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Taxidermists reconstruct animal specimens (mammals, birds, reptiles and fish) into lifelike representations.
Taxidermists are highly skilled craftsmen with an in-depth knowledge of natural history, anatomy and wildlife. They work to produce sculptural representations of animals for display and preserve damaged specimens.
The word “taxidermy” has a Greek origin: “taxis” means movement and “derma” means skin. This is because taxidermists sometimes remove the animal’s natural skin and replace it with man-made materials to make it appear lifelike. Taxidermists may also choose to preserve the animal’s skin, feathers, fur, or scales to be mounted over an artificial skeleton or armature. It is commonly thought that taxidermists “stuff” animals, but this is a misconception, as the armature (which can be made out of a variety of materials, for example plastic or steel rods) is kept empty.
Many of the parts of the specimen have to be recreated with artificial materials. For example, clay can be used for the eyelids, glass for the eyes, and wax for the soft tissues.
In the process of creating lifelike reproductions, taxidermists use a mixture of technical and artistic skills, including sculpture, carpentry, painting, moulding and casting. Here are some of the reconstruction steps:
- Study the specimen’s position
- Carefully remove and tan (preserve) the animal’s skin
- Clean the carcass
- Remove and preserve the skull or create an artificial one
- Build the armature
- Attach all the pieces to the armature (skin, skull, soft tissues, fur, scales, eyes, teeth, etc.)
- Build a mount for the specimen
- Optionally, create a natural-looking surrounding environment
Taxidermists may specialise in one of the main animal groups: mammals, reptiles, fish or birds. Each group requires different techniques. Fish are generally thought to be the hardest to reconstruct, especially because their scales lose their colour as they dry. As a consequence, fish taxidermists must be deft and highly skilled painters.
In the UK, taxidermy is regulated under strict laws; most animals which end up in the taxidermist’s workshop are found dead on the road. Indeed, according to the British Trust for Ornithology, more than 100 million animals are killed every year by cars and trains. Only a small percentage can be retrieved in a condition that allows taxidermists to work on them.
Taxidermists will not work with illegally killed animals and will ask collectors to provide a proof of the animal’s origin and of the circumstances of its death. In case of doubt, taxidermists can refer to the Guild of Taxidermists, which is the only officially recognised organisation for taxidermists in the UK.
Some taxidermists specialise in restoring antique specimens. They are usually affiliated to the British Historical Taxidermy Society, a body in charge of recording and collecting historical specimens. It works with museums, local authorities and collectors to provide identification, authenticity and valuation services, as well as licensing and legal advice. It also acts as an educational resource for researchers, the media and taxidermy enthusiasts.
Taxidermists can be employed by national history museums, scientific companies, private organisations, or they may be self-employed.
Taxidermists can also hire out their specimens to the props department of a film, TV or theatre production.
Taxidermists can start their career as assistants for a salary ranging between £12,000 and £16,000 per year.
With several years of experience, taxidermists can earn between £25,000 and £30,000 per year.
At the most senior level, a specialised taxidermist can receive about £50,000 per year.
- Record information about the circumstances of the animal’s death, its scientific name and habitat
- Freeze specimens in appropriate conditions, for example in sealed bags
- Study the natural pose of the animal
- Use power tools, scissors, scalpels and other cutting instruments to remove the hide from the body
- Tan, de-grease and preserve the specimen’s skin
- Make the body’s armature using moulding, casting and other techniques
- Choose the appropriate material for the armature, for example wood, polyurethane foam, steel rods, plastic, fibreglass or papier mâché
- Make artificial parts such as eyes, eyelids, skull, fish scales, etc.
- Add the skin and all the parts to the armature
- Place the reconstruction on a mount
- Put finishing touches such as a natural backdrop
- Hold a licence to keep certain types of animals
- Stay informed of current UK legislation concerning the use of dead animals
- Respect health and safety regulations
There are no formal qualifications to become a taxidermist. The two main academic subjects which will help you enter the profession are biology (including anatomy and wildlife) and art/design so it will be useful if you have A levels or an undergraduate diploma in these disciplines.
You will learn through apprenticeships with an experienced taxidermist, and you can also take short courses to further your skills.
Mike Gadd, who represents the Guild of Taxidermists, offers 2- and 3- day courses on different animal groups. Subjects studied include legal issues, anatomy, preparation of the specimens, armature-making and finishing techniques.
- Passion for nature and wildlife
- Excellent knowledge of animal anatomy and natural habitats
- Creativity and artistic flair
- Strong attention to detail
- Manual dexterity
- Good hand-eye coordination
- Good eyesight
- Problem-solving skills
- Being comfortable working on your own
- Committment to a high standard of work
The work requires a great amount of concentration and uninterrupted periods of intense work.
If you are self-employed, you might suffer from a lack of social interaction.
