Bad Taxidermy And How To Avoid It

It’s been more than a year since you killed the biggest buck of your life, and the taxidermist just called with news that your long awaited mount is ready for pick up. Excitement grows as you walk into the shop, anticipating the first look at your trophy – but, where is it? “This is your buck” the clerk says, pointing to a mount that you don’t recognize. In disbelief you stammer, “thaa.. that’s mine?” “Well… yes” says the clerk, handing you a bill for balance due on the work, while your stomach flip-flops like a fish on a boat deck. You’ve just become an unwitting member of a rather sizeable fraternity: Victims of Bad Taxidermy. This happened to me years ago with the third animal I had ever mounted – guess I was just lucky on the first two! Using a muzzleloader, I had taken a beautiful young pronghorn in his prime. We had named this buck “Mighty Might” for his aggressive behavior in defending his harem of 15 does against a half dozen challengers daily. The animal the taxidermist delivered looked old and decrepit – like it had died from malnutrition – with caved-in face and bugged out eyes. The broad, almost black strip from forehead to nose was absent. In its place was a faded looking red-brown strip. When questioned, the taxidermist admitted that my cape – which was carefully removed in the field and chilled in a cooler until delivery – had been ruined in the tanning process. Thus, another cape was substituted, and apparently glued directly to an undersized form with no build-up or fill-in. Also colored differently than mine, it furthermore had a large patch sewed in on the back of the neck. Although this disaster may not have been entirely his fault, this taxidermist has understandably, not been given the chance to mount another animal for me.

So, how can taxidermy disasters like the one above be avoided? There are lots of things that can go wrong from the time an animal is taken in the field to the time the finished trophy mount is completed. One important key to a satisfactory outcome is two-way communication between hunter and taxidermist. Often there is no communication during the six months to a year or more, while the work is in progress. Had the taxidermist who mounted my pronghorn alerted me that its cape had been ruined, I might have opted for a European skull mount rather than the shoulder mount originally ordered. Of course, I did not ask the taxidermist to alert me if a problem developed, so he didn’t. Hides sometimes return from tanneries in unsuitable condition for mounting (for a variety of reasons), so taxidermists keep extra hides of common animals on hand. Substitutions are made when necessary, usually without notification. I suspect this is done to avoid risking loss of the business. You should ask the taxidermist to contact you immediately about any problems that develop while work on your mount is in progress.

Judging taxidermy is not difficult, as bad taxidermy can be easily differentiated from good. Does the animal look alive and presented in a natural pose, or does it remind you of a failed 7th grade science project? Details like eye set and socket sculpture, hair finish, feather set, painting, seamless sewing, and fine points like skin folds and vein detail separate the work of true professional wildlife artists from the rest of the pack. As a writer, I take lots of photos in the field, and spend considerable time to insure the photos are well posed and good quality. These are an excellent resource for assessing completed taxidermy work, and I often display a framed field photo alongside the mount. If the finished taxidermy looks like the animal in the photo(s), the project has been a success!

Satisfaction is often a function of expectation, and this is particularly true with taxidermy. Good taxidermists are highly skilled and artistic, but they are not magicians! If you deliver an animal hide that is full of knife cuts (holes) and missing patches of hair, don’t expect the finished mount to be pristine. Likewise, if that bobcat has been in your freezer for so long that its nose, ears and skin are “burned” you cannot expect the taxidermist to turn it into a vivid, life-like mount – instead, it will likely look “stuffed.”

Bad taxidermy often starts in the field. Common mistakes include damaging the hide during removal and hide spoilage due to heat and/or bacterial contamination. In the west, where hunters must deal with warm temperatures during early seasons, it’s important to remove capes/hides and cool them as soon as possible. In the east, harvested animals often must be presented at inspection stations with hides intact but again, these should be removed, cooled, cleaned and fleshed as soon as possible. If your return from the field will be delayed several days after harvest, it’s a good idea to flesh the hide and apply salt to draw out remaining moisture and retard bacterial growth. Spoilage causes hair to “slip” (fall out). Most taxidermists will reject hides/capes if their condition is questionable.

Removing the hide and/or caping in the field for taxidermy is not difficult, although some aspects can be a little tricky. Extra care must be taken around eyes and lips and in turning the ears to insure a high-quality mount. Instructions for completing these tasks are beyond the scope of this article however, professional bowhunter and outfitter, Fred Eichler, has a number of excellent instructional videos posted on his YouTube channel. Here’s a good tip: Some wild game meat processing operations welcome volunteer skinners during peak times. What better way to practice your skinning skills? This is also an excellent venue to practice caping. A quality knife with replaceable razor-sharp blades, like the Outdoor Edge Razor-Lite available at is an excellent choice for this work, and I never go into the field without one. I also like the Outdoor Edge Dark Timber Combo, with both skinning and caping knives.

Most taxidermists will advise on how to prepare animal skins, birds and fish for mounting. If the specimen will be frozen for a length of time prior to mounting, it needs to be protected from desiccation that will cause deterioration. For example, Paul Taylor (owner/operator of Taylor Made Taxidermy in Scottsdale, AZ – 480-990-2709) recommends the following prep prior to freezing for waterfowl to be mounted later: Saturate birds with a solution of mild dish washing soap and water, roughing the feathers to insure wetting down to the skin. Tuck heads and feet under wings for additional protection, wrap tightly in a towel dampened with the soapy solution, and then freeze. I’ve followed this advice, with outstanding results.

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