, dot every "i," lock every door. Late in his life, just before his passing, he would lose his battle with precision, compensating for the imperfect world with prescription drugs.
The second was Roland's achievement of a moment that, if not entirely perfect, was certainly noteworthy. In 1976, at the age of 67, Roland won the National Corn Husking Championship. John still keeps a blown-up picture of him in his studio. In it, Roland holds an ear of corn in his right hand, a modest trophy in his left. He averaged about one ear every two seconds, from stalk to kernel.
"Hmmm," John remembers thinking at the time of Roland's reign. "I'd like to get to be national champion in something." Fortunately, by the mid-1980s, Lager's 25-year career at Martin Marietta had given him a comfortable pad from which to launch his new preoccupation. Soon -- and with the unusual blessing of his wife, Barb, a companionable hunter and tolerant housekeeper -- he had turned his suburban home's basement into a commercial studio filled with hides, artificial eyes, antlers, anatomical forms, feathers, a file cabinet divided alphabetically into birds, fish, and small and large mammals; and four refrigerators crammed with dozens of specimens on ice. His work began to attract notice, and he developed a commercial business. (He currently charges anywhere from $200 for a small bird to $3,600 to mount a bighorn sheep.)
Eventually, Lager's passion spilled into the rest of the house and out into the garage, a rolling, all-consuming wave of carefully posed and painstakingly reconstructed animal parts. (Though unconditionally supportive, Barb recently drew a line in the sand: "Now that I have a new stove, I won't let him use it to cook heads," she says.)
The mid-1980s were a heady time for taxidermy. "I got in right when everything started going all artistic," Lager says. By the mid-1990s, he had begun seriously entering competitions, taking meticulous note of the judges' criticisms of his work. He notched a couple of second-place finishes before deciding to go all out for top prize.
The coveted and much-admired All-Around Best Taxidermist award is a comprehensive measure of numerous skills, a sort of decathlon of animal preservation. The contestants enter and are judged on four specimens -- a fish, a bird, a full-body mount and a game head. It represents hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of hours of work. "If I'm in it, I'm going to win it," Lager decided, and in 1999, he entered two groups of four mounts.
It was the equivalent of attempting to sweep the Best Cow, Sheep and Goat categories at a 4-H competition. But Lager didn't just win; his separate entries tied for first place.
Like the work of many artists, Lager's best entries are highly personal. His 1999 championship collection included a mount titled "Columbine Forever," featuring an extremely lifelike ptarmigan perched on a granite-looking hand. It was dedicated to Lager's grandson Seth, who cowered for four hours in Columbine High School's library before being one of the last groups of students to escape Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
The fish entry, a small school of walleye, included granddaughter Kristen's first decent-sized catch. The game head, a bighorn sheep, represented Lager's own ten-year quest for the trophy.
The full-body mount was actually a natural diorama, with three Abert squirrels. The piece was personal: Lager had hunted the critters all his life, with his sons and grandchildren. But it also included a realistic touch that served to announce Lager's arrival as top dog.
The scene was a mating drama, with two male squirrels competing for a female. When the judges examined the animals with a magnifying glass -- standard practice -- they discovered that both of the males sported tiny rodent hard-ons. It was a first in high-level taxidermy competition.
Lager never looked back. He snagged top honors over hundreds of regional entrants the following year and again in 2001, and then once more last month. (For the past two years, the winner earned a rather small check, along with a photo op with Irlene Mandrell, Barbara's sister. This year it was someone less well-known. "An actor," Lager says. "They tell me he's made some movies.") In the meantime, he's collected twenty state titles and countless regional awards, bagged product endorsements and become a regular subject of trade-magazine articles.
Lager's determination and élan continue to astonish judges. In 2001, he arrived, as usual, at the NTA's annual convention with his four mounts, representing countless hours of work. But trouble threatened: His game-head entry, another mountain goat, included two front legs. This, he was told, was incorrect and qualified the piece as a life-sized mount.
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A lesser taxidermist might have skulked home, trophy-less. But Lager and Barb repaired to their hotel room. Over the next several hours, operating like an elite dead-animal MASH unit, they scrupulously amputated both legs. When the surgery was complete, Barb thrashed around the shrubs encircling the hotel's swimming pool, returning with several dried-up willow branches. Lager attached them to the mount as last-minute habitat. Another victory.
He also continues to set new standards for verisimilitude. "Like here," he says, indicating a badger during a recent tour through his living room. "The ear is perfect. Or here" -- moving to a bighorn sheep and jamming his finger into its nose. "It's perfect two inches back. Or stick your finger in the ear. All the knobs are perfect."
Being perfect may have driven his father mad -- and, he acknowledges before returning to his studio to reassemble a series of mule-deer parts into a realistic rendition of its formerly alive self, "I like my taxidermy to be perfect.
"But," he adds, "that doesn't bother me, because I know how to make them perfect."