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.
Examine eyes, ears, and noses.
The overall quality of animal mounts has risen considerably in recent years, thanks to improvements in the quality of pre-made mannequins. When creating a mount, taxidermists purchase an animal skin ("a cape," in taxidermist parlance) and then find a polyurethane-foam form that closely matches the shape and size of that particular creature. The next step is simple: Fit the cape over the mannequin like a sock over a foot. More accurate mannequins mean better defined musculature and better skin fit.
"But you still have got to deal with the antlers, the eyes, the nose, and the ears," says Dr. Dan McBride, president of the Texas Taxidermy Association. "Those are still four areas that you can goof on." If you're buying a piece, McBride advises, make sure "that the ears aren't loose, that the seam down the back of the head and neck isn't popping open, that the eyes aren't cracked, and that the nose isn't pulling apart."
Ex-Smithsonian taxidermist Rhymer counsels that examining those areas is also the best way to ascertain the condition of the hide itself. "You want to look at the places where the skin is really thin – the ears, the nostrils, and around the eyes," says Rhymer. Does it look faded? Is it peeling? Are there cracks? That'll give you an idea of what kind of shape this thing is in."
And an ear, eyes, and nose examine can also alert you to exemplary work. "Absolutely A-plus taxidermy gets all the detail work right around the eye and the nose," McBride says. If you notice anatomically accurate, but often forgotten details, like a flesh color inside a deer's nostrils, then you're probably looking at an excellent piece.
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