In the cavernous convention center in St. Charles, Missouri, I make my way past a zebra tossing a lioness 15 feet into the air and a life-size great white shark chasing a baby seal. The animal world’s great predators—lions, cougars, leopards, wolves—line the exhibit aisles along with a Cape buffalo, a blackbuck antelope, and a rattlesnake. As visitors arrive for the World Taxidermy Championships, they pass a giraffe whose neck and head have been mounted as if it were about to take a drink. The animal’s body is gone; inside the neck is a little tableau of three miniature giraffes leisurely munching tiny treetops.
Not every feat of taxidermy qualifies as art. But as the art of taxidermy has endured and evolved, it has given form to a paradox in wildlife conservation: that men and women passionate enough to kill have sometimes been passionate enough to protect.
An adolescent taxidermy student named Theodore Roosevelt grew up to be an avid big game hunter. He also co-founded a game preservation society that laid the groundwork for U.S. wildlife conservation today. For years I’ve investigated international wildlife crime, exposing its carnage in articles, documentaries, and a book, but it was my time as a boy taxidermist that helped set me on that path.