Choosing a Taxidermist

Choosing a Taxidermist

Story and Photos by: Larry Weishuhn

“I don’t know how to tell Jim, or if I should, but that mount he just got back doesn’t look anything like a whitetail! Looks more like a rat with antlers than the magnificent buck he was. Horrible!” 

Before I could agree, Jim’s and my mutual friend continued. 

“He must have thought he was getting a really good deal. He did tell me they guy only charged $150 for a shoulder mount and told him he’d have it back in less than three months. Actually that should have been a clue about the quality of the mount. I wonder if he even looked at the work that taxidermist did. I seriously doubt it, because if he had Jim would have taken his deer elsewhere.”

“One good thing about that mount…he did get it! Years ago I shot a monstrous 6x6 elk in Colorado, took it to a local taxidermist who came recommended by a couple of guys in camp. Before leaving antlers and cape with him, I looked at some of his mounts. I have to admit they looked darn good. I gave him a deposit with the promise it would be ready just before the next hunting season and that I could pick up my mount when I returned to hunt that same area the following October. Four months later, I got a call from him asking if I could pay the remainder due on the shoulder mount. He said he was working on it, would have it completed and my mount be waiting for me when I got there that fall. I told him “Thank You” and I would pick it up in September when I headed up his way. He assured me that would be fine. All sounded good and proper.

But, when I drove up from Texas in September and pulled up in front of what had been his taxidermy shop the building was vacant. I called the phone number on my receipt. It had been disconnected. Failing to find him, I called the local Sheriff. He informed me the taxidermist had essentially disappeared overnight about two months earlier along with all mounts, antlers and capes he had had in his studio. And, I was not the first one to call the Sheriff’s Office to inquire about the missing taxidermist and their mounts. Try as I might, there was no record of where he had gone or what he had done with the antlers and horns that he had taken in to be mounted. We were unable to track him down, even though several of us tried. All I have of that nearly 390 B&C elk is photos and memories,” said I, shaking my head.

Conversely, I have dealt with numerous other extremely fine and reputable taxidermists who have done fabulous mounts for me and did what they said they would do. I too for a while was part owner of the taxidermy shop we had at our Los Cazadores Hunting Headquarters store in Pearsall, Texas. Years earlier I had also mounted a fair number of “heads” for myself and others, as a way to help finance some of my hunts. Earlier, as a wildlife biologist who worked as a “disease specialist” with Texas A&M University’s Department of Pathology under contract with Texas Parks and Wildlife Department I got tremendous experience “taking apart” many different animals. In so doing I got to closely study their anatomy, including bone and muscles. Working very closely with live animals I also go to see and observe their “attitudes” in terms of expressions in all life-situations. These lead me to become a “stickler” when it came to taxidermy. I wanted mounts for myself and clients that were authentic in every detail, but also those which would last several lifetimes.

Being a part-time taxidermist, a partner in a taxidermist shop, and being involved in the business of taxidermy I learned about using only the finest and best tanning process, high quality glass eyes, and employing artists involved in putting mounts together. The combination of these factors makes the finest mounts anything but cheap.

Choosing a taxidermist to do your mounts should however, not be based purely on cost nor how quickly a mount can be prepared and returned to you. Finding the right taxidermist should start long before you go hunting or even expect to take an animal you wish to have mounted in the future.

A quality mount starts long before the hunt, in choosing the "right" taxidermist

Visit the studios of several taxidermists in your area to see the “quality of work” they do. Do not only look at their show room where finished mounts are displayed, ask to see where the taxidermy is actually being done, to see their taxidermists at work. Most larger shops employ several taxidermists, each generally have a little different “talent”. One taxidermist employed by a larger shop may specialize in deer, another in elk and other bigger North American big game, another in bears and cats, another in African game, another in birds and still another in fish.

When visiting a taxidermy studio, ask to see where the work is actually done

While at a taxidermy shop for an exploratory visit, ask if capes are professionally tanned. Too ask how best to deliver your animal which you wish to have mounted. If you are traveling abroad for your hunt, and, you like their artistry, ask if they provide taxidermy tags that not only have the taxidermy shop’s address and phone number, but also the “expediter and shipper’s” contact information, as well as your name and address. Traveling abroad I usually take four such tags for each animal I intend to take, these to be used on for the skull and horns/antlers, another for the cape, one for the back skin which I usually also have tanned, and an extra one just in case.

