by Erin C. Healy - Saturday, February 2, 2019
A hunter goes to the NRA Great American Outdoor Show (GAOS) at the Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex in Harrisburg, Pa., and happens by the Pennsylvania Taxidermist Association (PTA) Taxidermy Competition display. He sees an impressive whitetail deer mount and thinks, “That buck looks great.” He picks up the taxidermist’s business card and stows it away.
A taxidermist goes to the GAOS the day before it opens to enter that whitetail deer mount in the PTA competition. His or her piece will be assessed by experienced taxidermy judges who have been recognized for their work. This year Ashley Barrett of Critter Creations will judge all mammals except whitetail deer, which will be handled by Lou Gagliano of Taxidermy Training Unlimited. Jason Martin will grade the fish and reptiles submissions and Dennis Wessner of Wessner’s Outdoors will be in charge of grading birds, waterfowl and turkey. Judges follow a worksheet to consistently grade each physical attribute of the species against the perfect 100-point score of a live animal. There are 17 categories, from upland gamebirds and waterfowl to small game and African species, each with its own checklist.
Every entry is awarded a ribbon. In our example, say the judge awards the taxidermist’s work a red ribbon. The taxidermist is handed his score sheet and he can request an in-person critique of his work from the judge so he can ask questions. The judge might say, “When you painted the nose, you pushed the nostril hairs the wrong way. When you removed the paint, the hairs got flattened.” That would be a point off the perfect live-animal score of 100. The judge will go through the remainder of the score sheet with the taxidermist. Scores of 90 to 100 are awarded a blue ribbon, scores of 80 to 89 receive a red ribbon and 70 to 79 get a yellow ribbon. If the taxidermist is at the annual Cabela’s Taxidermy Weekend in the fall or the GAOS in winter, he could then use that score sheet to improve his piece and then enter it in the PTA’s annual competition in March.
The PTA puts emphasis on education and outreach. And what an art form taxidermy has become. Ray Kowalski sits on the club’s board of directors, has been nominated to be the club’s next vice president and is a past president. Like hunting itself, the PTA’s membership is in decline, but Kowalski sees that as being more a result of changes to the competitions. In the past, the organization would dedicate thousands of dollars to prizes and rent large venues for its annual conventions. Now it concentrates efforts on helping members improve their skills and bringing new members into the fold. Some competitors miss the big-money prizes and don’t enter.
“What is taxidermy?” he asks.
Kowalski explains that the word taxidermy came from the Greek word taxis, meaning to arrange or move, and the Greek word derma, or skin. He often gives introductory taxidermy classes to outside organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America and that is how he often starts his talks. Kowalski is a native Pennsylvanian who grew up hunting with his father and three brothers, all but one of whom work in the steel industry. He met his wife, Kim, at work, and her side of the family boasts five generations of steel industry workers. After 40 years in the steel business, Kowalski retired. Though taxidermy has been a part-time endeavor for him, throughout, he treats it as a profession and is licensed by the state.
That’s one of the things the PTA recommends that hunters look for in a taxidermist: licensure. A taxidermist also should be willing to show you past works and teach you about what goes into his or her craft. (As in hunting, females represent a growing segment of the taxidermy subculture.) Does the taxidermist have insurance if something happens to your mount? Is the work guaranteed? Have you heard anything negative about this particular taxidermist? Nobody can make every customer happy, but fully explore any questions about reputation. Unfortunately, many hunters are more concerned with price and turnaround time. Kowalski devised a fair approach to such potential clients. He tells them that he’ll scrap the skin, removing any fats and meat, and then salt-cure it for a reasonable fee. He gives the customer a rolled skin that he can take home to freeze, a complete set of measurements and six months to shop around for the right taxidermist for him.
Kowalski personally sends his skins out to be professionally tanned. Other taxidermists might do their own tanning. Citric acid is now being used in brines and it can be a more natural approach to what is a notoriously toxic task. Proper disposal of waste are things the hunter can inquire of his taxidermist. Incidentally, the taxidermist can either order a wet tan where the skin comes back ready to mount on the form, or dried, which will require rehydrating and stretching once the form is ready. Today most forms are Styrofoam, which is the reason taxidermy has achieved the pinnacle of art that it has today.
“I’m still amazed,” Kowalski says, at how well taxidermists of yore did with what they had available to work with compared to today. “It’s almost not fair,” he says, of the advantages modern taxidermists have over their predecessors. He describes older mounts in which taxidermists used screws that didn’t match, clay and papier-mâché. Taxidermy is an art born of the scientific study of animal structure. The ingenuity of the craft in the past was in figuring out how to achieve a certain look. Today with the how-to of the craft having reached a level of consistency, the ingenuity manifests in the taxidermist’s artistry and precision.
As most hunters are aware, large-scale taxidermy suppliers provide countless whitetail deer forms, from shoulder and offset-shoulder forms to half size and full-size forms. And then there is the degree of desired head turn. For example: looking left, looking straight, looking right, head upright, head and neck in full- or semi-sneak, or in rut with a thicker neck. The taxidermist will order forms based on your deer’s measurements. Small, independent sculptors specialize in a particular species, taking castings, making molds and, as always, collecting measurements. In addition, forms can be obtained with the means to be mounted to a platform for incorporating habitat and complementary species.
Kowalski encourages hunters to apply the same level of concern to their heads and capes, birds and fish, as they do to meat processing. Time, temperature and blood can all make a taxidermist’s job more challenging. You can read on the website how to care for your game animal if you plan to bring it to a taxidermist.
Almost every state as its own taxidermist association with the ones in Pennsylvania, California and Texas being among the largest. In addition, there are two national organizations, the National Taxidermists Association and the United Taxidermist Association.
Jason Krause is the immediate past present of the PTA and he reminds hunters that although the show runs from Saturday, Feb. 2 to Sunday, Feb. 10, be sure to visit the taxidermy competition entries in the Large Arena by Wednesday, Jan. 6, when the display will be removed for the remainder of the show. He suggests hunters snap photos of their favorite mounts along with the contact information, because one day, you'll be in need of a skilled taxidermist.
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