CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) - Bryan Nygren knew by age 6 that he wanted to be a game warden, and that, indeed, became his career for about 25 years.
It was not his only interest in wildlife, however; he soon picked up the art of taxidermy as well.
"I started doing this when I was 12 and ordered the pamphlet Lessons in Taxidermy. I did birds and squirrels over the years, and gained more and more experience," Nygren said.
For many years, he did taxidermy for family members and his hunting buddies.
About seven years ago, he turned this hobby into a business.
"Taxidermy kind of evolved as (I was) a game warden. I built dozens of decoys for the Game and Fish Department to target people spotlighting at night and to catch people road hunting (from vehicles) in the daytime," he said.
Nygren retired after 25 years as a warden with the U.S. Department of Game and Fish, and today is busier than ever with his taxidermy. At Nygren's retirement party, the theme was "From cuffing poachers to stuffing animals."
"I spent 25 years outdoors, and now I'm in the shop," he said. "I do about 100 pieces a year. That's a lot for me."
Nygren does mostly common species, such as mule deer, pronghorn antelope, elk, oryx, bobcat and mountain lion. He accepts work from local area hunters in New Mexico and Texas, as well as out-of-state hunters.
"I ship game heads to California, Florida and New York. There are hunters who fly in here to hunt. They leave the head, and I'll ship it to them," he said, noting he tells all hunters not to expect the finished mount for at least a year.
"A lot of elk and antelope hunting here is done by nonresidents," he added.
The whole process begins when a hunter brings in a head with hide attached. It immediately goes into one of his three freezers to kill ticks.
"All deer have ticks," Nygren said.
When it comes out of the freezer the cape is then removed from the animal head and the flesh from the cape. The hide is then salted for two days to dehydrate it so it doesn't spoil. An ID number is punched in the hide to identify it with the customer. The hide is then returned to the freezer while waiting to be sent to a tannery.
"When it comes back from the tannery it looks like a chamois. It's preserved and very pliable," Nygren said, noting that it goes back in the freezer.
The hide is then rehydrated and measurements are taken to assure ordering the right size mannequin for mounting. Then the artistic work begins by setting antlers and the eyes. He orders eyes according to species and uses potter's clay to set them in the sockets of the mannequin. He then has to form and paint the eye area.
"That's the most challenging part of the detail," Nygren said.
The sewing begins after the clay and eye work are done. A long needle is used to sew the cape; then it is pinned in place, and hide paste is used between the skin and mannequin. Bondo is applied to the ears to make them rigid.
"I use reference photos that help you get the hair patterns in line. The objective is to restore the animal as life-like as possible," Nygren said.
"There's a lot of work to restore muscles and expression in the face," he added, explaining that more putty work is done to fill in various places and airbrushing is done to put color back where needed during finishing.
"You try to restore the actual color, which gives the life-like appearance," he said.
Although each piece is individual, an average wall mount mule deer will take about 10 hours of varying tasks scattered over a period of time. The full body mountain lion mount he is currently working on will take him and two helpers 25 hours over a period of time.
"There's a lot of time invested," he said, noting there was 15 feet of sewing on the mountain lion.
Nygren said most all his taxidermy jobs come in the fall. He spends the winter months fleshing, salting and getting hides sent to the tannery so he can begin mounting in the spring.
The customer selects the mannequin pose and the type of base or habitat he wants, according to whether he's chosen a table top or wall mount. Sometimes the customer wants a full body mount. Again, it's customer preference.
"Taxidermy is all about the hunter who wants to remember that hunt and who was with him when he got his trophy animal," he said. Others, however, just want to purchase an artistic piece to decorate their home.
Skull or horn mounts are very involved and require boiling to remove the flesh and preserve bone. A lot of hunters bring in mule deer, porcupine, jackrabbits and javelina for this kind of mount.
He and his wife Marcia have three boys and all are interested in wildlife professions.
"I'm a true sportsman," Nygren said. "It's a heritage for me. It's been in my family as long as I can remember."