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.
The major perk of living in this golden age for taxidermy is that it's never hard to (legally) acquire an exciting new piece. There are still the estate sales, antique shops, and hunting hangouts that animal-oriented decorators have prowled for decades, but there are also an increasing number of high-end curiosity shops specializing in exotic fare and online forums, like Taxidermy.net, where buyers posting "mount wanted" ads receive responses from around the world.
"Let's say you've got this humungous place up in the Rockies with 20-foot ceilings, and you want a big elk mount because you think it'll look really cool in your living room," says taxidermist Paul Rhymer. "Well, that's out there."
If all else fails, nonhunters are more than welcome to go to a taxidermist and request a custom piece. "I had a woman who wanted a full-size zebra for her husband's office," Rhymer tells us. "They were nonhunters, but his office had this black-and-white decor. I went online and found a guy who had the zebra skin and took it up there. Perfectly fine, perfectly legal."
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