Taxidermy is often misunderstood, yet, it has long been the principle storyteller of our natural history. In Zoological and Natural History museums throughout the world from Copenhagen and London to the Smithsonian National Museum in Washington, DC, taxidermists are among the most valued and respected of tradesmen in the curators staff. Over the course of the last few centuries, taxidermy has evolved considerably from its crude beginnings where preserved skins were literally “stuffed” with cotton, straw or sawdust to achieve nothing more than a vague resemblance to their original form. Pioneers in the early 20th century such as Carl Akeley and Leon Pray established new standards in Taxidermy effectively merging art and science. The commercial industry however, though increasingly present throughout this period, did not experience such an evolution until the 60’s and 70’s and did not truly begin to see notable improvements in process until the early 80’s. Today, thanks to organizations like the National Taxidermists Association, the improvements in quality and quantity of anatomically correct “off-the-shelf” materials and the wide dispersion of knowledge resources available, commercial taxidermists are better equipped with the essential tools needed to offer the consumer a quality mount.
So why did it take a half century for commercial taxidermy to catch up with the institutions? Ironically, it is often taxidermists that under-value their profession the most. A lower professional standard usually equated to poor business skills and an almost paranoid, possessive and introverted nature within the profession. In the process, taxidermists were essentially depriving themselves of one of the most fundamental aspects of their own potential for success…professional growth and development. Over time, this self depreciating attitude resulted in an enduring public perception of taxidermy, not as a legitimate trade, but as part-time craft that required no formal training or education. Low pricing designed to get business resulted in heavy workloads, very little capital to purchase quality materials, extremely low profit margin and a poor end product. Even today, despite the numerous success stories in the industry, most shops never survive beyond the second or third year.
So what is this new standard in taxidermy? What is it that separates the enduring perceptions we have of taxidermy from the progressive achievements of taxidermists today?
Most folks will walk in to a Natural History Museum only a few times over the span of their lifetime if at all, but most will walk into a business or residence nearly every day that has taxidermy displayed in some manner. With that in mind, it seems perfectly natural that we have come to identify with taxidermy in the commercial sense as described in the previous paragraph. Much of what we see repetitively is not of the highest quality , albeit, the norm. It is important to note that institutional taxidermists have nearly always regarded the appearance of the live animal in basic anatomy, musculature, color, texture and expression as the standard, whereas the commercial industry has had, until recent years, no common standard at all. If the appearance of the live animal is the ultimate standard, a taxidermist has no choice but to continually educate and evaluate himself. He must routinely decide that which is acceptable, short of the live animal standard, for him and for his client. The essential skills can take years to perfect and while the taxidermist should be expected to improve with time, experience means little if it is simply a matter of doing the same thing over and over. Contrary to popular opinion, practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect. This is where we begin to close the gap between the institutional and commercial sectors of the industry, though there is still only a minority that fully accept the live animal standard.
In any product or service based industry, education takes time and time costs money. It is reasonable to expect to pay a premium for the services of those who invest in their own professional development. Those that do are more likely to operate on sound business principles and have developed the ability to interpret the standard and replicate your trophy accurately. They will typically back up their work with a guarantee within reasonable limits. It is of little importance how much they charge or how many hours a day they work. The highest priced shop is not necessarily the best nor is the lowest priced necessarily the worst. Full time taxidermist have the benefit of being in their element every day but also carry the burden of production which can become overwhelming and eventually impact quality or turn around times. Part time taxidermists enjoy the freedom to draw a check and benefits from their day job and come home to a few extra dollars a month with their hobby. All too often, the hobby becomes a job that they no longer find enjoyable, absorbing all of their free time. They, too, may become overwhelmed and begin to take shortcuts to hurry the process.
The truth is, the consumer is faced with a number of choices to address the things that mean the most with regard to who gets their business. Be it price, service, time, personality or quality, there is a little something for everyone in virtually every sector of every market, taxidermy included. Once you establish your priorities, you should familiarize yourself with what-right-looks-like. Shop around…the internet is a powerful tool for this as you can type in your state and the word “taxidermist” or “taxidermy” to the Google search engine and find numerous returns for taxidermists with websites from which you can review photos of their work, prices and credentials. Look for common traits such as membership in trade organizations, awards, years established, etc. This can be helpful in developing a profile to measure those who are within your own geographical range against your requirements. Do some advanced planning…the next time you see a mount hanging in a restaurant or in someone else’s home, look a little closer at the eyes, the lip line and the nostrils….does it look like the real thing? Look at the same features in a picture of the live animal and ask yourself how important it is to you to achieve that level of detail. Right after you have taken your trophy in the field is the wrong time to make that kind of decision. It is hard to replace the pride and satisfaction you feel with your mount the day you harvest. The next big day is the day you pick it up from the taxidermist, and while some of the adrenalin may have quit flowing, there is still a wide smile reserved for that big set of horns or that 12 solid pounds of monster bass…trust me, you will not be able to get past the sheer size of it for the first few months. The real question is this…can you live with it after that?