Webster defines taxidermy as “The art of preparing, stuffing, and mounting the skins of animals and especially vertebrates”. There are certain words in this definition that need to be elaborated on and others that require clarification to fully understand and appreciate the taxidermy process. Below we’ll do just that but first, let’s take a brief look at the history of taxidermy to better understand its evolution.
The first record of taxidermy dates back to the 16th century when a Dutch Nobleman skinned and stuffed a bird with preservative spices, using wire to hold the skin in an upright position. This rudimentary method of stuffing is still referenced today even though modern taxidermy methods doesn’t use the technique. It was during the 18th century when taxidermy became common place. This was primarily due to the European exploration of exotic lands and the desire to preserve findings of new specimens, to be displayed by museums and collectors. It was also during this century when fitting an animal’s skin over a mannequin was first introduced. This technique later evolved to the use of sculpted mannequins, the primary method used today with the exception of advances in materials like polyurethane foam.
While taxidermy certainly brings to mind the thought of preserved hides and perfectly placed feathers, there are other methods used to preserve and display animals. For example, a bowhunter today has the option to have their harvest prepared by a taxidermist as a traditional mount, where the hide is displayed on a mannequin, also called a form, along with the antlers or horns. The hide of an animal can also be displayed independently as a rug or wall hanging. Another option is to preserve and display only the skull with the antlers or horns still attached. This method is often referred to as a skull or European mount. Simpler yet, is an antler mount where an animal’s antlers or horns are cut off of the skull and placed on plaque for display. No matter the type of mount a hunter chooses it’s important to understand what they represent. To those who are unfamiliar with hunting the display of parts of a dead animal might seem odd or merely a boastful display of accomplishment. However, the meaning often runs much deeper. Taking an animal’s life is a serious act and not an easy task, especially when hunting with archery tackle. Display of that animal often serves as a totem, of sorts, to honor the animal and remember the hunt long after the meat it provided has been enjoyed.
If there is one word in the Webster definition of taxidermy that should be emphasized it is art. A taxidermist is indeed an artist, one of many skillsets. Part sculptor, sewer, carpenter, and painter with a dash of chemist thrown in for good measure. Taxidermists are often hunters as well. Their time in the field pursuing game provides exclusive knowledge of an individual species environment, habits, and behaviors. Their craft takes years to master and requires precision and attention to detail that could be compared with that of a surgeon. Pieces completed by expert taxidermist can be startlingly lifelike and the places where they’re displayed might surprise you. Taxidermy can be found on the walls of dive bars, in the homes of blue collar sportsmen, displayed proudly by private collectors and in exhibits of fascinating scale at places like the Smithsonian in Washington DC and the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. There are even competitions held in the U.S. and internationally each year to crown the best in the craft. These events showcase an artist’s best work and often produce truly remarkable pieces.
There are many steps that must be taken to transform an animal from its state after butchering to a piece of art that will be displayed in a hunter’s home. First all muscle tissue, fat, and cartilage must be removed from the hide, also known as the cape, using a technique known as fleshing. To preserve the cape it must next undergo a chemical treatment called tanning. Some taxidermist tan capes themselves, while other send them to a tannery to have the process completed for them. Once the tanning process is completed the hide is dry fitted to a foam mannequin, known as a form. With a proper fit confirmed artificial eyes are glued onto the form before gluing the cape in position. When mounting an animal with horns or antlers, the rack remains attached to the skull with only a small section of the skull being removed and attached to the foam mannequin. This section of skull that the animals antlers or horns remains attached to is known as the skull cap, it too must be cleaned and preserved to ensure the longevity of the mount. With the cape glued in place on the form the skull cap is set in position and all necessary stitching is done. A drying period of several day or even weeks is required before a mount can be finished. Once dry, the hair is brushed out to restore a lifelike appearance and detailed molding and painting in done around the eyes, nose, and mouth to truly bring the mount to life. Mounting of game birds requires few different techniques while larger mounts, where sometimes all of an animal’s body is recreated, is more extensive.
Regardless if you’re a seasoned bowhunter or someone who’s just learning what bowhunting is all about, the art of taxidermy is a fascinating craft. An art that not only helps scientist preserve records of the natural world but provides hunters a way to reflect on past hunts and pay respect to the animals they harvest.