You will have to handle frozen carcasses, as well as use chemicals and dangerous tools, so it is vital to wear safety equipment (goggles, gloves, overalls) and respect health and safety regulations when you are working. Make sure that you are not allergic to animal hair, fur or feathers!
You must be registered with the Guild of Taxidermists. They offer access to a growing resource library as well as a wealth of lectures, practical workshops and updates on new legislation regarding taxidermy. You can also show your own specimens to get some advice or enter them in competitions.
If you are planning to work on historical pieces, join the British Historical Taxidermy Society as a member. You will be able to attend their meetings twice a year, visit the taxidermy workshops of natural history museums and network with other specialists, collectors and dealers.
As you progress, you may lead a team of taxidermists in a museum and offer workshops for taxidermy amateurs and professionals.
If you are self-employed, you will hopefully increase your profile as your experience grows and obtain more interesting commissions. You may also specialise and sell your own work.
Also known as…
- Animal Artist
What’s it really like?
Colin Scott has his own taxidermy practice, Border Taxidermy Studios, based in Roxburghshire.
What is your job title?
I am a self-employed taxidermist/model maker.
How long have you been in this particular job and how did you find it?
I’ve been doing this full time for 23 years now and prior to that as a hobby.
I have always been interested in natural history from a young age and I used to try to preserve and collect things like birds’ wings and skulls, without much success. My first attempt at taxidermy was after I received a book on the subject from my parents when I was 13.
What was your first job as a taxidermist and how did you end up doing it?
After receiving that book, my first job was a starling. It was difficult to find taxidermy materials to use then and I made the most of what was available, including black pin heads for the eyes! Unfortunately, I no longer have the starling, but I still have the book, which is pretty awful compared to what is available now. Today there are DVDs, taxidermy courses, good books and the internet to get information.
I was fortunate to notice an article on the Guild of Taxidermists and joined them in 1978. I gained good knowledge and techniques at their annual conferences. Also, it was very important to meet other taxidermists.
What qualifications do you have?
My first qualifications are related to my previous job in a knitwear mill. I was a licentiate of the Textile Institute, which was of no use whatsoever to being a taxidermist, but the business studies course I took was useful for the self-employed side of things.
I now have professional qualifications with the Guild of Taxidermists.
What do you do in a typical working day?
It would be difficult to define what a typical working day is as I cover most aspects of taxidermy and hardly two days are the same.
There are usually several projects on the go at once at different stages of completion and I prefer to vary my work, rather than doing a run of similar things. That may not be as efficient, but it keeps things more interesting and it is not so hard on your hands and arms.
What are the most important qualities an applicant must and should possess?
You definitely need patience, practical ability, be self-motivated, have a passion for natural history and have an affinity with the specimens you are working on.
Do you belong to any professional body, and if yes, what are the benefits?
Yes, I am a member the Guild of Taxidermists, which was founded to raise the standard and profile of taxidermy in the UK.
The benefits are many – they represent taxidermists’ interests with government organisations and make known to members any new (and existing) legislation affecting taxidermy. They organise meetings where demonstrations, new techniques and materials are shown. Members can also bring along their own work for judging towards professional qualifications, competitions, or simply some constructive criticism. They produce a very informative magazine each year. It’s also a great way to get together and meet other taxidermists.
What has been your best experience on the job?
Hard to say, being in charge of my own destiny is a luxury I didn’t have in my last job, but it’s always good if you can pull off a difficult project and do the animal justice. Going to a museum where your work is on display and getting good feedback is also rewarding.
What was the worst experience?
When I first started out on fish, I spent two days painting a fibreglass model of a brown trout. I just finished doing the final touches and was very pleased with the result. I decided to give it a good coat of varnish/sealer before going for lunch and sprayed it on, thinking it would be ready for the second coat after lunch. When I returned, to my horror the paint had run down the whole length of the fish, ruining the job. Another hard lesson learnt – flash coat on first!
Do you find that there is a stigma or misconceptions attached to the job of taxidermist?
I think the Victorians are responsible for a lot of the stigma. It was acceptable then to have things killed for taxidermy and have them “stuffed”. Apart from having legislation in place to protect wildlife now, there is no need whatsoever to have animals killed for taxidermy. Also in modern taxidermy the skins are mounted on a mannequin and not stuffed with loose fillings like a soft toy. I think things are getting better though. People are more informed and can see the benefits of taxidermy in education and conservation.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
I know there are some people who do a three-day course on taxidermy and then start up a business, which of course is pretty certain to fail.
If you are going to be self-employed, make sure your work is of a good commercial standard before you start. Do it as a hobby or part time to begin with before you take the plunge.
If money is your main motivation, don’t go into this profession, but if you have the qualities required and succeed it can be very rewarding.
You should also consider that it can be difficult to switch off from the work, and it can become a way of life.
If you left this position, what else would you consider or enjoy doing?
It’s not something I have given much thought on. Wildlife photography, prop making or sculpting would be good, but I think I will be doing this until I retire.