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Where the Wild Things Are

Taxidermy – She's got game to challenge the best in competition

Paige Galea steps back from the bench to assess her work. The ruffed grouse stares straight ahead, perfectly posed on a round wooden stand, its brown glass eyes glistening. The 10-year-old shakes her head and reaches out to straighten a few feathers. "It has to be symmetrical," she says. "That's what judges look for."

"First, you take the stuff out of it. Them you turn the head inside out and push in clay." To fill the bird's body cavity, Paige meticulously carved a manikin-an anatomical model to replace the bird's skeleton- out of dense Styrofoam. This is a sign of an expert taxidermist, says her father, because "many taxidermists buy manikins from a supplier or use a plaster cast of the body cavity."

Paige will enter the bird in the Canadian Taxidermy Association's Annual Competition and Convention, which starts Saturday in Cambridge and runs through the weekend. The ruffed grouse will join a collection of birds and animals mounted by young taxidermists who hope to take home a red ribbon for their handiwork. It's Paige's first competition and she's nervous. Although there will likely be only 10 competitors in the youth category, their entries are often superior to those of novice adult taxidermists, says show chairman John Taves. "Most- well, 100 per cent- of the entries are children of taxidermists," he says. "But it's something that's artistic. If you don't have it, you don't have it." If taxidermy is in the genes, Paige has got plenty of game. Her father, Shawn Galea, is co-owner of Advanced Taxidermy and Wildlife Design in Inglewood, near Caledon. He and business partner James McGregor are among the winning taxidermists in the world, with more than 30 first-place awards in the master level for their fish recreations. They now judge taxidermy competitions, but only when they can take time away from their hectic business.

Paige has been helping her father mount birds and animals for years. His studio is a 10-minute drive from home, near her middle school. Paige often spends time there after class, lending her able hands to creating the habitat surrounding a bird, animal or fish. "Paige has helped me with lots of habitats," says her father. "She's had her fingers in lots of people's mounts over the years. If only they knew." Dressed in a powder blue skirt with matching blue top complete with bows on the shoulders and white butterflies splashed across the front, Paige is a fetching fifth grader. Today, she is constructing the habitat for the ruffed grouse. She wants the bird to stand on a springy bed of moss and cedar twigs that looks like it has been lightly dusted with snow.

She begins by wrapping cotton batting around the wire supporting the bird's feet, carefully tucking in any stray pieces. Next, she places moss over the cotton batten to form a green mat for the bird to stand on. Paige fields questions about taxidermy while she works. It's clear the girl with the shy smile is an authority on her trade. But when asked how she stuffed the grouse, Paige stops work. "We don't use the term 'stuffed' because it may be offensive to the taxidermist because it implies not a lot of work went into it. We call it mounting. "From her exasperated tone, it seems that this is something Paige has explained many times. "People think it (taxidermy) is really easy, but it's not," she says, turning back to the bench. Eye-to-eye with the ruffed grouse, Paige describes the mounting process.

It was a full day's work several months back. "First, you take the stuff out of it. Them you turn the head inside out and push in clay." To fill the bird's body cavity, Paige meticulously carved a manikin-an anatomical model to replace the bird's skeleton- out of dense Styrofoam. This is a sign of an expert taxidermist, says her father, because "many taxidermists buy manikins from a supplier or use a plaster cast of the body cavity." Paige stretched the bird's skin over the manikin and sewed a neat seam up the middle of its breast. She then pushed wire through the legs, wings and tail to stabilize the bird, wrapped string around its body to keep everything in its place, and positioned all the feathers. After finishing the habitat, Paige will paint the bird's beak, eyes, and feet to bring out their delicate coloring.

Standing with its wings tucked tightly to its body, its tail feathers splayed in perfect symmetry and crown rose in attention; the ruffed grouse looks as if it has just popped out of the bush. Paige knows the grouse well- she used to have one as a pet (the one she's mounting came from one of her father's customers). In her care now are an albino painted leopard gecko named Lizzie, a dog named Wiley, a fire bellied toad, two anoles, and some praying mantis. Paige is an expert swimmer, enjoys baseball, biking and martial arts, loves playing the piano and singing. An avid reader, she often takes her favorite book to read when she sits up a tree on a deer blind while her dad bow-hunts deer. When he shoots one, Paige helps him track it. That she is a taxidermist doesn't bother her many friends. As a country girl who lists counting grogs as a favorite pastime, Paige can't understand squeamishness.

In the studio, she mixes cedar twigs with epoxy-type glue. Using a Popsicle stick and tweezers, Paige delicately places the twigs at the feet of the grouse. "I love seeing what the mount looks like when it's done," Paige says. "I'm happy with this. I wouldn't want to change one thing."

By: Megan Ogilvie
Staff Reporter, The Toronto Star

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