Nature's art

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When John Hlebaen bought some property four miles north of Wadena, he was only after a place to hunt whitetail deer.

Then he started seeing other possibilities.

For the last 35 years, Hlebaen has been a taxidermist. His Trails End Taxidermy Studio is located in Rice, a small community 10 miles north of St. Cloud.

"Once you're in a business this long you're married to it," Hlebaen laughed, "it goes where you go."

Now he is opening a second studio on his deer hunting property near the Bell Hill Recovery Center on 200th Street. Hlebaen's love affair with taxidermy started on what could be called a "blind date." Needing an easy credit while attending Sartell High School, Hlebaen chose taxidermy.

Something happened to him in that class. Hlebaen had run into something he really enjoyed. He was a self-taught taxidermist for a while, but eventually took a course and polished up his skills to the point where he found himself teaching taxidermy classes. Qualifying for a license from the state, Hlebaen operated a taxidermy school for 14 years and had students from 18 to 60.

Hlebaen is no longer a licensed instructor, but as long as he keeps his class size to one or two students he does not have to be. On top of his by-appointment-only taxidermy work, he plans to be offering a taxidermy course at his new business place.

There are only three members of the wild kingdom Hlebaen can think of that he has not mounted in his career - an elephant, a hippo and a crocodile.

"My personal preference are whitetails and walleyes," he said. Taxidermists do not have a big overhead, which encourages a lot of hobbyists to try it. For a couple of grand, an enthusiast can acquire all the materials and tools they will need.

"You're not going to get rich at it, but you can set your own hours," Hlebaen said.

Hlebaen's work has been his best advertising. He had plenty of experience in working with hunters and fishermen who have filled the walls of their homes with mounts - and built on to their homes for more wall space.

There is one additional hurdle for Hlebaen to cross before he can open his Wadena studio - he has to have a studio. A contractor will be erecting an 30x60 structure, and by the time the firearm deer hunting season rolls around in November Hlebaen hopes to have his new Trails End Taxidermy business rolling.

Examples of Hlebaen's work can be found at: trailsendtaxidermy.org.