COLUMBIA — Blake Shelton was playing on a boom box when a customer walked into Woodland Wonders Taxidermy in early October carrying a black garbage bag with antlers sticking out of the top.
“That looks like a nice buck,” said Curt Shahan, adjusting the camouflage hat on his head.
He heaved the bag of frozen deer over his shoulder and carried it to the back room where other animals have been deposited.
Shahan, 52, is a skilled taxidermist who owns the shop at 1446 Jade Road, off Interstate 70, east of Columbia. With Missouri’s hunting season under way, he anticipates more buck, does, turkeys and quails to be lugged through his door this fall.
Deer and turkey seasons are profitable
Hunting seasons for most of Missouri’s wildlife take place between September and January, according to the Missouri Department of Conservation.
Popular seasons each year include both deer and turkey hunting. In 2012-13, deer archery season runs Sept. 15 to Jan. 15, although it is suspended from Nov. 10 to Nov. 20, the main portion of the deer firearm season.
Archery turkey season is the same as the archery deer season. Turkey firearm season began Oct. 1 and ends Oct. 31.
Last year, hunters in Boone County harvested 3,499 deer during the combined seasons, and Missouri hunters took 291,598, according to the Conservation Department.
Missouri hunters killed 48,327 turkeys during spring and fall 2011; 504 of those were taken in Boone County.
Busiest season for taxidermists is the fall
Oct. 1 through Dec. 20 is the busiest time for his shop, Shahan said. He said he takes in 80 percent of the year's work during those three months.
On average, Woodland Wonders Taxidermy prepares 160 deer and 10-15 turkeys each year, he said.
During the summer, trophy fish are popular — Shahan figures he mounted 60-70 fish this year. He also worked on four full-size bears and two mountain lions last year.
It costs from $435 up to $3,000 for him to do a life-size mount; prices for game heads range from $435 to $850. He can do a quail for $125, a duck for $250 and a turkey for $600. Adding a base costs extra.
“Every year is a little different,” he said. “ Sometimes I get more turkeys than usual, sometimes I get more mammals, and sometimes I get more fish.”
Fellow taxidermist Jim Cook, owner of Cook’s Midwest Taxidermy, 5419 Clark Lane, has been preserving animals since 1975. A professional taxidermist with more than 35 hunting seasons in Missouri, Cook said he hopes for the best this year.
“I am optimistic for a great harvest and a busy season,” he said.
Some years, Cook said, bitter temperatures and strong winds affect the number of animals brought into the shop. This year, both Cook and Shahan trust that good hunting weather will allow more animals to be harvested and ultimately bring in more business.
It takes months to complete an order
The Missouri Taxidermist Association lists 85 members across the state. Shahan runs his shop alone. Because completion time for each piece can take months, he said he stays busy even when the season is done.
“This is not your typical occupation,” he said. “There is a lot more work involved than it looks like.”
He was working construction before he enrolled in the Northwest Iowa School of Taxidermy in Spirit Lake more than 20 years ago. After completing the eight-week program, he opened Woodland Wonders in 1990 in Millersburg.
The business moved to Columbia in 2003, and the following year, Shahan said, the number of deer brought to the shop increased from 70 to 120.
He doesn't take any of his completed work home with him, he said; he likes to keep it on display at Woodland Wonders.
The front room is furnished with his work, including his favorite pieces, pieces for sale and others waiting to be picked up by customers. Rows of buck and whitetails line the walls, with displays of raccoons, mountain lions, bears and turkeys filling empty space around them.
Shahan’s work space smells of hide paste, which he uses to shape deer on a mannequin. A work bench holds hair gel, paintbrushes, duct tape, thread, a hammer, knives and water poured into a butter container.
With 22 years of experience, Shahan describes taxidermy as a “real artistic profession.”
How animals are reconstructed
Preserving and preparing the hide is a first step. Then he assembles the eyes, ears and mannequin that will be used.
After the skin is put on the mannequin, Shahan sculpts the eyes, ears, mouth and nose. Next, the skin is aligned and the animal is set aside to dry for a few weeks. The final step includes painting and grooming the fur, he said.
He said he pays special attention to the style of the eyes, the position of the ears, the thickness of the mannequin frame, the direction of the neck and the curve of the nose.
Customers can choose from a number of ear positions, from relaxed to semi aggressive. The direction of the neck can be a "semi-sneak" to the left and or right.
His base work involves adding small details to make the animal appear to be in its natural habitat. Sometimes he gets more creative.
One of his pieces displays a buck mounted on a wooden wheel.
“I see it as painting a picture,” he said. “Even though these deer may look the same to the average person, each has different colorations, eyes, ears, positions and capes.”
Sharing knowledge about taxidermy
For two years, Shahan shared his knowledge of taxidermy with students from around the United States. The four-week program covered basics of taxidermy on animals of the student's choice, he said.
Nick Scamuffa, one of his early students, traveled from New Jersey to take his class. After completing the four-week program, Scamuffa took home what Shahan taught him and now does taxidermy part time.
“It is not the easiest skill to learn how to do,” he said, "but Curt is a real straight shooter and a skilled taxidermist.”
Shahan stopped teaching classes this fall in order to focus more on his work in the shop.
Competitions offer showcase for the work
He also showcases his work at competitions, including one organized by the state Taxidermist Association. Judges study each piece with an eye on the technical aspects of taxidermy, Shahan said. They look at overall appearance, as well how the animal's anatomy is reconstructed.
Shahan said he has collected more than 50 awards throughout the years in these competitions. One award he’s most proud of is the "best of category award" he won in 2008 for a whitetail deer at the Missouri Taxidermy Association Competition.
"It is one of those things that you can never get too good at, and it never gets old," he said. "Which is a good thing because hunting season always brings new challenges and new surprises."
The supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.