UPPER DARBY, PA. Taxidermist's art really does imitate life

Taxidermists now make realistic creations out of fiberglass.
UPPER DARBY, Pa. (AP) -- Rocco DiPasquale was munching a sandwich, his hook in the water for perhaps 15 minutes, when something big bit. He knew quickly what it was.
"He started ripping the line out and he jumped out of the water right away, probably about 10 feet," DiPasquale said. "We all yelled 'MAKO!'"
And when the shark weighed in at 274 pounds at the South Jersey Marina, DiPasquale knew quickly where it would lead: to Jeff Leonard Jr., a 34-year-old taxidermist in the business for less than five years.
"I think he's the best around. The way he does the colors is more realistic," said DiPasquale, who lives near the Leonard family store in Upper Darby. "Everything looks alive."
That's a supreme compliment for any taxidermist, especially when much of the final mount often is not real. This particular mako is entirely fake, a fiberglass reproduction.
Leonard never saw the actual shark, which was butchered into more than 150 pounds of meat at the marina in Cape May. Working with a mediocre snapshot of DiPasquale and his buddies standing next to the hanging fish, he researched mako anatomy and colors, and examined the one remaining part -- the jaws -- that the fisherman brought to his cramped studio above Leonard's Sporting Goods.
The body -- actually a three-quarter body, mounted so that it seems to be leaping out of the wall -- began with a commercial cast, sculpted and tweaked and sealed by Leonard.
The fins, eyes, teeth, even the inside of the mouth, are anatomically correct and a virtual duplicate of this fish.
Leonard considers himself an artist -- "my medium is organic," he says -- and loves the final stages of his work: painting the skin.
He does perhaps 300 fish a year, plus 75 or 100 big-game mounts, half that number of small mammals and a couple dozen birds. He also does separate habitats and often mounts fish for children's bedrooms.
Dramatic changes
Taxidermy has changed dramatically in the past 25 years as plastics and related materials allow the shaping of forms to look more lifelike and to remain unchanged for years.
Whether it's a trout, moose or pheasant, what you see mounted is almost all synthetic; only the fur or feathers are real, and on many fish, not even the skin.
The availability of other technologies, such as photography and computer graphics, means that artists and taxidermists do not play the role they did through most of history, educating people about wildlife.
Still, Leonard says, "If you want to see wildlife and you don't want to go in the woods, this is it."
Biggest challenge
So far, the 274-pound mako -- for which he charged $1,300, far less than he normally would -- has been his biggest challenge, particularly the toothy open mouth.
The actual fish had won third place for DiPasquale in the South Jersey Shark Tournament in June, and Leonard knew he could have a competitive piece.
He took first prize in fish reproduction in the Pennsylvania Taxidermy Association championships last month.
The win means he is a master in that category; he was already a master for small mammals.
What's next?
Leonard does get occasional inquiries about people, usually themselves. "I tell them, 'I'm not going to do you, buddy."'