There was a time when great taxidermy was the exclusive province of hunters and natural history museum collections. A decade ago, if asked where you last saw an animal trophy, you might have mentioned a dive bar in Durango. Today, you might say "the barbershop," "the tailor," or "my friend's house." We are, after all, living through what Paul Rhymer, the last staff taxidermist at the Smithsonian, calls "the good old days of taxidermy." The craft has never been more refined and mounts have never been easier to come by. Our rapacious appetite for flannel-shirted, hunting-lodge-chic Americana has increased both supply and demand for roaring cougars and comatose moose.
"There's this ennui with all things mass produced and the thing about taxidermy is each piece comes from a genuine creature, so there's this uniqueness and highly textural beauty to it," says Rachel Poliquin, author of 'The Breathless Zoo: Taxidermy and the Cultures of Longing.' "And taxidermy looks amazing in our hypermodern environment. It looks just as nice mounted on a cement wall next to your Barcelona Chair as it does in a traditional Victorian setting."
Popularity and aesthetics aside, purchasing a trophy can be an intimidating process. Animal mounts vary widely in quality and price, are sold everywhere from estate sales to ultrahigh-end decor shops, and are subject to a dense thicket of state and federal regulation. Sure, that elk head would fit nicely above the pool table, but is it going for go from gorgeous to grotesque? Does it carry dermestid beetles? Are you legally permitted to purchase it? These questions are coupled with inevitable concerns about animal cruelty. Fortunately, most new trophies are made of animals that pose a threat to the environment, like white-tailed deer, commonly eaten species, like trout and ducks, or roadkill. More exotic specimens, like that Rhino head you can't afford, tend to date back to the days when hunts rivaled safaris in popularity.
To help you navigate this Wild West world, we consulted the experts: Rhymer; Poliquin; Dr. Dan McBride, president of the Texas Taxidermy Association, and, just to be safe, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. With their input, we devised a few simple rules to keep in mind when you're buying an animal mount. Follow them and you'll need to find wall space for that 10-point buck you've always wanted but never tracked down.
Don't buy birds.
"It's a tangled and intricate thing to negotiate," Rhymer says of the legal issues surrounding mounted animals. "In every state in the union, it's legal to go out and shoot a mallard, but it's a felony [in every state] to sell that mallard. There are so many different laws in so many different states." Still, he offered some sage, if somewhat surprising, advice: "Call the guy that will arrest you."
We did. Officials from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's law enforcement and management office helped us hack our way through the legal thicket. Migratory birds are completely illegal to sell and buy (unless they're farm-raised ducks, but then they're not considered migratory). Endangered or threatened species are illegal to sell across state lines (unless they're antique pieces that have been grandfathered in, but you need to prove that). Even deer heads, which are legal to sell on a federal level, are illegal to sell in some states.
You'll be fine if you follow some basic rules. Don't buy birds – unless it's a nonmigratory species like a pheasant or a turkey – and always ask questions about the animal's provenance. You risk a greater legal penalty if it can be proven you didn't take due caution when making the purchase. When in doubt, call your local game warden or the state office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
But don't let all of this scare you away from a purchase. No less an authority than Tim Van Norman, chief the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Branch of Permits, assured us of the following: "When you go online or go to a taxidermist, you'll find all sorts of things for sale, and the vast majority of them are legal."
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