So you didn't win the Creature Feature Contest. So what?

Everyone, the saying goes, excels at something. In school, we saw it happen again and again: The math-class jarhead who threw up with anxiety at the sight of a long-division sum was spotted an hour later in metal shop building a replica of a 1958 Mercedes-Benz 190SL from the ground up. And then there was that girl in chemistry class who set her lab partner on fire with a Bunsen burner while falling to the floor in a heap of crashing Pyrex -- she was the one who carried off every home ec award in North America by virtue of her amazing Broasted Yak Flambe'.

Everyone excels at something. And for eight weeks between June 7 and August 3, Magazine readers from all over the Washington area bravely set out to determine whether their own Personal Best might be achieved in the realm of that newest of scientific disciplines, architectural zoology. Most discovered . . . it couldn't. But for a few: triumph!

The object was to identify the whereabouts of 30 animal effigies whose photos had appeared in The Magazine's J Street feature since last September. It looked pretty easy, and a few hours' searching was fun. But when those few hours elapsed, most folks stared at their entries and saw . . . a lot of blank spaces. Creature Feature Seeking, it turns out, requires three things: persistence, chutzpah and a special kind of genius.

Nancy Schulte of Springfield has what it takes. She identified a stunning 28 out of 30 creatures, and in so doing copped first prize and $1,500. Deh-i Hsiung of Washington, D.C., was hot on her heels with 27, lapping up the second-prize spoils, $750. And Hope Daniels of Chevy Chase was right behind, garnering third prize and $250 with 26 correct IDs.

Schulte, a program analyst at the National Science Foundation, says she spent a total of about 80 hours stalking the featured creatures, using a whole gamut of sleuthing methods. Her fingers prowled the Yellow Pages for eateries with animal names; she consulted books on D.C.'s outdoor sculpture; she waylaid cops, mail-slingers and chauffeurs to see whether they'd spotted any of the critters somewhere along their beats. She went out on numerous safaris with her husband, Greg, and 3-year-old daughter, Laura. It was, in fact, tiny Laura who spotted Creature Feature Number 5, even as her dazed parents were driving blithely past it: "Fish!" she roared at the oblivious adults. "Fishfishfish!"

In architectural zoology, genius is obviously hereditary. And Nancy Schulte, who's expecting Baby Number 2 in a couple of months, is the undisputed Madame Curie of the science. :: -- CHARLES HIRSHBERG