NAPLES, Florida — A small brown sign at the edge of Golden Gate Estates ushers drivers toward an unusual treasure, hidden behind a constellation of palms.
"Bob Dorta Taxidermy," it reads, perched at the edge of a long gravel driveway.
Tires crunch over rocks as drivers wind down the path and come to a stop in front of a yellow house and workshop. Outside, an old beagle named Bruno stands guard, wagging his tail.
As Bruno inspects his new visitors, Bob Dorta himself emerges from his workshop, inviting customers to follow inside.
Well over six feet tall and sporting a military haircut, the local taxidermist wears jeans and a tucked-in black shirt, with orange letters across his front pocket reading "Bob Dorta Taxidermy." His gym shoes kick up gravel as he leads the way and holds open the door, revealing a different world.
A seven-foot long alligator is stationed by the threshold, mouth agape, while a fiberglass hammerhead swims at its side. To the left, a black bear wraps its paw around the back of a wooden chair.
Deer antlers are strung across the room by rope, and the heads of multiple bucks stare out from their roost on the walls.
Above the inanimate zoo, dozens of prize ribbons trail across a ceiling beam, adding splashes of color.
The newest award, a clear, simple plaque, sits on a desk in the far corner of the workshop, etched with the words "Best All-Around Taxidermist."
SSince beginning to pursue taxidermy in 2004, Dorta has participated in competitions all over the country. His distinction as "Best All-Around Taxidermist" came from the Florida State Taxidermists Association, which Dorta has been involved in since 2005.
The FSTA is a statewide organization that hosts annual competitions and seminars. With the goal of helping local taxidermists connect and learn new skills, the FSTA is a perfect fit for Dorta, who participates in contests to continuously improve his art.
"I don't care about those ribbons," the taxidermist said, pointing to the accolades across the ceiling. What matters to Dorta is what he learned from those ribbons, which were awarded by judges who meticulously examined his work.
The June competition that earned Dorta the title of "Best All-Around Taxidermist" required participants to enter pieces in four categories: fish or reptile, game head, life-size piece and bird.
Judges were impressed with his mahi-mahi, deer, badger and pheasant, which now sit on display in the showroom.
These pieces were examined by judges and given a score up to 100, receiving points for cleanliness, balance and overall shape. Judges record their remarks on comment sheets, which taxidermists can keep. Sometimes, statements simply say "good"; others get much more specific, noting observations such as, the wires in a bird's legs appear too loose.
In the category of "Best All-Around Taxidermist," scores received on each of the four required pieces were totaled, with Dorta receiving the highest result.
Still, each comment he receives is an opportunity for him to improve.
"You take that and apply the same skills to your commercial work, your stuff's getting better," he said.
Dorta's fascination with nature has flourished throughout his lifetime. Born and raised in Naples, Dorta left Florida after graduating high school and enrolled in military school in New York.
He served as an infantry officer in Alaska, where his love of hunting and wildlife peaked. He returned to the Sunshine State and earned a position with the Florida Army National Guard, eventually commanding an infantry company during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
All of these experiences contributed to Dorta's growing interest in taxidermy, and, when asked when he decided to pursue the craft, said he made the choice while overseas.
"I had recently lost my civilian job. I was recently divorced," the veteran said. "And somebody sent me a magazine, a hunting magazine. And it had an article in that magazine about taxidermy school.
"I told myself, 'If I make it back home, I'm going to go into taxidermy,'" which is exactly what he did.
Dorta enrolled in taxidermy classes in Wisconsin, with sessions concentrating on different types of animal. The lessons generally ranged from one to three weeks.
He began part-time in 2004, crafting pieces for friends and family, and opened his doors to the public between 2006 and 2007.
For Dorta, taxidermy is about sharing his love of the outdoors with others, preserving memories and providing high-quality work. As he said, he "can't eat" his awards — he participates in competitions to continue honing his art.
Dorta puts an immense amount of detail into each of his pieces.
The animals in his workshop appear to be at the height of their lives. Their eyes retain an animated glint, their skin appears healthy and young, and their poses portray natural, energetic movements.
But how exactly is this realism preserved?
The process is lengthy and intricate, involving a significant amount of time combined with several strange materials.
Each animal is unique; mammals require different techniques than birds, reptiles and fish. Whitetail deer comprise the majority of his work, but he uses a specific example of a black bear, circling the room, pointing out each of his tools and stations.
First, an animal is skinned, and the majority of its tissue is removed. Anything that can decay is taken out, leaving behind nothing but its hide.
This hide, or cape, is then placed in salt until it becomes stiff — a state the taxidermist refers to as "flint dried."
Over approximately one week, the material is placed in acid to "plump up" any remaining material.
"I don't want anything organic," the taxidermist said, explaining that this process prevents the cape from drying up like a piece of beef jerky.
A machine outside of the workshop shaves the hide down and makes it thin. Then, a tanning solution is used to change it into leather.
And at this stage, the material is ready to be mounted.
Tanned hide is stretched over a fiberglass mannequin, which creates the basic shape of an animal's body or head. The mannequins look like enhanced skulls, providing additional details formed by muscles and appendages.
Dorta keeps a binder stuffed with reference photos on-hand, which he uses to mimic an animal's natural state down to the very last detail.
Although the husk and mannequin create the majority of a piece, additional materials such as clay are added to help retain an animal's natural shape. Once fitted, the piece is given time to dry; during this process, Dorta constantly remolds his work, which shifts as the clay dries (a fact he demonstrates by forming the ears of a black bear).
By the front door, a cabinet stands floor to ceiling, housing a rainbow of lacquer paints, powders and brushes.
Mammals and birds require little paint, which is primarily used on their noses. More is required for fish, because taxidermists generally incorporate very little from the original animal; typically, only the fins are used from an actual fish.
Wielding a flashlight, the taxidermist grabs his prizewinning dolphin fish, or mahi-mahi, from a shelf and places it on a table. He perches a pair of reading glasses on his nose and skims the light down the width of the reproduction.
The fish is about a foot long and rests atop a crafted piece of wood, all stationed on a blue and green piece of fiberglass. Dozens of blue spots trail the animal's back; each was created with three different colors of paint.
Sections along the dorsal fin, as well as veins on the neck, were made with minute pieces of thread that Dorta positioned by hand.
The taxidermist also keeps a surprising arsenal of makeup, including blush and mascara. Blush is used to give color to pieces, while mascara is used for fine details, such as making the small feathers on a turkey's head stand up.
Packed with creations and tools, Dorta's workshop is the obvious hub of his labor. But it isn't the only place where his artwork is displayed.
The taxidermist's home is a tasteful illustration of his passion for the outdoors. His walls and shelves are adorned with animals including whitetail deer, birds and even a mountain goat.
Although many of the animals were killed by Dorta (who typically hunts with a bow and arrow), others, like a pheasant displayed on a shelf, were shot by his wife, Sheri.
The artist is also expanding beyond his walls; he recently became an approved contractor for Bass Pro Shops and sends out fish replications to be displayed in their stores.
In all of his projects, Dorta exudes a passion for his craft.
"The judges have all been around, and you learn from them." he said. "They'll sit down and they'll show you what you did wrong. You're not hurting my feelings, because what they're telling you is right."
Information from: Naples (Fla.) Daily News, http://www.naplesnews.com