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Tremendous trophies

LEONARD SUNRAM works on adding felt to the bottom of a bear skin rug in his basement workshop at Leonard's Taxidermy.1 / 4
GARRETT AND LEONARD SUNRAM are master taxidermists. They run Leonard's Taxidermy in Detroit Lakes. Leonard has taken seven trips to Africa with clients, and uses the living room space of his house to display some of the exotic animals he's taken from there.2 / 4
GARRETT SUNRAM CAREFULLY PAINTS veins (left) on the underside of a deer tongue. The mount will be used for a competition piece, so every detail, no matter how small or seemingly unnoticeable, will be scrutinized by judges. Once the tongue is in the mouth, the veins are barely visible.3 / 4
Leonard Sunram glues a walleye skin to a foam form in his Detroit Lakes workshop.4 / 4

To walk through Leonard Sunram's house is like walking from the African bush to the north woods, to the western mountains, where every animal is frozen in time, staring blankly at you from the walls.

For a member of PETA, it's a nightmare. For a big game trophy hunter -- it's heaven.

Leonard and his son, Garrett, have perfected their craft and are both considered master taxidermists. They operate Leonard's Taxidermy from Leonard's house in Detroit Lakes. The kitchen, two bathrooms and one bedroom of the home are the only rooms not adorned with mounts the two have made. The extras go to Leonard's cabin.

"Yeah. We've got them all over," he said. "We've got about 150 mounts or more."

The father and son are sometimes like the Odd Couple. Leonard's workspace is strewn with tools crusted over with years of use. His workbench and walls are a canvas for testing his airbrush. Garrett's tools are all neatly organized with nothing on his stainless steel workbench but the project he's currently working on. But where the two come together is their love of the outdoors and their art.

For Leonard, a former homebuilder, what was once a side job and hobby became a full-time business more than 20 years ago.

"Probably about 25 years ago, I threw my hammer away, for the most part," he said. "Word got out (about my taxidermy). Word of mouth is a big thing. I just threw the hammer away because it was so much work doing taxidermy, and I never looked back."

He shot his first deer in 1968 as a 12 year old and got it mounted for $35.

"It was a short, dinky thing with funky eyes and it looked like it was stuffed," he said. "When I got that back from the taxidermist, I looked it over and said, 'Well I can do that,' and there you go. And that's how I got started."

The deer has since been re-mounted, and Leonard said he will probably re-mount it once more because it means so much to him.

Garrett has been part of Leonard's Taxidermy for 10 years, after getting his diploma from the Northwest Iowa School of Taxidermy.

"There are challenges every now and then, especially with a father and son working together. I've been working here full-time for over 10 years and I'm still alive," Garrett said laughing. "Haven't got fired yet."

The Process

The process starts when a hunter or angler brings his latest kill into Leonard's to be mounted. Measurements are taken, a pose is picked out and a foam form is ordered. If the pre-made form isn't exactly right, it can be changed.

"Because the manufacturers make so many (forms), it's hardly worth us sculpting them," Leonard said. "It's better for us to buy something and alter it."

If the mount is a fish, it is wrapped up and placed in one of many freezers to be worked on at a later time. If an animal, the hide is removed, dried out with salt and sent to be cured.

"I've worked on snakes before," Leonard said. "And they give me the willies."

Once cured, the hide or skin is glued, pinned and sewn to a form. A fish head is packed with a filler material to replace the meat of the cheeks. The fins are pinned in position and fanned out using pieces of plastic cut out from milk jugs.

Realistic eyes are added. The mouth is worked on, including an animal's teeth. A pre-formed mouth has white teeth, so the teeth are painted yellow for realism, Garrett said.

Painting comes next.

"Just about all of the final painting (on a fish) is airbrush," Leonard said. "To begin with, I might do some detail work with a paintbrush but then the final painting is airbrush."

An animal's fur gets a final sheen using a spirit rubbed on with a cloth, while a fish gets a coat of glaze. The animal is then ready to be mounted, whether it's on a piece of driftwood, a fabricated foam rock scene or just a wooden plaque.

If the customer desires, a diorama display can be created as a finishing touch.

"Grass, leaves, rocks, twigs. Sometimes we make real nice dioramas," Leonard said. "By the time we get done, it's really dressed up nice."

Competition Pieces

For a competition piece, Garrett will go so far as to mold parts from the actual animal to make it as real as possible.

"I actually cast (a mouth) from an actual dead deer. I'll shape it in the freezer and get it the way I want it, then make a rubber mold of it and a casting of it," he said. "Just this mouth alone on this (competition) deer, I'll spend a week on."

Garrett usually creates several competition pieces per year, which are special side projects for him. This year, he is working on four, and puts in countless hours creating the perfect mount.

"It takes a lot of work," Garrett said. "Just studying anatomy and being an artist and being able to recreate real life."

Garrett took first place honors in 2011 in the whitetail masters division through the Minnesota Taxidermy Guild -- one of only three awards given statewide, Leonard proudly points out.

"Once you've won first place in the masters (division), you can sing Glory Hallelujah," Leonard said. "It's a heck of a high honor."

The guild competition is just weeks away, and Garrett has been feverishly putting the finishing touches on another project -- a foam rock base for a dall sheep.

"I really love doing it," he said scraping a piece of rock. "It feels like work sometimes, but I pretty much like every day coming into work and putting stuff together. It's a lot of fun."

"The business has been good for us," Leonard said. "Surviving as many years solely -- 25 years -- of depending on taxidermy and we're still alive. How many father and sons work together like this?"