wikiHow to Be a Taxidermist

Two Parts:Gaining CredentialsBuilding up a Clientele

Modern taxidermy requires more artistic creativity than ever before, thanks in part to its popularity among hunters, sportsmen, and fishermen. It is important to develop a variety of skills -- artistic, practical, and even scientific -- if you want to be a taxidermist. While taxidermists still handle the preparation and mounting of big fish and trophy big game, today's customer brings increasingly exotic finds and wants artistic, habitat-based mounts and dioramas. To serve clients and build a name for yourself in local circles, you will need to get a sound training, hone your techniques, promote yourself, and follow all legal requirements in your area.

Part 1
Gaining Credentials

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    Find a local taxidermist and ask questions. The oldest and in some ways most straight forward way to learn the trade is to study with a practiced hand. Seek out a local taxidermist. You will need to acquire a lot of artistic and technical skill – as a taxidermist you must know how to properly prepare an animal carcass, including tanning the skin, but you must also have an eye for anatomy and movement in order to make life-like mounts.
    • Watch, ask questions, and learn. If he is open to the idea, try to join the taxidermist as an apprentice. If he specializes in certain types of mounts – fish, for example – ask him for referrals to specialists in other areas and begin to network while learning how to craft a variety of mounts.[1]
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    Learn more about your chosen field. You will quickly find that taxidermy can be hard, dirty, and squeamish work. Read up about the field and observe your mentor. Use this early time to decide whether, with your insider’s knowledge, you still want to commit yourself to the profession. As a taxidermist you will first have to make precise measurements of the animal carcass. This way you will be able to recreate an accurate and realistic mount for the specimen. The carcass must then be preserved until you are ready to prepare it, usually in a freezer.
    • Making the mount comes next. Depending on the animal, you will have to prepare a plaster cast or perhaps buy a premade form. The mount serves as the new “body” for the specimen’s skin and must be the right size.
    • Next skin the carcass, cutting away the hide. Usually this is done without opening the body cavity and without seeing internal organs. However, you must then scrape away all of the excess flesh and fat from the hide.[2]
    • Once you have skinned the carcass, you have to tan the skin. There are several methods. Some use chemicals like salt and alkaline solutions (at one time, urine was the preferred choice), while others use the animal’s cooked brain, which contains oils that will naturally tan the skin. The latter is called “braining” or “brain tanning.” All methods are labor-intensive.[3]
    • After tanning, you can finally “dress” the mount by stuffing your form into the skin. Be careful to smooth out any irregularities before sewing it up. Put final touches on the mount by recreating things like habitat and flora.
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    Complete a taxidermy program. You won’t need a college degree to become a taxidermist. However, you will still need to have many hours of training and on-the-job experience. Some trade schools and colleges offer intensive two-year programs in taxidermy, which can be an alternative to a long apprenticeship. The typical trade program will train you how to use tools and chemicals to treat carcasses, make mounts, construct artificial habitat, and restore color, among other things.[4] Some professionals recommend taking an art class or two. A course in anatomy may also prove useful. After all, you will need to work on physiology and your artistic skills as a taxidermist.[5]
    • Weigh the benefits before you enroll. Graduates of taxidermy programs can begin working professionally and build a substantial portfolio while still in training. However, the cost can be more than $20,000 per year, too much according to some. An apprenticeship offers many of the same advantages but for much less.[6]
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    Get a state license and/or federal permit. Be aware that most states and countries require you to hold a license in order to mount dead game animals like birds, rodents, fish, and deer. Some jurisdictions also require different licenses for specific animals, and even your clients may need permits to possess the animal carcass. Read up on local laws.
    • For example, to practice taxidermy in the state of Michigan, you need a state permit that allows you to possess animal carcasses, buy specific parts like antlers, skulls, and horns, and sell mounted specimens. The permit costs $100 and is valid for three years.[7] In addition, you need a federal taxidermy permit to work with migratory bird specimens.[8]
    • Because it varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, taxidermy law is complicated. Consult a lawyer if you are unsure. You will need to be in full compliance to avoid fines.
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    Take a course on tanning. Tanning is an essential part of taxidermy. Tanning the animal skin turns it into leather, preserving it from deterioration and rot.[9] Not all taxidermists do their own tanning. Some choose to outsource this work to commercial tanneries. However, there are good reasons to learn how to self-tan skins. For example, the number of taxidermists has risen in recent years while the number of commercial tanneries has not, creating, at times, backlogs and delays.[10] Self-tanning will also reduce your overhead costs if you own your own business, and allow you to handle tanning emergencies in-shop.
    • Some institutions offer specialized courses in tanning.[11] You can also find comprehensive taxidermy courses that offer tanning in the general curriculum. Keep this in mind if you want to attend a program.[12]

Part 2
Building up a Clientele

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    Contact a wildlife professionals. Reach out to wildlife professionals and learn about the types of animals that will generate the most demand in your area. Do you live in the north woods of Minnesota? Chances are that you could find business mounting large game animals like deer, elk, or bear.[13] In the southwest United States you might find interest in species like pronghorn antelope, cougar, or bighorn sheep.[14] There are also opportunities in all areas for game fish and fowl.
    • Once you’ve identified animals, you will need a thorough understanding of their habitat and vegetation to effectively produce artistic dioramas. You may even want to take a habitat course for taxidermists, which includes instruction on how to make artificial rock molds and install large dioramas.
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    Develop a specialization. Finding a niche market is a way to establish a clientele as a taxidermist. You may find that you favor certain mounts over others. Perhaps you especially enjoy recreating the dynamism and movement of stream fish like trout, or game birds like ducks. There is also a specialized market for pets: bereaved owners who want to have their late pet cats, dogs, or birds preserved for all time.[15] As odd as it may seem, a niche like pet taxidermy could prove to be lucrative for your taxidermy business.[16]
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    Join a professional organization. Joining a regional or national body like the National Taxidermists’ Association (NTA) is a good way to network with taxidermists and hunters of every stripe, and can give you a feel for what skills will best serve clients in your area. Such groups offer benefits, too. For example, NTA members are eligible for scholarships, get free access to the group’s annual conferences, and can earn the group’s voluntary certification.
    • Professional certification is not mandatory but can improve your credentials and business opportunities. Think of it as a perk of membership.[17]
    • Professional groups also lobby governments and help to shape hunting and taxidermy law. A membership will keep you apprised of any changes in local regulations.
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    Look for business opportunities. Taxidermy is a competitive job. Keep your options open! You may want above all to have your own shop and small business. There are other ways to make a living in the field, however. Some private institutions and museums employ in-house taxidermists to make or repair animal mounts in dioramas, like the Smithsonian or the Natural History Museum in London, for example, though such jobs are few and far between.[18] There are jobs to be found with larger, high-volume firms or in taxidermy instruction programs.[19]
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    Promote your work. Many taxidermists do end up on their own. In that case, you will have to be resourceful and work extra hard to promote and run your business. As a small business owner, you will need financial and marketing knowhow in addition to your skills in taxidermy. Try taking a course in business management, if you can, to learn more about bookkeeping, basic business law, sales, and advertising. Computer literacy will come in handy for communication with clients, creating a business website, and advertising.
    • Try old fashioned door-to-door self-promotion, as well. Look for locations nearby where you can display your work, like tackle shops, fishing stores, sporting goods stores, Kmart, Walmart – any place that will accept them. Make sure to have tags identifying the mounts as yours, with your business telephone, address, and website clearly visible. Even if they decline, ask to leave business cards and price lists for prospective clients.[20]

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