Taxidermy Tips

by Chuck (Onehorse) Tarinelli

Getting a trophy from the field to the wall requires the combined efforts of a good taxidermist and a savvy hunter.

During almost thirty years as a professional taxidermist, I mounted hundreds of trophy animals for hunters who were either very skilled, or just plain lucky, or both. One thing that most of them had in common, regardless of how they got their trophy, was a failure to plan, or even consider, how to get their animal to a taxidermist to ensure the best possible results in the mount. In fact, horns and hides were delivered in pretty sad condition more times than I’d like to remember.

One hunter who was scrupulous about planning ahead showed up at my shop one evening. I had never done work for him, but he was planning a trip to Alaska to hunt grizzlies, and he wanted to choose a taxidermist, and make all the plans necessary for getting the hide and skull delivered in advance of his hunt. After checking out my work, he decided that I would be the man for the job, and we discussed what needed to be done after the kill and how the trophy would be shipped. I enjoyed Jim’s visit, but, after he left, I really didn’t give much thought to how his trip might go, or whether I would ever see him again, let alone mount a trophy grizz for him.

Much to my surprise, a few weeks later, I received a phone call from Jim. He was calling from Alaska with the news that he had not only killed a grizzly, but was fairly sure the bear would make the Boone and Crockett book (which after the required wait, it did). Because he had all his ducks in a row, everything went very smoothly for Jim and me from this point forward. Not only was Jim a good hunter, but he also understood that getting an animal from the field to his trophy room was a team effort. After that hunt, Jim and I teamed up on many such trophies. I use the word “teamed” because it’s important to remember that if you want a really fine trophy mount, the work does not start at your taxidermist’s shop – it ends there. You need to do your part before the taxidermist even touches your animal.

Although most hunters head out with hopes of getting a good animal, most are not trophy hunters, and so, they give little or no thought ahead of time as to just what they might need to do if they should have the good fortune of taking an exceptional animal. A few hunters whose goal is to take nothing but a trophy usually know they are on the way to a taxidermist just as soon as their animals are down. Others who get animals that aren’t particularly exceptional don’t even think about a taxidermist until it occurs to them that their hunt had some personal significance. Perhaps it’s their first kill, or maybe they used grandpa’s old hand-me-down 30/30. Maybe the deer has some unique physical feature, or something unusual occurred during the hunt. Still others drive around with their animals in the backs of their trucks for a few days or more, showing them to their friends, until someone suggests getting them mounted. No matter how the decision is made, because of poor handling of the animal or waiting too long, the taxidermist often has the odds stacked against him or her before ever receiving the animal.

Let’s take a look at how a trophy might get to the taxidermist in two different scenarios. The first being when a hunter sets out with the intention of taking a trophy, the second, and much more common, being when a hunter unexpectedly finds a real “wall-hanger” at the end of the blood trail.

If you are planning on taking a trophy animal, follow Jim’s example. Spend some time visiting local taxidermists. Check out their work, ask about prices and required deposits, and request a list of references. Ask them how you should handle the trophy from the field to their shop. Different taxidermists might give different instructions. That’s OK. There really is more than one way to “skin a cat”, so it’s best to know your taxidermist’s preferences.

If you are planning a hunt with an outfitter, discuss how he handles the animal and ask just what services he provides. For example, do his guides skin and salt or freeze the hide, and if so, how experienced are they at doing this? Does he work with a taxidermist in his area? How does he normally ship the hide and antlers to your taxidermist? And, of course, are these services part of his stated fee for the hunt, or are they added expenses? Also, if you are flying and intend to take your trophy with you, be sure that you know the requirements that your airline has regarding extra baggage in the form of antlers and hides – how they need to be wrapped or crated and what the extra charges are for flying with these items.

Now that you have chosen your taxidermist and have a plan for delivering it, you need to conduct yourself in the field so that you get the best possible mount. Head and neck shots are no-nos, as are shoulder shots if you want a full shoulder mount. And please don’t cut an animal’s throat after it is down. If you are going to bring the trophy to the taxidermist, be advised that a throat cut is very difficult to repair so that it doesn’t show on the finished mount. This is not a good practice, even if you aren’t considering a mount, for two reasons. The first is that it’s not safe if the animal is still alive. If you can’t determine for sure that the animal is mortally wounded and is breathing its last breaths, shoot again. Second, it’s just not necessary if the animal is dead. In this case, cutting its throat would be about as necessary as shooting it again. Blood can’t be pumped out by a heart that is no longer beating. This animal has already bled out, or has bled internally, and most of the blood that’s in the body cavity will just run out during field dressing.

