That’s the stuff: Hagberg finds talent, success in taxidermy

Staff photo by Jake Calhoun Neal Hagberg shows off a Chinese ringneck pheasant in his workshop.

NEW ULM — Having a passion for something will allow anyone to perfect their craft.

Neal Hagberg’s passion for taxidermy of waterfowl has allowed him to perfect his craft — quite literally. Hagberg took home a couple big awards at the 2017 Minnesota State Taxidermy Guild Convention and Competition this past April in Rochester, Minnesota. Hagberg took home two first-place ribbons in the Masters division — the highest level of competition — and was even awarded the outright title of McKenzie’s Taxidermist Choice Award in the bird category, State Champion Waterfowl and Celebrity’s Choice awards with his display of the northern pintail duck. His other first-place award for his display of a mallard/wigeon hybrid.

In the 2012 state competition, Hagberg placed first in the Professional division, which is one step below the Masters division.

Hagberg, who owns and operates Wild Art Taxidermy out of his home on the south side of New Ulm, is an avid waterfowl hunter who developed an interest in taxidermy through hunting.

“Every since I was little, I’ve gone hunting,” Hagberg said. “I only do birds — that’s all I do is birds. Just the beauty of waterfowl [got me into taxidermy].”

Staff photo by Jake Calhoun Neal Hagberg displays his awards from the most recent state competition in taxidermy. Hagberg placed first in the Masters division, which is the highest level of competition in taxidermy.

After initially taking a course in taxidermy and stepping away from it in his early 20s, he returned to and has worked in it for the past decade.

Taxidermy is defined as the preservation of an animal’s body by stuffing or mounting the remains for display or study. Hagberg said main goal is to restore the waterfowls’ bodies to lifelike states.

“In my opinion, birds are the hardest, by far; they’re the hardest to make look real again,” Hagberg said. “Not everybody can do it — you’ve gotta have a little bit of artistic talent, I guess. When you first start out, it’s definitely not easy; you have a lot of failures at first for sure.”

Despite some misconceptions, taxidermy is actually not gory at all. Hunters bring in game they have hunted wanting to get them restored by taxidermists like Hagberg for display.

“If a hunter or fisherman clean their own game — which 99.9-percent of them do — they’re seeing the same thing that I am,” Hagberg said.

Staff photo by Jake Calhoun Neal Hagberg’s workshop has displays of numerous waterfowl he has restored to lifelike states.

Most of what Hagberg uses to restore the hunted game are artificial stuffings — foam, plastic, etc. — although he tends to leave the bones of wings and legs intact.

“Unless they’re torn apart by a dog or something like that, I’ll never see the inside of a bird — inside the cavity, you know, the guts and stuff,” Hagberg said.

One stressful aspect of restoring game is having to repair the parts that have been affected by the gunshot that killed it.

“It was shot, for one,” Hagberg said. “A lot of times you’re repairing and rebuilding stuff and trying to hide damage. That’s definitely stressful.”

Hagberg has even put together displays of hunted game with the decoy used during said hunt. When it comes to restoring waterfowl and other large birds, Hagberg has become quite the perfectionist and has done so through practice.

“You have to be patient… and you have to be meticulous,” Hagberg said. “Attention to detail — I don’t know if it’s the most-important part, but it’ll definitely help you be a lot better at it, that’s for sure.”

Hagberg does not operate Wild Art Taxidermy full-time as of right now, but he said he takes on about eight months’ worth of work in a given year. He said that may change in the future, but nothing is set in stone as of yet.

“For right now, I’m just keeping myself to birds for the next year or two,” Hagberg said. “I’ll eventually go into fish, probably. It’s small and I can handle it and I don’t have a lot of space in [my workshop] for large game, so I prefer to keep it small.”