- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 20, 2002

THE PLAINS, Va. — Forty miles from the Capital Beltway, a unique menagerie of deer, ducks and the odd skunk is frozen in time.The animals are the creations of the family of Lewis Francis Lee Sr., which has practiced the craft of taxidermy for three generations. Four of Mr. Lee's descendants mold cleaned, preserved animal skins over carefully fashioned forms, stitching, grooming and resetting horns. They add artificial eyes, tongues, teeth, gums and a pose until they have created a lifelike semblance.
Mr. Lee, known as Francis, started the business in 1951, moving what until then had been a hobby from his basement to his smokehouse and later to the white batten-board building graced with green trim where two sons and two grandsons work now at Lee Taxidermy, 5430 Merry Oaks Road in The Plains.
"I think his classmates in grade school called him 'Daniel Boone,'" Stephen Lee, 37, says of his grandfather, as he presses shredded wood into a pheasant's shape.
Using a spritz of water and techniques his grandfather who died 11 years ago taught him, Stephen Lee compacts the "wood wool" (a product also used to pack fine china), adds a layer, binds it with twine and repeats the steps until the result satisfies him.
This morning, he is repairing a mount that features a fox leaping on a log as a pheasant takes wing. A customer's Labrador retriever found the bird convincing enough to grab it and tear it apart.
"It's the strangest thing he'd looked at it for years," says a chuckling Stephen Lee, who inherited the small-game specialty including mammals, birds and waterfowl from his grandfather.
Even in mid-July, long away from any hunting season, there's plenty of work for all four Lees in the business Stephen; his father, Lewis Francis Lee Jr., known as Lewis; uncle Robert; and younger brother Kevin.
Salting, freezing and tanning halt decay so the hides of caribou, elk or an African kudu killed months ago and far away can wait until the taxidermists have time to mount them.
There's also more than a little work from roadkill brought in by customers.
Deer are common casualties, as are dozens of bears struck by cars in Virginia and Maryland each year. The bear cub standing on its hind legs inside the Lees' showroom door was felled by a car. So were a few skunks the Lees have done but "discourage" for obvious reasons.
This year is so busy that Lewis Lee says he will not go to the Wyoming ranch the family has leased for years.
With evening help from Kevin Lee, 33, a Warrenton banker, the taxidermists annually mount upward of 250 deer, 100 bears and assorted birds, fish and mammals.
They can finish mounting four or five deer heads in a day like bearskin rugs, the heads take less time than a full body mount.
Lewis Lee, 59, does most of the big-game work, such as the warthog standing by the bear cub. Hunters and fishermen, he says, are better conservators than the general public.
It would be hard to get illegal game past the Lees, who can tell an out-of-season deer by its coat or fowl by its plumage. "I can tell in a heartbeat," Lewis Lee says, "but we won't take one through the door until they have permit in hand."
That policy extended to a school, which had to get a permit for the smallest animal the Lees have mounted, a hummingbird that flew into a window and died.
The big one that got away? An overseas company moving to the United States asked for an estimate on an elephant if the beast the company's mascot didn't survive the voyage. The job would have required a crane and a larger building, running the price to about $100,000.
Fortunately for the animal and the company's bank account, the elephant survived.
Although Francis Lee, the founder of the business, learned taxidermy on the go picking up tips in Austria as a soldier in World War II and through a mail-order course his son Lewis, honed his craft in a taxidermy program at the University of Iowa in Iowa City that included course work prescribed for medical and dental school candidates.
He spent hours studying in the university's natural-history museum and preparing lots of bird skins for practice. Long before that, he had watched his mother do finish work, like the teeth and gums on a massive elk that busied him one recent morning.
His younger brother, Robert (yes, Robert E. Lee), 56, is the fish specialist. He sometimes uses fish skins, stitching them over forms, but he also spends muchof his time working from photographs, creating reproductions of what anglers landed.
Most of those whopper specimens seen arcing across restaurant and clubroom walls are castings crafted from molds and painted to simulate the size, color and characteristics of the fish caught.
"It started with billfish, like marlin people wanted to release those fish, not kill them," Lewis Lee says.
The Lees have accumulated quite a few molds over time. With business brisk at this time, they usually start with one of the many sizes and shapes of pre-made forms, sculpting and adding as needed.
Even when using real fish skins, Robert Lee must painstakingly re-create all the color because it disappears quickly once a fish is out of water.
There's another surprise about fish out of water, so to speak.
"A lot of our business comes from in and around Washington and about a third from inside the Beltway," Lewis Lee says. "I think mostly from people that grew up in rural areas or their dads did."
The Lees count quite a few hunting and fishing women among their customers.
One group not among their patrons is pet owners hoping to preserve Fluffy. "We don't do it because I think it's morbid, but we get a request almost every day," Lewis Lee says.
If they did, he says, pet owners would be impossible to please. The taxidermists do, however, occasionally mount livestock that breeders want to keep for display.
It's not cheap. Mounting a steer's head may cost $1,500, and mounting the full body would range between $5,000 and $10,000.

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