The Taxidermist:?An Artist And A Naturalist

Have you ever wondered how an antlered deer head adorning a hunter’s den wall or life-size birds and mammals in museums are prepared? Several week ago I had a chance to admire life-size wild brown bear, big horn sheep and mountain lion mounts as well as head mounts of caribou, moose and white-tailed deer harvested by my friend using bow and arrow.

I became curious to find out how these animal specimens were prepared. The profession of restoring animals like birds, fish, mammals and snakes to lifelike condition is called taxidermy. The derivation of the word comes from the Greek language where “taxis” means, “order or arrangement” and derma means “skin,” so the taxidermist arranges the skin of an animal with the skill of an artist and knowledge of a naturalist. After interviewing a full-time taxidermist, Jason Morrison, owner of Buckhaven Wildlife Art in Sugar Grove, Pa., and reviewing the library book, “Outdoor Life-Complete Home Taxidermy” by Tim Kelly, I realized my friend’s beautiful hunting specimens were much more than “stuffed animals.”

My only experience approaching taxidermy occurred at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown four years ago when instruction was offered to a dozen local residents who wanted to learn how to produce a permanent feathered bird skin. I was given a sharp-shinned hawk killed by collision with a radio antennae tower. Bird skins are saved so they can be studied later by students to learn identification and by artists to reproduce proper color patterns. The evening lesson skinning my bird was tedious so I never tried again.

Taxidermists are most commonly asked to mount antlered deer heads, an elaborate and labor-intensive procedure. First, the taxidermist desires an animal with little damage to the head and neck for a head mount and minimal damage to the body for a full-body mount. The hunter desiring a deer head mount should initially eviscerate the deer, cool it, then have a reputable butcher separate the head with it’s cape of neck and shoulder hide from the body. The taxidermist measures the head and neck size to order a polyurethane head form from taxidermy catalogs.

Since the 1970s, head forms and full-body forms of almost any animal in the world are available over which a hide is positioned and secured with glue. Only the fur or hide is used to create a taxidermy mount. Bones and muscles are set aside. Antlers are removed together by sawing through the eye sockets to the base of the skull. Next, tanning of the hide produces preserved skin that can be placed over the head form. Tanning involves several steps. First, soft tissue is scraped off the hide with a dull rotary blade called a fleshing machine. Degreasing of fat is accomplished with dish washing detergent. Pickling is done in a solution of salt and citric acid for three to five days. Lastly, tanning paste is brushed on the raw side of the hide for several hours.

Only household chemicals are used in taxidermy; no toxic chemicals are washed down the drain. The hide is rehydrated then tumbled twice to soften and dry the fur. Now the hide can to be placed over and secured to the head form with a water based adhesive and pins. Glass eyes and ear cups are inserted. Lastly, the nose and lips are painted. The final mount may take several weeks to months to complete. Cost for a deer head mount today ranges from $475 to $750. Costs for full-body mounts of large animals such as bears or moose range from $4,000 to $9,000.

A person doing taxidermy for others must be 18 years of age. A federal permit is required to mount migratory birds. Taxidermists can learn the profession in schools. States issue taxidermy licenses.

To the hunter, a beautifully prepared deer head mount is more than a trophy; it is a reminder of a successful hunt which brings the hunter emotionally closer to the wild animal and a symbol of the beauty and power of nature’s creatures.