How to Become a Taxidermist

By TACP Staff on July 29, 2019

Taxidermy is an interesting career that allows artists to work with one of the most unique mediums possible – dead animals! Those who have an artistic eye and a knack for working and crafting with their hands may find this is quite a rewarding career.

1. Learn the Basics of Taxidermy

Taxidermy is an art form where the practitioner preserves dead animals by crafting models from their preserved skin. Many taxidermists work to create models that are similar to the animals in nature, while others create hybrid or fantasy creatures made from different animals’ parts. Taxidermy is a meticulous craft that requires attention to detail as well as an artistic vision.

Taxidermists must also be familiar with animal anatomy and have skills in carpentry, woodworking, tanning, molding, drawing, sculpting, and casting. In addition, this field allows individuals to take their artistic skills and vision to preserve animals for art and educational purposes.  You will need to be familiar with fur and feather texture and coloring and must have strong hand-eye coordination. However, taxidermy is not for the squeamish. Taxidermists must be okay with getting a little messy, as this career involves dealing with dead animals and preserving the skin.

Taxidermists are not required to have a formal degree. However, like most artistic career paths, taxidermy requires in-depth training and hours of practice to become skilled. If you want to work as a taxidermist in the US, you will also be required to obtain a license and/or federal permit (although regulations vary by state).  Some states require taxidermists pass an exam detailing regulations in various categories, such as mammals or birds.  Consult your state’s department of natural resources to verify licensure requirements and obtain information prior to starting out.  It should also be noted that taxidermists who plan to work on migratory birds must apply for a federal permit through the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in addition to obtaining a state license.  In addition, although professional certification isn’t necessary to work as a taxidermist, professional certification through the National Taxidermist Association (NTA) can help you get a job or show your commitment to the field.

Many taxidermists complete an apprenticeship to learn the craft from someone who specializes in the various types of taxidermy. Those who want to become taxidermists may also benefit from earning a college degree in biology, business, or fine arts before working on their craft-specific training with a professional taxidermist.

Like many other artistic professionals, taxidermists can work in a variety of different environments such as established taxidermy shops or museums and other scientific establishments. Many taxidermists work full-time, while others may choose to pursue their interests on a part-time basis, as the amount of work is often dependent on the season. For those who want to make taxidermy a full-time career, it is helpful to have some business experience or knowledge, especially if you plan to open your own shop.

The US Bureau of Labor Statistics does not list salary information specifically related to taxidermy. However, it does list salary information for fine artists (which includes painters, sculptors, and illustrators).  On average fine artists earned about $25.00 per hour or just over $50,000 per year.  The BLS also lists Leather and Hide Tanning and Finishing Industry wages of $14.14 to $17.30 per hour.

2. Master the Process

Knowledge of Anatomy & Attention to Detail Are Essential Components

A knowledge of animal anatomy is important to the taxidermy profession. For the most part, taxidermists work to create realistic models of animals. For this reason, a taxidermist must have in-depth knowledge and understanding of the anatomy of the species of animals they may choose to specialize in; like birds or fish. An understanding of animal anatomy allows a taxidermist to successfully recreate the look and feel of a natural animal.

The taxidermy process typically involves four or five major steps. First, the taxidermist will skin the dead animal and preserve its skin by tanning or by chemical processing. Then, the taxidermist mounts the skin on a grid, molding it to look like the animal in its natural form. Afterward, the taxidermist will install any artificial pieces like glass eyes to create the desired effect. The taxidermist may then label the work with any other important information if necessary, like if a fin is missing on a fish, or other oddity.

Before the taxidermist can begin the process and start working on the piece, he or she must consider the purpose of the piece. It is vital to understand where the piece is going after it is finished and what the client hopes to get from the piece. For instance, if a piece is going to be placed in an educational institution or a museum, it will most likely need to look as it would in nature. On the other hand, a piece completed for a person’s home or an art gallery provides a little more flexibility and room for creative license.

One of the most important skills that a successful taxidermist must possess is attention to detail. Taxidermy is a meticulous art that requires painstakingly detailed work. When it comes to taxidermy elements such as seam work, realistic features, or lifelike poses, clients want to know that their taxidermist is paying attention to any and all features that make the piece successful.

3. Build Experience & Seek Professional Development

No formal education is needed to become a taxidermist. That said, there are certificate and diploma programs available through some community colleges and trade schools.  These programs offer students training in artistic and technical areas of taxidermy and provide opportunities to work with professionals on authentic projects. Coursework may include learning the tools and techniques of taxidermy related to different types of animals, such as birds, small and large game and fish, state regulations, airbrushing and painting techniques. 

But, like any other artistic endeavor, taxidermy takes practice. Those who want to pursue a career as a taxidermist must seek out craft-specific training from an experienced professional taxidermist. Whether you volunteer your services to learn the trade, study under a professional in a formal program, or work as an apprentice at a taxidermist’s shop, you will want to have considerable training before you get your license and start seeking employment.

A strong portfolio is another important element for the taxidermist. Not all taxidermists are created equal. For instance, some taxidermists specialize in exotic animals like lions, tigers, and leopards, while others may focus on birds or insects. A portfolio of your work allows you to show potential employers or clients your quality of work while showcasing your specialty.

Networking is an important part of expanding your career opportunities, as well as getting the chance to learn from others in the profession. Join your state’s taxidermy association and attend taxidermy conventions when you can. At these events, you can learn new techniques, stay up-to-date with trends and issues in the industry, and meet other taxidermists who are working in the field. This is a great way to not only meet colleagues but also find mentors and potential employers.

Helpful Organizations & Resources for Taxidermists

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