Monkeys and zebras and bears, oh my! And that doesnt begin to describe the many different kinds of animals Marilyn Nihiser of rural Highland has carefully preserved with taxidermy over the past quarter of a century.
I enjoy the beauty of them all, stressed Nihiser, 67, who also owns the meat processing business Troy Foods with husband Don. Her life as a taxidermist began in 1987 when she learned the basics from a self-study course.
I needed to build my Social Security credits for retirement, and I wanted something that would work well with our existing business, she said.
Though some might be put off by the gorier aspects of the work, Nihiser was well prepared from her upbringing on a family farm east of Carlyle and her work at Troy Foods.
Growing up on the farm as the youngest of two girls, my father considered me his son. I worked the fields, tended to the farm animals, and when the work was done, Dad would say, Marilyn, lets go hunting.
Hunting included the skinning and cleaning of the game. That and helping with the butchering of our farm pigs and chickens enabled me to skin wild game in our meat processing plant. And skinning deer led me into the taxidermy business.
As a taxidermist, Nihiser has received many accolades. A large piece with two African monkeys earned her the prestigious Delia Akeley Award at the 2010 National Taxidermy Convention and was featured in several top taxidermy publications.
But she didnt turn into a star taxidermist overnight. Far from it, she said.
Working late into the night, she painstakingly completed her first taxidermy pieces -- a squirrel, a mallard duck, a fox and two frogs - to get her taxidermy diploma.
Looking back, she says they werent good work, but two things that happened soon after helped her improve her skills immensely over the years.
She found a helpful mentor - Hagan Thompson, an expert taxidermist from Las Vegas, Nevada. After learning that she was a recent taxidermy grad while he was visiting others in Troy, he initiated what would become a lifelong friendship.
Thompson helped her mount her first deer, offered advice and guidance on many others occasions, and, in 1997, coordinated the month-long African safari on which Nihiser got most of the exotic animals she now has on display at her home and business.
She also joined the Illinois Taxidermy Association and began participating in its conventions and competitions.
I made a total fool of myself many times by taking things to competition (that werent up to par), but I learned from others there. And Im still learning.
She frequently encounters people with many misconceptions about taxidermy.
The only thing thats real is the skin (and antlers, if present), she explained. Taxidermy is completely different from freeze-drying, which retains muscle and bone.
The time-intensive, multi-step process includes taking meticulous measurements before skinning the animal, essential to the success of the final piece. The skin is then cleaned, preserved and tanned.
She assembles materials based on customer requests for the piece. Projects can be life size, pedestal, shoulder mount, etc., with or without environment included. Final steps include assembling the skin on a form closely matched to the size and type of animal, making adjustments as needed and completing the finishing details.
Every year Nihiser estimates she does 50-75 deer, up to a dozen bears and a variety of other animals. (She doesnt do bird or fish taxidermy.)
She says shes stayed with taxidermy all these years because she loves animals and admires their beauty in the completed pieces.
I love animals. I think you have to love animals to do this.