Inside a taxidermy shop

In Western Colorado, bringing “life” to freeze-framed wild animals.

  • Fred Penasa sews up the skin of an oryx, an antelope relative native to East Africa, which was hunted on a game farm in Texas. Penasa specializes in bringing the big game of North America to life.

    Brooke Warren/High Country News
 

Fred Penasa, the proprietor of Southwest Taxidermy in Montrose, Colorado, rubs his whitening beard with a hand scarred from countless scalpel nicks and sewing needle punctures. We’re gazing into the glass pupils of a ram he shot in the San Juan Mountains. Winner of the 2006 Colorado State Taxidermy Championship in the Professional Division, this particular specimen will be descending a “rocky ridge” dusted with “snow” for the foreseeable future.             

“It’s the animal, sure, but it’s also knowing where it lived, the wilderness it called home, how hard those winters can get,” Penasa says. “I’m thinking about the story, about how it all went down, and I’m trying to recreate that story for my client. Maybe it was early morning. Maybe a raven had just flown by and the ram was turning, glancing backwards. …”  

Over the last hour, Penasa has led me through his almost-2,000-square-foot shop and the quasi-magical process by which he earns a living. How else to describe the transformation of, say, an inside-out bobcat hide — stiff and pink like old chewing gum — into a fierce-looking feline that might leap from its mount at any moment? Or take the grizzly I’ve walked past a dozen times now, each encounter shivering my spine; the bear is deader than dead, but its careful preparation expresses an intimate biological knowledge and brings startling life to its freeze-framed roar. 

Decades of meticulous labor have made it difficult for Penasa to see the animals he takes apart and reassembles as “wholes” rather than as “pieces.” That’s not to say he lacks appreciation — the bighorn is “majestic, just plain majestic” — but that his default setting is hyperfocus, what he calls “looking and looking again.”

In the early 1990s, channeling his childhood passion for hunting — which is a piece of his broader passion for just staring at mountain goats and pronghorn antelope through binoculars — Penasa, a carpenter, signed up for a nine-week course at the Montana School of Taxidermy and Tanning. With all the steps from skinning and fleshing to “building your form” and “designing your habitat” under his belt, he started his business. He estimates that it’s one of 200 or so full-time taxidermy outfits in Colorado. 

“There’s a high turnover rate with these backyard shops,” he explains. “A lot of guys get into taxidermy thinking it’s all glory, all trophy bucks, but you’ve got to really work hard to establish your reputation. My first five years, I was still a carpenter, doing taxidermy at night and on the weekends. I was going nonstop, trying to get things right.”

While a commitment to accuracy — to realism — has long been the hallmark of topnotch wildlife artists, the profession has changed significantly since the early 1900s, both in regard to materials and techniques. To illustrate the progression from “back in the day,” when the old-timers used scrap lumber and papier-mâché to make their forms, Penasa ushers me into a closet where a spooky mountain goat resides. Head sort of lumpy, nose a weird crust, eyes pale and flat, the creature resembles a cheap costume in a bad monster movie. “We use foam manikins now,” Penasa says. “Synthetic antler reproductions, all sorts of fancy stuff.”

Having shut the thing back into its cell, Penasa leads me into the main studio, a clean, bright, high-ceilinged space with smocks hanging from a nail in the wall and an assortment of tools — drawknives to paintbrushes — cluttering shelves and workbenches. It’s somewhat reminiscent of an elementary school art classroom, if you disregard the numerous shoulder-mounted ungulates in various states of finish: shiny bolts protruding in lieu of antlers, tear ducts in need of touching up. 

Penasa insists that despite 25 years of experience and 5,000 North American mammals to his credit, he’s still got much to learn. “A big part of it is just studying the animals, knowing what they look like,” he says. “Before Google, I was cutting photos from magazines, organizing all these scraps in folders, using them as references. How do the nostrils go?”  He dumps a soggy, supple elk hide out of a white garbage bag, where it’s been rehydrating in preparation for gluing to a foam form. “The art is making it natural. You’re trying for perfection, but you can’t ever reach perfection. You can’t ever be good enough.”

He leans over the hide, inspecting something minute. My attention wanders, coming to rest on a nearby mule deer, two beads of dew clinging to its whiskers; they’re the tiniest of pinpricks, and yet they glisten, throw sparks of light.          

“Mod Podge, just a couple drops,” Penasa says, smiling, perhaps remembering the many hours spent molding that deer’s ears from auto Bondo, its face from clay — perhaps remembering the satisfaction of applying that last dab of glue. “Brings the story in again, right?  It’s morning, he’s roaming the meadow, and now maybe he’s hearing something, looking up, wondering. …”



Leath Tonino’s writing appears in Outside, Orion, The Sun and other magazines.

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