by Carrol Henderson
Over the past 37 years, as the Nongame Wildlife Program supervisor with the Department of Natural Resources, I have worked with and learned from such conservation legends and wildlife artists as Walter Breckenridge, Harrison (Bud) Tordoff, Arthur (Art) Hawkins, Les Kouba, and Roger Holmes. Behind the scenes, one of these remarkable conservationists was Peter Getman—an accomplished naturalist and extraordinary taxidermist. Getman, who passed away in 2007 at age 63, created hundreds of wildlife mounts, displayed nationwide from the Science Museum of Minnesota to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
A quiet and modest person, Getman grew up amid the wildlife, prairies, and croplands near Luverne, Minn. There he perfected his skills of wildlife observation. He learned to mimic the beautiful and complex calls of birds, including red-winged blackbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds. He enjoyed taking his family and friends on outings, where they were frequently amazed and perplexed by his serenades of birdsong that brought curious birds up close.
Getman's greatest skill—taxidermy—is little known and seldom appreciated by most modern wildlife enthusiasts. Taxidermy can be defined as the art and science of preserving, preparing, and mounting animal skins into lifelike postures. Most people associate taxidermy with the preparation of game animals as trophies for hunters and anglers. Getman's expertise was mounting protected birds to be displayed as works of art in some of the nation's best museums. When taxidermy is done to Getman's standards, it becomes an art form that will last well over a hundred years.
His time in the field observing birds taught Getman what postures were realistic for his mounted specimens. This patient perfectionist gave attention to grooming every feather until a bird looked ready to blink and fly from its perch. His portfolio of specimens ranged from brown creepers and peregrine falcons to bald eagles, great gray owls, and trumpeter swans. His specialty was preparing small songbirds, the most difficult of all birds to mount.
His bird mounts allow thousands of people to see and appreciate the intricate beauty of birds, with details seldom observed in the field. Getman worked for several years at the Smithsonian Institution, replacing about half of the old bird mounts in their Birds of the District of Columbia exhibit. He even had the honor of restoring their collection of 19th-century specimens prepared by John James Audubon. Upon returning to Minnesota, Getman worked on the taxidermy for exhibits at the Science Museum of Minnesota, including a flying family of trumpeter swans and traveling exhibits of penguins of the Antarctic and birds of prey. The natural history museum at Camp Ripley also has his mounts.
For the DNR Nongame Wildlife Program, Getman preserved roadkilled birds and other wildlife specimens found and salvaged by members of the public. In 2005 he delivered to my office a beautiful mount of a Cooper's hawk mantling a northern flicker. Prepared for the Norris Camp office in Red Lake Wildlife Management Area, the Cooper's hawk had fierce-looking eyes and a startlingly realistic posture.
As Getman was leaving my office, I told him his mount looked like the artwork of Louis Agassiz Fuertes (one of the world's most famous bird artists). My comment froze Getman in his tracks. He said that was the finest compliment he had ever received.
Like Fuertes, who also died far too young, Getman lived with high expectations of himself and his art—and succeeded. Peter Getman is the best bird taxidermist I have ever known. His work will inspire people to appreciate the birds he loved for many decades to come.