Getting your trophy out of the field can result in problems if care is not exercised. The most common mistake hunters make is to tie a rope around the animal’s neck and drag it over rough terrain. The rope will damage the hairs, and the drag will scrape hair from the skin. This can be avoided by using a cart or plastic slide that are made for dragging game. If you can get back to the animal with a four wheeler or horse, all the better. If none of these are available, get primitive and cut some poles and make a travois or stretcher-type carrier. You can even use just one pole (if you have a hunter for each end), although this arrangement allows the animal to sway enough to get tiresome. With a smaller animal, like an antelope, you can cape it, bone out the meat, and carry the whole load out in one shot. The same thing can be done with a larger trophy, but it might take two or more trips – one for the cape and head and the rest for the meat. Whatever you do, be careful all the way back to your vehicle. Before I was a taxidermist, I once took every precaution to protect a buck until I got to the paved road on which my car was parked. Just dragging that buck across the road to my vehicle was enough to scrape off half the hair from the downside of the animal!

Antelope are notorious for losing their hair if dragged even a short distance, but, luckily, they don’t weigh much. This hunter has the boned-out meat in his pack and the cape and head draped over the top of the load – a nice package!

Larger game move nicely on a cart. This saves the hide as well as the hunter’s back!

After getting a deer or other antlered or horned game out, you can remove the cape with the skull still in it and deliver it to your taxidermist. On a large animal, like an elk, you may have to do this in the field. Follow the cut lines shown in the photo below. Make a “V” cut from the back base of each antler or horn to the absolute center of the top of the neck. Then continue this cut downward well past the shoulder blades. Cut around the body well behind the front legs. If anything, cut much more than you think you need. Make cuts around the front legs just above the knees. Then cut along the back of the front legs and connect these cuts to the cut that goes around the body behind the legs. Work the skin back toward the head to the base of the skull, and cut the head off leaving the skull in the skin. You can do this by cutting through the muscle at the first vertebrae then twisting the head around a few times till it just pops off. You may have to do a little more cutting while turning the head, but this is the best way to remove the head – easier and safer (for your cape) then using a saw.

If you get a bear down and might want a rug, you need to start thinking about how your finished rug might look even before you field dress it. Most hunters make the mistake of making all of their cuts off center – whether these are through the belly and chest when field dressing, or on the legs while skinning. In the diagram below, the solid red line shows where to cut for field dressing. The broken lines show where to cut for skinning. If you stop the belly cut at the sternum (as shown in the diagram), you can later decide on a rug or head mount without making extra work for your taxidermist. If you are sure you want a rug, you can extend this belly cut straight up almost to the chin – just keep everything centered.

Another tip on bear skinning is to start skinning the hind legs from the center of the very back of the heel up toward the crotch area, not the other way around. (Shown at bottom of above diagram.) If this cut is started from the crotch downward, I guarantee that it will wind up somewhere near the middle of the top of the foot (the up side of the rug) rather than on the edges of the leg and foot where it should be. Keep your cut centered on the back of the legs. Cut off the feet (at wrist and ankle joints) and skull (at its base), without slicing through the skin, and leave them inside the skin. Do this with your knife by cutting between the wrist joints and vertebrae and twisting as described earlier for removing a deer head.

Centering these cuts on a bear is very important. A cut that is made just two inches to one side or the other of the center line when field dressing will have the effect of adding those two inches to one side and subtracting them from the other. This results in a rug that looks lopsided by a total of four inches! Of course, a good taxidermist can fix these mistakes, but he or she should rightly charge you (ok, I’m a little biased here) for this considerable amount of extra work.

Diagram of a rug from a correctly skinned (centered belly cut) bear on left. The skin on the right (off-centered belly cut) looks lopsided, and just a two inch cut to the left side during field dressing has created an illusion which makes the left front leg appear to be four inches longer than the right leg.

