Confessions of a Taxidermist: Sometimes Gross, Never Boring
My name is Heidi. I'm a 36-year-old professional reporter and researcher. My husband Kaylan is a professional taxidermist who runs and operates his own studio, called In Tune Taxidermy, here in Castle Rock, Colo. I have on many occasions been promoted to "assistant taxidermist" when my husband is in a bind; I know he needs help, but personally I think he just likes to see me squirm!
A quick lesson in taxidermy
Taxidermy is the act of mounting the skin of an animal. For thousands of years, primal hunters have used animal skins for shelter and clothing. Once tanning methods improved, hunters started using skins during hunting rituals. As the need for the skins increased, the tribe's tanner became one of the most important members of the tribe.
Forms of taxidermy have been around since ancient Egypt. Pets and animals considered to be sacred were mummified, preserving the animal for (potentially hundreds of) years. This type of preservation was not unlike tanning. During the Victorian era, animal art become the object of desire in interior design and decor. By the 18th century nearly every town had a tannery business. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the methods used were much different than today. Animal skins were tailored and stuffed with rags and cotton. The end product did not look very good and gave taxidermists a bad reputation that still plagues the industry today.
The art of taxidermy
The 20th century gave birth to new methods and techniques. Artists developed lifelike mannequins of animals, with accurate muscle and tendon details. Using these forms, the animal's skins were then mounted, removing the need for unsightly stuffing. Today, no organs are used when mounting an animal. Clay is used to build up the eyes and facial features. Other materials are then used to shape and mold the ears.
Since adopting this new method, the terms "stuffing" or "stuffed animal" have become obsolete (and slightly offensive). Professional taxidermists now definitely prefer to use the term "mounting." Today, mounting has developed into a true form of wildlife art. Successful taxidermists are artists that incorporate modern skills such as carpentry, woodworking, tanning, molding and casting along with their artistic talents of sculpting, painting and drawing.
A day in the life of a taxidermist
Being a taxidermist is not always gratifying or artistic, in fact some times it is downright gross. Most of the time my husband does not have to deal with the internal parts of the animal. But occasionally he does have to cut skulls and flesh. And then there was the time my husband's worst fear was sent to him in a box.
A hunting outfitter sent in a client's deer rack to have it mounted, but they failed to completely clear the head and antler rack of all the skin and brain matter. When the box arrived at the studio, there was a terrible, overwhelming odor emanating from the box. It was a good thing we opened the box outside, because the whole skull plate was embedded with maggots. As we pulled the rack out of the box, the maggots started falling all over the ground. The one thing that can bring my husband to his knees is maggots. The poor guy almost vomited right there. The only thing we could do was to place the rack in a plastic bag and put it back in the box. We taped the box up and tethered it to the fence post outside, hoping the cold winter air would kill the maggots. Which it thankfully did, and after waiting a few days for that to happen, my husband took the rack out and power washed it, then went on with the mounting.
Taxidermy is never boring
Taxidermy can be repetitive and time-consuming, but never boring. Our studio is in a pretty rural area. We get some pretty interesting looking insects and spiders. Some species crawl in, ones that I've never seen before, despite living in the state my entire life.
Recently, my husband received a box from Africa. The box contained animal skulls and horns. After checking in the items he received, he placed the horns back in the box and pushed the box to the side of the studio, as he was still waiting for the hides. One night as we were leaving the studio, we noticed that the biggest spider we had ever seen was hanging on the outside of the African box. It was huge! It measured at least three inches from side to side.
My husband and I were concerned that the spider had hitched a ride from Africa. Not knowing what kind of spider it was, or if it was poisonous, we corned it, using brooms and a shovel. We managed to get the spider into a cooler. Once we got it home, we put the spider in a tank and e-mailed our local university a picture and asked for help in identifying the species and origin. We also emailed U.S. Customs for help.
Our daughter, being the animal lover she is, wanted to keep the spider and take care of it until we could get some answers. After a few days of living with what we were sure was a potentially deadly spider from Africa, we received e-mails from both the U.S. Customs and the university. The university informed us that our potentially deadly spider from Africa was really a rare wolf spider that is indigenous to our state. They asked us to release the spider immediately, due to the scarcity of that particular species. All that worry, over an indigenous spider! See why I say being a taxidermist is never boring?