BUFFALO — In the corner of the showroom, even among other bighorn sheep, antelope and mule deer, the mountain lion stands out. He rests on a wooden stand, posed atop a shale outcrop, mountain mahogany sprouting from a crack. He watches, brow ever-so-slightly furrowed, eyes cooly focused, like a cat eyeing a mouse it can't be bothered to chase.
This mountain lion, created by Johnson County-based taxidermist Dave Long, was the recipient of the Carl Akeley award at the 2022 World Taxidermy Championships, among many other awards. When Long lays out all the awards the piece received at the Wyoming championships and the world championships, there are four plaques, three ribbons, two gold medallions, a buckle and a trophy.
But the Carl Akeley award stands out, one of the most prestigious awards a taxidermist can receive.
"I'm still in awe of it all," Long said.
The world championships are a biennial event, held alternatively in Europe and America. This year it was held in Springfield, Missouri, at the end of May.
Long entered the mountain lion with the encouragement of his family and of judges at the Wyoming state championships, where he'd already received numerous awards this year, including best in show.
Long, his father, stepmother and 13-year-old son packed their things and headed to Springfield for the weeklong competition. He didn't have any expectations to win — let alone the coveted Carl Akeley award, equivalent, Long said, to the best in show.
But when, surrounded by his family, Long did win, it was one of the best feelings of his life.
“When they called my name and put the picture of it up on the screen, I was just shaking. It's really hard to put into words, but I was just ecstatic and surprised, in a way. Just tons of different emotions running through me," Long said. "But the best part of it all … to have my dad and my son there with me, that was the best part."
Taxidermy runs in the Long family. Long's father, John Long, started Trophies Unlimited Taxidermy in Johnson County 40 years ago. Long has memories of his father working in the basement at their house on North DeSmet, perfecting his art and then trying to find a way to haul it up the stairs.
As a child, Long helped out, learning from his father, and in 2016, he began working full time at the business, now located in a full-sized shop. It was a natural fit, he said, especially with his father by his side.
“I understand how fortunate I am to have been around it my entire life and to have the mentor I have, and then not only to have that mentor, but for it also to be my dad," Long said. "It's pretty special."
Like his father and grandfather before him, Long's son also has an artist's instinct. His medium is clay, Long said, and he has spent many hours sculpting figures, some from Marvel Comics, others from his own imagination.
More recently, Long's son has expressed an interest in taxidermy.
Like his father, Long said he'll be there to help when — or if — his son decides to try out the family art form.
"The first piece he does," Long said, "I'll be right by his side."
These days, Long spends much of his time finishing the pieces that the seven-person shop produces, applying the last touches that bring each animal back to life. It's rewarding, he said, to see a tanned hide transform — through weeks of work — into something akin to what the creature was in real life.
Long said he's taxidermied animals from every continent except Antarctica, and the shop's walls are covered in projects from different places: a bear from Alaska, a mountain goat from Canada, two savannah buffalo from Africa.
His customers, too, hail from a wide array of countries.
But the award-winning mountain lion was for someone closer to home; it was a gift for his brother’s birthday.
On a hunting trip with his father, Long’s brother harvested the mountain lion near Kaycee when he was 13, almost 20 years ago. They kept the hide but never got around to doing anything with it. Even though the family business is taxidermy, they rarely do work for themselves, Long said.
From the beginning, he said, he wanted to do something unique but unassuming. He prefers simple poses, as opposed to more "outlandish" postures. And while he normally has to fulfill the customer's vision, this time he had complete creative freedom.
Long chose a half life-size sculpture, eliminating the rear half of the mountain lion. He rests in a relaxed position, paws out, mouth closed. His head is turned to the left, the muscles in his neck flexing as he gazes into the distance. His face is the most striking. There's a softness to the features that conceals the painstaking work beneath the skin.
Long said that he receives the most comments — from experts and non-experts alike — about the lion's face. It's the symmetry and the softness, he said, that creates the feeling that the mountain lion really is watching.
"There's no harsh lines. He's very full and soft. And, you know, that's how they are when they're alive, you know what I mean?" Long said.
He said he doesn't do taxidermy to win awards. But the part of the Carl Akeley award that he's proudest of and points to when talking about it is embedded in the judging criteria, where it specifies that the piece must be a “beautiful and valid form of wildlife art and portray the subject with taste and dignity."
For Long, his work comes as close as possible to giving the animals another life.
“This is kind of preserving, I guess, that animal's life in the best way possible," he said.