By LIZ MCCUE | North Platte Telegraph

NORTH PLATTE, Neb. (AP) — It's been over 40 years since Barry Johnson first taught himself to strip the skin from an animal and place it on a form.

His taxidermy business just north of North Platte is now known nationwide, and his shop contains animals from around the world.

It's pretty easy to start as a taxidermist, Johnson said, but there aren't many who do it full time. In a 50-mile radius, about 20 people do taxidermy, but Johnson is one of few who make their total income from it.

“I haven't had to depend solely on the local market to stay in business,” he told the North Platte Telegraph.

He works with exotic animals from Europe, Africa and Asia just as much as he does deer, pheasants and antelope from Nebraska. Not many taxidermists have sculpted the mount for a giraffe. Johnson is on his third.

His shop is full of surprises, with zebras and longhorn cattle, bobcats in mid-frolic, pine martens and opossums.

In downtown North Platte, Marla and Greg Varg are continuing the business that Marla's aunt and uncle, Betty and Wally Allison, began over 40 years ago. Marla has worked in their shop for 17 years and took over just two years ago.

They take animals from hunters and anglers, too, but also offer opportunities for those who want to take a little bit of nature home without using their own bow or gun.

“Anything raised on a game farm can be sold,” Marla said.

Game farms can raise pheasants, chukar, quail and other animals, which the Vargs purchase, mount and sell in their store. Animals they've shot or received from customers cannot be resold. Ducks, for example, are federally protected.

It's interesting, Marla said, that she can see how a season is doing by which animals come in. She suspects there may be a resurgence in pheasants, more hunters came in with wild birds to mount this year.

Einar Golden, who runs Golden Taxidermy south of town, had orders for 85 deer this past year.

“It's either feast or famine,” Golden said.

He has owned Golden Taxidermy for four years. Before him, his father, Tim Golden, ran the business for 27 years.

“All it is, is art,” Golden said, “and a lot of work.”

It takes a lot of work to become good at the art, too. There are tutorials for people who want to try taxidermy themselves. It can be done with just a form, knife and a garage _ but there are a lot of steps in between skinning and mounting.

Johnson, for example, carves each form to fit the skin of each individual animal, whether it's a giraffe, a zebra, a squirrel or a coyote. The smaller the animal, the greater the challenge, which is why a bobcat has a larger pricetag than a deer.

His wife, Sheila, does the painting and habitat for each animal.

The anatomy of the animal also has to be researched to make outstretched wings look natural or a leaping bobcat look ready to spring from a base. Johnson has files full of images, with references for motion and native habitat.

The Vargs have a freeze-drying machine that can help speed the process for certain requests. Velveted antlers can be mounted after a turn in the pressurized, minus 60-degree Fahrenheit chamber. Marla said she thinks her aunt and uncle purchased the machine in the 1970s. It's still not a widely-used process in taxidermy, she said. They offer the service to other taxidermists in the area, too.

Each taxidermist works closely with the customers on how they want animals mounted and where they think they'll be placed in a home or business, but sometimes a little leeway for creativity is needed.

Greg Varg said they once had several hunters bring in Sandhill cranes they shot in Texas, where it is legal to hunt the birds. Three said pose the birds standing, but a fourth asked the Vargs to go with their instincts, to make it look cool. So they made it dance.

“You have to trust your taxidermist,” Greg said. “Give them the range to make that animal as beautiful as it can be.”

Taxidermists immortalize creatures from across the country and around the world

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Information from: The North Platte Telegraph, http://www.nptelegraph.com