Whether the decision to bring the trophy to the taxidermist is made in the field or after the passage of time is a big factor in determining the quality of the mount. But in either case, the hunter can take steps to minimize the deterioration of the hide during whatever time is required to make that decision. I never much liked the idea of hunters trying to skin out heads because, more often than not, they would mess things up pretty badly. If my clients couldn’t get their unskinned animals or capes with heads attached to me right away, I’d suggest that they put them into plastic bags, squeeze as much air out as possible, seal and then freeze them. (Double bagging is recommended.) Bringing an ice cooler on a hunt could also be used for smaller trophies. But don’t put anything into a plastic bag that you are not going to put on ice right away – the plastic causes heat build up that will destroy a hide in no time. Another mistake that I would see from time to time would be when hunters tried to use both salt and freezing to preserve their animal’s hide or cape before getting it to me. Trying to use both of these methods may seem doubly effective, but in reality, it is counterproductive. The salt keeps the cape from freezing, and the sealed plastic bags keep the salt from drying the skin. This usually results in a cape or hide that is sloshing around in a bag with lots of fluids that have been drawn out of the skin by the salt.

The main culprits that cause a hide to deteriorate are moisture, dirt, heat and time. These are the conditions that promote bacterial growth, so these are the factors that the hunter must try to control or minimize as much as possible. It’s not necessary to wash a hide, and this should not be done. If there is a lot of blood on the hair, try to remove it by using paper towels or rags. In any case, taxidermists and tanneries can do a great job of removing blood from a cape, even after it dries. Don’t hang or transport your animal where it will be subjected to sunlight or heat. If you have no natural shade, cover it with a loose tarp to keep the sun off it whether it is hanging, on the ground, or in the bed of a truck. I once spent a day moving an antelope around the outside edge of my round tent so that it stayed in the shadow as the sun moved across the sky. A strange sort of “sundial”, but I didn’t have a tarp and there was no other shadow anywhere near my camp. That pronghorn, which turned out to qualify for the SCI book, got to my taxidermist (me) in perfect shape and now hangs on my wall as a beautiful trophy mount. As for the time factor, a cape or hide that have been handled and sealed properly can be kept in the freezer for a year or more.

The “sundial” pronghorn.

If you cannot bring your trophy to your taxidermist because you don’t happen to have the cash on hand to pay the required deposit, you can try a little negotiating. Taxidermists are usually looking for extra capes to replace those of animals whose owners have mishandled them. Because of this, they just might be willing to take yours in without a deposit. In this way, should you decide to have your animal mounted, it’s already been processed into the freezer or properly salted by your taxidermist, in which case, you just pay your deposit at some mutually acceptable time. If you decide not to mount, then the taxidermist most likely will pay you for the cape. Of course, this is only a suggestion, and what your taxidermist might be willing to do depends on how good a negotiator you are… and how in need of replacement capes your taxidermist might be.

Although a good taxidermist can make remarkable repairs on everything from broken antlers to damaged capes, some problems are simply too big to correct. Some that can be repaired might result in additional charges. I was always amazed by hunters who would bring in animals with badly damaged capes, and ask if I could take some hide from another part and somehow splice it into the damaged area. On some animals, like black bears that have fairly uniform hair, this is not totally out of the question, but on most animals, it simply can’t be done. If you think this is possible on deer, for example, the next time you get one down, take a good look at the difference in the color, texture, direction of growth and length of the hairs from one section of the hide to another. Getting your trophy out of the field and to your taxidermist in good shape avoids all these problems and possible extra expenses.

With a little bit of forethought and care, you can be assured that you have done your part to make your mount a fitting tribute to your animal and a pleasant reminder of your hunt. Just keep in mind that the quality of the mount is the responsibility of the hunter as well as the taxidermist. Your contribution is getting your capes, horns and hides delivered in excellent condition. When I was in the taxidermy business, my advertising fliers always acknowledged the part that the hunter played in getting a finished top-quality mount. They read, “Because the hunter and taxidermist are a team, at Black Elk Taxidermy, we are proud of your trophy!”

Good luck and good hunting.

Chuck TarinelliChuck Tarinelli
The first real hunting Chuck did as a young man was with his English setter for the pheasants and ruffed grouse of New England. Later, he started pursuing deer and bear in the Green Mountains of Vermont.
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