Taxidermists preserve and prepare animal skins and parts to create lifelike animal replicas. Taxidermists prepare the underpadding and mounting to which the skin will be attached, model the structure to resemble the animal’s body, and then attach appropriate coverings, such as skin, fur, or feathers. They may add details, such as eyes or teeth, to make a more realistic representation. The animals they mount or stuff may be for private or public display. Museums frequently display creations from taxidermists to exhibit rare, exotic, or extinct animals. Hunters also use taxidermists’ services to mount fishing and hunting trophies for display.
History of Taxidermist Career
Animal tanning and skin preservation has been practiced over the millennia for clothing, decoration, and weapons. Native Americans used tanned hides to make their lodgings. Trophies from hunts of dangerous animals were often worn to display the bravery of the hunter. Tanning methods included stringing skins up to dry, scraping them, and perhaps soaking them in water with tannins from leaves. Animal skins were preserved for many different purposes, but not specifically from interest in the natural sciences until the 18th century. Tanning methods improved during this time. Displaying the skin on models stuffed with hay or straw became popular for museums and private collections. Animals were posed realistically, and backgrounds were added to the display areas in museums to show the habitat of the animal.
By the 19th century, taxidermy was a recognized discipline for museum workers. In Paris, Maison Verreaux became the chief supplier of exhibit animals. Carl Akeley, who worked for Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in New York, mastered a taxidermic technique that allowed for realistic modeling of large animals such as bears, lions, and elephants. His works are still on display in the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History and the New York Natural History Museum. In recent years, several taxidermy supply companies have developed lifelike mannequins to be used as the foundations for fish, birds, and fur-bearing animals. Such new techniques in the art and science of taxidermy continue to be developed and used.
The Job of Taxidermists
Taxidermists use a variety of methods to create realistic, lifelike models of birds and animals. Although specific processes and techniques vary, most taxidermists follow a series of basic steps.
First, they must remove the skin from the carcass of the animal with special knives, scissors, and pliers. The skin must be removed very carefully to preserve the natural state of the fur or feathers. Once the skin is removed, it is preserved with a chemical solution.
Some taxidermists still make the body foundation, or skeleton, of the animal. These foundations are made with a variety of materials, including clay, plaster, burlap, papier-mache, wire mesh, and glue. Other taxidermists, however, use ready-made forms, which are available in various sizes; taxidermists simply take measurements of the specimen to be mounted and order the proper size from the supplier. Metal rods are often used to achieve the desired mount for the animal.
The taxidermist uses special adhesives or modeling clay to attach the skin to the foundation or form. Then artificial eyes, teeth, and tongues are attached. Sometimes taxidermists use special techniques, such as airbrushing color or sculpting the eyelids, nose, and lips. They may need to attach antlers, horns, or claws. Finally they groom and dress the fur or feathers with styling gel, if necessary, to enhance the final appearance of the specimen.
Taxidermists work with a variety of animal types, including one-cell organisms, large game animals, birds, fish, and reptiles. They even make models of extinct animal species, based on detailed drawings or paintings. The specific work often depends on the area of the country where the taxidermist is employed, since the types of animals hunted vary by region.
Taxidermist Career Requirements
High school classes in art, woodworking, and metal shop may help develop the skills necessary for this career. Also, a class or classes in biology might be helpful for learning the bodily workings of certain animals.
In the United States, several schools offer programs or correspondence courses in taxidermy. Courses often last from four to six weeks, and subjects such as laws and legalities, bird mounting, fish mounting, deer, small mammals, diorama-making, airbrush painting, and form-making are covered. Taxidermists who hope to work in museums should expect to take further training and acquire additional skills in related subjects, which they can learn in museum classes.
Self-employed taxidermists need accounting, advertising, and marketing courses to help in the management of a business, including maintaining an inventory of chemicals and supplies, advertising and promotion, and pricing their work.
Certification or Licensing
Taxidermists are required to be licensed in most states, with specific licensing requirements varying from state to state. Many taxidermists choose to become members of national or local professional associations. The largest of these, the National Taxidermists Association, offers the designation of certified taxidermist to members who have met specific requirements. Members may be certified in one or all four categories of specialization: mammals, fish, birds, and reptiles. Certification indicates that they have reached a certain level of expertise and may allow them to charge a higher price for their work.
