By RYAN HOFFMAN | Rifle Citizen Telegram

RIFLE, Colo. (AP) — The living room in Marianne Alameno-Stanek’s Divide Creek residence is home to faces from all over the world, and their eyes never blink.

Two large grizzly bears from Russia, a baboon from Africa and a mountain lion from the Divide Creek area are just some of the animals in the room. Almost all of them were skinned and stuffed by Alameno-Stanek, whose business, Sportsman’s Barn Taxidermy Co., recently entered its 30th year of operation. The petite 67-year-old identifies as retired but she still operates the business on her own terms because of her affinity for the profession.

That passion is what has helped drive her longevity in a predominantly male field, a fact that is frustrating at times.

“What really makes me mad is when they call and say, `I want to talk to the taxidermist,’ and I say, `Oh, I am the taxidermist,”’ she said of callers expecting to speak to a man. Even after that clarification, some insist that she cannot be the taxidermist.

“It’s a man’s world,” she said. “There’s not very many women taxidermists.”

Occasionally, she’ll hand the phone to her husband, Paul Stanek, and undergo the awkward process of answering questions facilitated through a middleman.

She never hangs up on a caller because, as she says, she cannot be mean. Still, it’s frustrating when she can gut a deer as well as any man, she added.

“I like being scrawny, I like being a girl and I like being a taxidermist.”

The blood and guts, the part of the process she said is typically overlooked when a person sees a mounted creature, does not bother Alameno-Stanek. The daughter of a butcher, she grew up around it and views it as part of life. It was not until she met her late husband, Frank Alameno, in the ’80s that she started dabbling in taxidermy. The two started the business together, and when Frank died in 2009, she took over the entirety of the operations.

MORE THAN JUST A TAXIDERMIST

Standing in her shop where she fleshes the animals, the process of removing the pelt, Alameno-Stanek holds up a picture frame with the first dollar made by the business. The date is Oct. 25, 1985, and she beams with a sense of pride holding the memento.

That is not to say, though, that money is the driving force behind her work. In fact, it’s far from it. It’s really about the people.

“I’m their friend, not just their taxidermist,” she explains.

For that reason, and others, Alameno-Stanek does not advertise her business. Instead, she relies on the relationships with her clients to spread awareness by word of mouth.

The talk has traveled far and introduced Alameno-Stanek to some big names, including the movie star Kevin Costner, she said. In 2004, she stuffed and mounted a mountain lion for Costner, who invited her to his home near Aspen. She has a picture of the mountain lion in Costner’s bedroom.

“His voice was just like in the movies,” she said while remembering the encounter.

More recently, the word of mouth brought Clint Whitley of Divide Creek to Alameno-Stanek. After a recommendation from a mutual friend in 2014, Whitley brought a bear he had killed to her, and then a deer.

Although Whitley has hunted since he was 12, he never had an animal mounted because he could not afford it, he said. Many others, especially younger people, face that same problem, which is why Alameno-Stanek allows her customers to pay in installments. With expensive upfront costs, the practice forces her to put up money before being paid but it’s worth it, she said.

“My clients are not a number, they’re my friends,” she added.

HARD TO MAKE A LIVING

Whitley, who recently brought a bobcat to Alameno-Stanek, appreciates it.

“These guys are wonderful in the fact that they let me bring in a little at a time,” he said.

The deer now graces Whitley’s living room, and when he passes it every day it sparks memories from that hunt more so than a picture could, he added.

While Alameno-Stanek does not know exactly why she loves taxidermy so much, preservation is a big part of it, she said. The skinning can be tedious, especially with smaller animals, and some people have negative views of the profession, all the animals in her living room drive Alameno-Stanek’s mother nuts, she said.

But in preserving nature’s most beautiful creatures for life, Alameno-Stanek sees her and other taxidermists playing in an important role. Ironically, it’s becoming harder and harder to make a living in the profession of preservation.

Alameno-Stanek says she sees fewer clients and knows several younger taxidermists in the area who struggle to earn enough money. If she were still dependent on the business for a living, Alameno-Stanek said she probably could not do it.

Fortunately, her husband Paul still works, and at 67 she has a relatively comfortable life that allows her to continue her work as a taxidermist. And as long as she can physically do the work, she intends on continuing being a taxidermist, and more importantly, a friend to many.