Examine eyes, ears, and noses.
Credit: Darren Mower / Getty Images

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.