The best taxidermists in the Midwest will be meeting up this weekend in Columbus for a celebration of fur and fellowship during the Nebraska State Taxidermist Association's (NSTA) annual convention, set to take place at the Ramada Hotel and River’s Edge Convention Center.

The event has been ongoing for the past 35 years, with taxidermists from Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and beyond showing off their greatest creations.

This year, new NSTA President Daryl Keyes, of Columbus, is preparing to host the event for the first time. He has been involved with the NSTA for 16 years and been a member of the board for the past 14. With all of the work that he has to put in for the convention, he isn’t going to be able to find time to show off his own creations. However, he said he is looking forward to welcoming people to Columbus and seeing some old friends.

“I love getting together with all the other guys and gals,” Keyes said. “I just love getting together with everybody and being able to see everyone. We feel like one big family and when we get together we have a lot of fun. We talk about things (that) we are interested in that most other people aren’t.”

For the uninitiated, taxidermy is the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals with lifelike effect. The animal is normally preserved in order to keep its form throughout the taxidermic process. The completed product is normally hung from a wall and showcased to others, whether it’s in a private setting like in Keyes’ office, or in a public setting at the convention. The goal, Keyes says, is to make the mount look as lifelike as possible.

The taxidermists will not only show off their creations to the public, but they will also be competing to win state championships in a variety of different disciplines. Awards for the best bird, fish, mammal and game hens will be presented, in addition to a variety of other special awards provided by association members and sponsors. A blue-ribbon panel of experts will judge the entries.

“We have three different judges,” Keyes said. “One does all mammal and game heads, one does just whitetail (deer) and we have one that does birds and fish. It’s unusual to have someone who does two separate areas, but this judge is very experienced in both areas and highly qualified. We got a twofer out of him.”

Competitors will be scored in a system that NSTA Vice President Todd Kranau compared to school grades. One-hundred to 90 receives first prize, 89-80 receives second prize, 79-70 receives third prize, and so on. Those whose creations are considered of top quality by the judges will receive the coveted Best of Show award.

“The pinnacle is your judge’s choice, Best of Show,” Keyes said. “The judges will collectively go through the room and they will pick what they feel is the best, most accurate, highest quality mount in the whole room.”

Of course, competition is not the only reason why people come to the convention. Both Keyes and Kranau want to educate the broader public on what taxidermy is and how one can spot good taxidermy from bad taxidermy. They also take the time to educate fellow taxidermists on what they can improve regarding their mounts.

“I enjoy helping and educating people and pointing them in the right direction,” Kranau said. “For our taxidermy brothers that aren’t members, I try to solicit them to get involved and come to this thing. You can learn so much and it’s good camaraderie with people in your own trade. I want everybody to become better and it just makes the whole trade better.”

Kranau said he wants those who come to the event to work as hard as they can, no matter if they are a master craftsman or just an amateur getting their hands wet with the trade. He said that it's a learning experience for all, one that can benefit so many people if done right.

“We want everybody to leave with a better understanding and an excitement to try new things, go home and try new methods and leave with some new friendships that they made,” Kranau said. “I don’t think it’s ever about patting yourself on the back that you did better than somebody else. It’s about doing the best you can do. If we all go through life doing the best we can possibly do, that’s what makes America great.”

Zach Roth is a reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at zach.roth@lee.net

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