If I plan on hunting out-of-state I ask about special permits that might be needed to bring antlers/horns/skull/skins across State borders or in the case of CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease) regulations what is allowed or required when crossing State line including bringing antlers and cape back to your home State. Ask if the taxidermy studio wants the cape simply still on the head, fully caped, frozen or cooled, or fully caped including the ears and splitting lips. Do they want capes and skins salted? Additionally, I asked how they prefer to have animals skinned for a shoulder mount, meaning cut up the back in the case of a horned or antlered animal, or “socked” or “tubed”, meaning no cut up the back of the neck when removing the cape or head-skin. With bears or cats do they want them skinned in the traditional manor, along the belly-line, or a dorsal cut along the top of the back? Ask to be shown how these cuts should be made. Even though you may not skin the animal for a mount, you will have a better understanding and can advise and/or oversee whoever is doing the actual skinning of your animal.

A lot goes into a quality finished mount of your animal.

I will be upfront, I have one taxidermy shop that does all my mounts, Double Nickle Taxidermy ( located between San Marcos and New Braunfels, Texas, or about half way between San Antonio and Austin and is owned by Jon Wilson. Jon, besides being a very talented taxidermist is also a sound business person with an understanding of the business side of taxidermy. He pays great attention to detail in terms of mounts and working with clients to insure they end up with a mount they will be proud of and one that will last many years. Jon employs numerous “taxidermy artists”. “I learned quite a while ago to hire the very best taxidermists and that starts with the skinning process on through to cape preparation to doing the mount, to the finishing process of all mounts. We spend a lot of time with our taxidermists in regard to learning the anatomy of the many species we mount from throughout the world. We’ve taken several of our taxidermists/artists to Africa where they could observe and then hunt numerous species. We’ve done the same here in North America. This gives them the opportunity to see expressions, positions of ears when the animals are not disturbed, in the daily lifestyle and habitat. Then, when they or others in the group shoot an animal they can “take that animal apart” to learn about their bone structure and muscles. This also gives those who finish our mounts the opportunity to see the actual real-life colors of the inside of the ears, the nose, and the immediate area around the animal’s eyes.”

Recently while picking up a mount at Double Nickle Taxidermy I spent time looking at some of the details they pay attention to; how the skin meets and blends in with hoofs such as on full or half body mounts, or where the skin meets antlers and horns, particularly when a buck deer was still in velvet when it was taken.

Attention should be paid to details

Pedestal mounts, full shoulder and secured on a pedestal, rather than hung on the wall are becoming more and more popular. If this is something of interest, while visiting a taxidermist pay attention to the details, like finish around the eyes, can you see any “sew lines” up the back of the neck. Look at sculpted bone and muscle structure around the face and ears. Actually you should do the same even if a shoulder mount to hang on the wall is desired. If looking at a full-body mount, is the animal standing or laying on a log, or rock. Is vegetation included in the base. If so, pay close attention to the base. Does it look like a “real” log or rock? Does the vegetation used look real?

In the case of Double Nickle Taxidermy, I can say “yes” to those questions, but also “no” to if “sew lines” are visible.

One final inspection

When in a taxidermist’s show room look at the many different poses available, regarding specific species. Look at left and right turns (in the case of big game species, meaning from the animal’s perspective, rather than you looking at the mounts on the wall), look at ear positions. Traditional mounts of many years ago usually meant the animal looking straight forward with ears in an upright, forward position, and usually placed on a wooden panel. Today’s taxidermists “present” mounts in much more natural positions, both in terms of poses and ear positions.

If you wish to have a turkey, quail, grouse, pheasant, duck or goose mounted, ask the taxidermist how to best protect the feathers while in the field or in route to the taxidermy shop to insure a high quality mount. Do the same with fish. Should you freeze the bird or fish, and if so wrapped in what? In terms of fish, these days most taxidermists will suggest or recommend a replica of your fish, because the quality of replicas available these days. Replicas will last a whole lot longer than using the actual fish’s skin and head. Ask what specific measurements should be taken to insure the replica is exactly the same size and shape of the fish you caught. Too, ask about taking photos of your catch so the artists which paint “your fish” to look exactly like it did the moment you caught it.

Taxidermy costs are rising, particularly quality mounts. Products used for taxidermy are getting more difficult to come by and their prices have dramatically increased. Scarcity of products available sometimes too causes delays in getting your mounts in a previously timely manner. Unfortunately, these are things taxidermists do not have any control over.

Remember, quality taxidermists are artists! They are not magicians! If skins are delivered in a deteriorated condition, or badly cut, there is no way taxidermists can do the quality mount you hope they will. Should capes and skins arrive in bad condition, “good taxidermists” will tell you your capes are ruined or unfit to be mounted. They may suggest not mounting the animal, or, the possibility of using a replacement cape, which you will have to pay extra. The latter does not often happen, but it is a possibility.

Choose well your taxidermist and they will provide an artistic and “real life mount” for you that your great grandkids will admire years from now!

Posted in Tips & Tactics