Born to the job

As a child, Marco Pilon would take apart his plush animals, examine the insides, then sew them up again.

Marco Pilon works on a great horned owl.

Marco Pilon works on a great horned owl.

As a child, Marco Pilon would take apart his plush animals, examine the insides, then sew them up again.

As a teenager, he experimented with stuffing gopher hides right at the kitchen table. Pilon explains he had extremely supportive — some would say indulgent — parents, who turned a blind eye to the mess as long as he cleaned up afterwards.

“My mother always said I’d either grow up to be a taxidermist or a surgeon.”

The 43-year-old is now the owner of Sugar Creek Taxidermy Studio in Red Deer, and is becoming nationally known for his artistry.

At the National Taxidermy Championship Awards held in Orillia, Ont., earlier this month, Pilon’s exhibits took eight first place ribbons and four second-place ribbons. The first-time competitor landed two best-in-show prizes for game and animal-in-habitat displays, three best-in-category ribbons, a people’s choice award, and prize for best large life-sized mammal.

One of the judges called him an “amazing talent,” especially since he’s a self-taught taxidermist.

“She told me ‘If you keep doing this, I can see you at the world championship,’ ” recalled Pilon, who can’t explain why exactly why he’s so good at recapturing the subtle nuances of live animals.

No one else in his family ever did taxidermy — none of his relatives even hunt.

“For me, this is very, very much an art,” said Pilon, who researches animals from photos, videos and the Internet.

He credits his passion for his work and attention to detail for his success — and also the support of his wife, Nancy, and his indulgent parents.

Besides being an outdoorsman, Pilon has a good knowledge of animal physiognomy. He paints wildlife in his spare time and has a background in biology — he used to work as a habitat technologist for Alberta Fish and Wildlife, was an interpretive naturalist for the Kerry Wood Nature Centre and a bird bander for Ellis Bird Farm.

He attempts to depict each taxidermed deer, moose, bear, cougar, owl, or lynx as if it’s caught in an unguarded moment. This can mean creating a wet nose for a moose, or putting a piece of foliage in a deer’s mouth.

More and more, Pilon is going for unusual poses and less stereotypical facial expressions, which require reconfiguring portions of the pre-formed polyurethane molds he stretches the animal hides over. “We do a lot more custom alterations,” according to customer preference, he said.

For instance, Pilon has cut off the lower jaw portion of a roaring bear mould and reattached it so the animal’s mouth is only slightly open. For the prize-winning ram’s head, Pilon has painstakingly glued real ram’s teeth into the head mount. To do this, he had to first cut away the polyurethane teeth and cement the real ones into the jaw with clay.

Pilon noted three of the prizes he won at the national competition were for animal mounts he created for customers — “so that shows we work as hard on other people’s (projects) as we do on our own.”

While hunters are his main customers, Pilon has also reworked hides from road-kill, such as a young fawn he’s depicted as if asleep in a meadow, amid wildflowers. People are occasionally aghast that the fawn was shot — until Pilon explains it wasn’t.

The taxidermist, who also creates rock and other animal habitat, stressed that he won’t work on hides unless hunters bring in documentation to show the animal was shot legally, with a valid permit and hunting licence.

He admits one of the three teenage daughters he’s raising with his wife had strong anti-hunting views — until she started seeing a boy who is a hunter. “I always told her, ‘Be careful what you say,’ ” because you might someday think otherwise.

The only animals Pilon won’t work on are people’s deceased pets.

He recalls one devastated man called him up recently to ask him to preserve his dog after it was killed by a car. “I just about broke down and did it,” but in the end he declined.

Pilon explains, as a pet owner himself, he would find it emotionally difficult. “And without knowing your pet’s personality, it would be very hard to recreate it.”

lmichelin@bprda.wpengine.com