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Life like

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | June 10, 2010 9:00 PM

COEUR d'ALENE - The bobcat looks alive.

You know it's not, but it's there in Sean West's shop, perfectly still, looking around from its perch, eyes wide open.

The Coeur d'Alene man admires his work that just earned him three awards at the Idaho Taxidermist Association's 11th annual Convention and Competition June 3-5 at the Red Lion Inn in Lewiston: First place, life-size bobcat; "Best of Category" life-size bobcat; and highest scoring in "Taxidermist Challenge."

The show itself can be overwhelming with all the talent there.

"It's a humbling experience as a taxidermist to go to one of these," West said. "You walk in there, you're all proud, you're excited, you think you've got a blue ribbon, you walk through there and you see some of the amazing work that these guys do, and the air is just let out of your sails."

But this time, West sailed to the front.

The owner of Captured Expressions Taxidermy has been in the field just six years, and has already racked up awards and clients across the country.

Customers include Jeremy Affeldt, a pitcher for the San Francisco Giants; Brian Fuentes, a pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, Jim Burnworth, producer and host of the Outdoor Channel show "Western Extreme," Ray Bunny, host of the Outdoor Channel show "Adventures Abroad," and Keith Mark, host of the Outdoor Channel show "McMillan River Adventures."

West takes pride in doing his best, a reason, he says, that he has accumulated a solid client base.

"They come to me because of the standards I hold, and they know their trophies are safe with me," he said. "It all stems from having high quality work."

He recalled that when he first got started, he wasn't happy with the quality of his work. But by attending competitions and "finding out who the best in the world is and taking classes from them," he quickly improved.

The bobcat that claimed honors early this month was the result of West's studying anatomy, reviewing skeletal articulation, muscle attachment points and hair patterns and closing his shop for two weeks to focus on a single project.

"This is what we ended up with," West said.

He loves to stay sharp for the competitions.

"It's what motivates us to do better," the 42-year-old said. "The industry changes so much, you really need to compete every other year in order to understand what's going on."

He noted that the judge gave him a 94 out of 100 for the bobcat.

"The good news is the things that he picked out, I'm going to fix and take it to the nationals next year in South Dakota," he said. "And then, it will retire."

West was an RV mechanic before deciding he needed a new career. The longtime hunter said he has developed great appreciation for wildlife and said taxidermy was something he wanted to do to honor the animals he or others wanted to keep as trophies.

"Once I hit the mid- to late-30s, my body didn't want to work as hard as it used to work. The funny thing is, I put in more hours now and work harder than I did then," he said with a laugh. "It has been a very long process for me the last six years, but now it's satisfaction, it's pure enjoyment."

Taxidermy, he says, is an art form. Consider you can pay hundreds of dollars for a reprint of a painting or picture. What a taxidermist creates won't be repeated. Ever. One and done.

"You can never get another one of these," he said. "This is it. This is a one-of-a-kind piece of art, and you get to hang it in your house and appreciate it."

His shop shows off much of his talent. There's a massive moose he's working on in the center of the room. Numerous deer trophies are on the wall. A fox is posted up high on a wall, while a wolverine, claws and fangs bared, stands in a corner. There's a fish, a turkey and bee hives on branches, too, throughout the spacious shop.

Numerous plaques and ribbons on the wall over the doorway are evidence of the awards he's received.

"I still have room to grow. I will continue to compete," he said. "I will continue to go to seminars and I will continue to listen to the experts."

He is a believer in motivation and repeats a quote by William A. Foster, a United States Marine who received the Medal of Honor for his actions during World War II during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945:

"Quality is never an accident; it is always the result of high intentions, sincere effort, intelligent direction and skillful execution. It represents the wise choice of many alternatives."

To succeed as a taxidermist, West said, you must have perseverance and always be looking to learn more and understand the anatomy of the animals you're working on.

"You have to have the drive and motivation. You can't quit. You've got to stick with it. You can't get complacent," he said.

West said his industry changes fast, with new developments and techniques continually arising.

Where once a plastic jaw set was standard, now the use of real jaw sets and resculpting the gum lines is the norm. It used to be most people were happy if the hide and horns pretty much looked OK. No longer. Detail is demanded.

"It's insane how far guys are going now. You've just got to stay on top of it," West said. "Eventually somebody's going to figure out how to make it look like one of these is breathing."

Yes, a guy name Sean West.

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