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.
Trust your animal instinct.
What if you don't spot any details that are obviously wrong, but still think something is amiss? Conversely, what if you can't pinpoint any masterful details, but you still think you're looking at a masterwork? According to author Rachel Polinquin, the answer to both questions is simple: Trust your instincts.
"One of the questions I often get asked is how do you know if it's good taxidermy or not?" Polinquin says. "It's obvious what good taxidermy is! We have an innate knowledge of what an animal should look like. Animals don't walk around with great gobs of glue or wax or broken ears. If it looks like the animal could just sort of shake itself awake, then it's great taxidermy."
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