Taxidermy, like any other art form, is rewarding yet challenging work. It requires not only specialized knowledge pertaining to animal skins, but also general knowledge of animal biology and habitats. A good taxidermist must also have an eye for mounting animals in graceful poses and creating striking dioramas which is a fancy word for ‘three dimensional backdrops.’ If you enjoy nature, taxidermy might be an interesting profession or even just a hobby you can monetize part time.
What is Taxidermy?
Taxidermy is the art of stuffing and preserving animals. Have you ever seen a deer head mounted on a wall? That dear head was stuffed and prepared by a taxidermist. In certain areas, especially areas in which hunting is prevalent such as parts of Texas, there’s a large demand for good taxidermists, and good taxidermists are hard to find.
You don’t need a particular degree to practice taxidermy—not even a college degree. In most states, however, you do need a license. The licensing process varies by state. In the state of Connecticut, for example, you need to fill out a simple form and pay a $105 application fee. Other states have stricter regulations. Read up on your local laws very closely. Some states prohibit you from working with certain animals. In New Jersey, for example, you can’t work with ducks.
Another thing to be aware of is the fact that in many states, you can’t hunt animals for the purpose of stuffing and mounting them. In other words, you need to work with animals that have died of natural causes or have been run over by cars.
How to Become a Taxidermist
To adequately support yourself as a taxidermist, you need to know what you’re doing. There are two ways to obtain the knowledge needed to practice taxidermy. First, you can become an apprentice to a local taxidermist. You can contact that taxidermist and offer to work for very little money, if any at all, in order to learn the ins and outs of the business. This method is probably the most direct and best way of becoming a taxidermist. In addition to learning the technical aspects of the job, you’ll learn the artistic aspect as well. You’ll also become familiar with the particular market in your area and begin to build a network of clients and contacts in the industry.
There are also many training and certificate programs for taxidermists. Some of these programs can be completed online such as the American Institute of Taxidermy’s program. These programs vary greatly in price. A good rule of thumb—the more legitimate a program is, the more it will cost. In other words, you get what you pay for. If you’re really serious about taxidermy and you feel as though studying the subject in an academic setting is the best route for you, you’ll probably need to drop about $20,000 for a degree. A $20,000 degree should help you obtain clients and jobs, but there’s no guarantee. Remember, your clients won’t care too much about what degree you have. They’ll simply care about the quality of the product they receive, especially if they’re paying a lot of money for your services.
What Does a Taxidermist Do?
There are two sides of taxidermy—the scientific side and the artistic side. The scientific side is quite technical so for the purposes of this article, let’s review the basic steps for stuffing and mounting an animal.
Step one, freeze the dead animal so that it doesn’t decompose. While the animal carcass is in the freezer, you create a mold. You can make a mold out of many materials. Some people use wooden sticks or other recycled materials, but most people use plaster. You can also buy a premade mold, which is common when mounting deer busts. This mold will serve as the structural frame for your final product.
Once you’re mold is ready, you take the animal out of the freezer and remove its skin. Once removed, the skin needs to be turned into leather through a process called tanning. This process preserves the skin and prevents it from rotting. There are different methods of tanning. A common method involves using water, salt, a pickling agent and tanning oil. For birds and fish, you’ll need to use Borax, which is a chemical compound. My own preferred method of tanning is called ‘braining’ which involves cooking the animal’s brain and using certain brain juices mixed with water to create an exceptionally soft yet durable pelt. [‘Pelt’ is another words for a ‘fur’ or animal skin.] Some taxidermists outsource the skin tanning process.
Once the skin has been tanned, you sew the skin onto the mold. Then you glue on fake eyeballs and teeth, normally teeth extracted from the animal, and voila, you have a finished product.
But a good taxidermist balances the scientific side with an artist's eye. The shape of the mold, for example, takes an artist’s eye to envision and prepare. The mold must be shaped naturally and capture the animal in a visually stimulating pose. Also, as taxidermy becomes more competitive, taxidermists create dioramas of a certain style to distinguish their brand. Some taxidermists create dioramas with really accurate and elaborate backgrounds. Some taxidermists do theme based diorama. For example, you could create a ‘Harry Potter’ themed diorama by stuffing a bunny rabbit and dressing it in a wizard’s suit and having it hold a magic wand. You could then situate that rabbit in a train car because it’s taking the train to Hogwarts. The more creative you are, the more you can distinguish your brand from the rest of the pack.
The average taxidermist who is able to find consistent work makes the average salary that all craft based artists make—around $35,000 per year. But like mostly every specialized industry, the people at the top—the well established taxidermists—can charge a lot of money per project. Big game hunting is illegal in many places, but big game hunters are usually rich. Rich people who like to hunt will pay a lot of money for a nice mount. If you’re good at what you do and find the right clients, you can make a nice paycheck as a taxidermist, upwards of $20,000 per project.
You need to love the art of taxidermy in order to succeed in this industry. Parts of the job can be gruesome and when you’re first starting out, you won’t be making much money. Many people start by practicing taxidermy as a hobby and then get good at it and start charging for their services. This isn’t the type of job where you can B.S. your way through the work day. You have to be motivated and disciplined in order to perfect your craft.