Successful taxidermy requires many skills. You must have good manual dexterity, an eye for detail, knowledge of animal anatomy, and training in the taxidermy processes.
Exploring Taxidermist Career
Because taxidermy is a specialized occupation, there are few opportunities for part-time or summer work for students, although some larger companies hire apprentices to help with the workload. However, you may learn more by ordering videotapes and practicing with mounting kits to experience the mounting process. Other good learning opportunities include speaking to a museum taxidermist or writing to schools or associations that offer courses in taxidermy. Check with the National Taxidermists Association for upcoming conventions and seminars that are open to the public. Time spent at such an event would provide not only a solid learning experience, but also a chance to meet and mingle with the pros.
Taxidermists can be found throughout the United States and abroad. Experienced and established taxidermists, especially those with a large client base, will often hire apprentices, or less experienced taxidermists, to assist with larger projects or undertake smaller jobs. Contact the National Taxidermists Association for a listing of such employers. The majority of taxidermists, about 70 to 80 percent, are self-employed.
Taxidermy is a profession that requires experience. Most workers start out as hobbyists in their own homes, and eventually start doing taxidermy work part time professionally. Later, after they have built up a client base, they may enter the profession full time. Jobs in existing taxidermy shops or businesses are difficult to find because most taxidermists are self-employed and prefer to do the work themselves. However, in some cases, it may be possible to become a journeyman or apprentice and work for an already established taxidermist on either an hourly basis or for a percentage of the selling price of the work they are doing.
Jobs in museums are often difficult to obtain; applicants should have a background in both taxidermy and general museum studies. Taxidermy schools primarily train their students to become self-employed but may sometimes offer job placement as well.
Advancement opportunities are good for those with the proper skills, education, and experience. Taxidermists who can work on a wide range of projects will have the best chances of advancing. Since larger game animals bring more money, one method of advancing would be to learn the skills necessary to work on these animals. Taxidermists who develop a large customer base may open their own shop. Workers employed in museums may advance to positions with more responsibilities and higher pay.
A taxidermist’s level of experience, certification, speed, and quality of work are all factors that significantly affect income. Most taxidermists will charge by the inch or the weight of the animal. Fees can range from $100 to $2,500, depending on the size of the animal and the style of the mount. Difficult mounts or unusual background accessories may add significantly to the final price. For example, an open mouth on an animal, as opposed to a droopy mouth or a closed mouth, can add about $100 to the price of a mounting. In addition, the region of the country and the type of game typically hunted and mounted are important variables. Most new taxidermists might expect to earn about $15,000 annually. Those with five to 10 years of experience and proven skills can earn $30,000 or more. Some exceptional taxidermists can earn upwards of $50,000 annually. Museum workers might also expect to average $25,000 to $30,000 yearly.
Because most taxidermists are self-employed or work for a very small operation, few have any sort of benefits package. Those who work in museums, however, may be offered health insurance and paid vacations and sick leave.
Most taxidermists work 40 hours a week, although overtime is not uncommon during certain times of the year. Taxidermists with their own shops may have to work long hours, especially when first starting out. They often work with strong chemicals, glues, hand and power tools, and possibly diseased animals. If working on smaller animals and birds, they can sit or stand. However, creating larger mammal displays requires more physical work, such as climbing or squatting.
Taxidermists find it satisfying to see a project from beginning to completion. There is also the element of pride in good craftsmanship; it can be gratifying for workers to use their talents to recreate extremely realistic and lifelike animal forms.
Taxidermist Career Outlook
The job outlook for taxidermists should be good over the next decade. Although jobs in museums may be scarce, the demand for hunting and fishing trophies continues to provide work for taxidermists. It is not unusual for qualified taxidermists to have a year’s worth of work backlogged. In addition, many museums and other educational institutions actively seek models of animal and bird species that are nearing extinction. Talented taxidermists who can take on a variety of projects should be able to find steady employment. Those with an eye for unique poses and mounts, or unusual expressions, will be in high demand.