Better Off Dead

Young children look at exhibits at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum on July 11, 2006 in Glasgow, Scotland. The gallery reopened today after a three year GBP28m refurbishment. Before its closure in 2003 it was the most popular UK museum outside London, every year attracting more than one million visitors. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images) Getty Images

Out west is where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play — except the ones stuffed and up on a wall.

The deer and antelope are joined by creatures great and small rolling in from around the world for the National Taxidermy Championship in Billings, Mont.

They're primped, groomed and coiffed down to the last whisker, lavished with expensive skin care products, treated to nose jobs, eye jobs — whole skull jobs — I wish the mortician had put in half this much time on grandma, quips CBS Sunday Morning contributor Bill Geist.

After all that work, they are ready for their close-ups and entry into this all-species beauty pageant for inanimate animals.

"Some of these animals probably look better than they did when they were walking around in the woods," one participant notes.

Fans come to admire these lovelies by the thousands. Taxidermy is in, appearing in hip bars and restaurants, decorating magazines and high end stores like Bergdorf's in Manhattan. Popular TV personalities have them as accent pieces in their own homes.

Still, a lot of people wouldn't be caught dead here. To them, there's still something a little bizarre and something a little creepy about stuffed animals and the men who mount them.

To combat the grim image the industry exudes, taxidermists call it wildlife artistry — the animals realistic in every detail and set in natural habitats.

Contestants attend seminars, take educational field trips, and shop for new, improved body parts. There are whole plastic manikins ready to be wrapped in skins.

With all of this training and new technology, competition is keen and judges brutally exacting.

To win, the wildlife artistry must be perfect, inside and out.

In taxidermy as in life, the new millennium presents new challenges for the old school.
  • Sean Alfano

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