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News on the taxidermy front: Cheap mounting jobs come at a price

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Taxidermy historian John Janelli in his bedroom with his dog and a few tropies. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Taxidermy historian John Janelli in his Union City, N.J. living room among his collection of antique mounts and mounts he crafted himself. (Amanda Rivkin/CNS)

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Master taxidermist Greg Crain's client requested that the missing fourth paw of this award winning black bear mount be concealed. He found a way around the problem and acquired freeze-dried bees for decoration from an exterminator-friend. (Jackie Bartels/Courtesy of Greg Crain/CNS)

When Clif Cannon, a master taxidermist in Meadville, Miss., crafts one of his award-winning mounts, he refers to thousands of pictures of white-tail deer and bobcats to make sure every feature is anatomically accurate. “I’m just one of those guys, I won’t cut a corner,” Cannon said. “Everybody expects that and deserves that.”

Lately, though, he has seen too many mounts with flawed details, like bobcats with black noses and deer with black eyes. “Go look at a bobcat, and its nose is pink,” he said.

Cannon is upset by competition from budget taxidermists, who he says don’t necessarily have the skill or commitment to do the kind of painstaking job he does. While they haven’t flooded the taxidermist market, they have provoked concern from practitioners of the art.

The National Taxidermists Association has an 11-point code of conduct to prevent abuses by its 2,500 members. The points range from Item 6, “I will make every effort to fully acquaint my clients with the true potential of their trophies,” to Item 7, “I will refuse to alter or falsify trophy characteristics.”

Executive director Greg Crain receives about a dozen phone calls each year from clients dissatisfied with the quality of a member’s work, and such complaints can lead to a taxidermist being expelled from the organization. However, clients upset over work by nonmembers have little recourse.

Outdoorsman Morgan Barrowcliff, 20, of Homer, Alaska, is currently in Cushing, Minn., for a monthlong course at the Stoney Hills School of Taxidermy. It is his second year at the school. He said the quality of taxidermy work done in his hometown area is shoddy.

“I didn’t just want a dead animal,” Barrowcliff said. “They just do a poor job on the mounts and they do not look very good. They don’t take it seriously. They do it as a side job.”

The best way to avoid bad taxidermy, Cannon said, is to educate new clients about the craft, which is one of precise detail. It can take weeks to mount a single skin. A taxidermist must salt, tan, mount and tweeze individual feathers or hairs over the course of weeks, depending on the animal.

Terri Lively, a master wild turkey taxidermist and owner of Little O’s Taxidermy Shoppe in Odin, Ill., said, “Each feather you have to work with daily to keep them in place until it dries.”

Cannon spent years honing his skills, rising to the top in national competitions. He won first and second place in the Quality Deer Management Association Grand Masters Whitetail Taxidermy Championship. He says his firm, After The Shot Taxidermy, caters to “quite a few millionaires and just the average guy.”

Often, clients must wait six months to a year for their mounts to be prepared. The end product is either an animal head ready to hang on a wall or a life-size trophy mount. The amount of space the client has to display the mount often determines a customer’s preference. Hunters can spend years searching for the right taxidermist. Prices can range from $350 to $2,000 for a prepared deer head.

Taxidermy historian John Janelli of Union City, N.J., crafted mounts for the late Christopher Reeve and as scenery for the New York Shakespeare Festival and the Metropolitan Opera (for either “La Boheme” or “La Traviata,” he doesn’t remember which.) He has been doing taxidermy since his mother bought him how-to videos about fish mounting when he was 10 years old. He has spent all his adult life promoting taxidermy.

Janelli said that some of the best taxidermists don’t do it full time. “There are a lot of really good taxidermists out there who don’t have a studio,” he said, adding that the onus is on customers to look carefully at what they’re getting.

Crain, a master taxidermist of waterfowl who also specializes in wild game, is a full-time taxidermist. But he realizes that not all clients are looking for his level of skill or his prices.

Crain offers a $350 fish mount, but he also has a budget option at $125 less. Half of his clients prefer the budget option, Crain said.

Finding a taxidermist is like shopping for a car. Not everybody drives a Lexus or a Mercedes, he said. Some people drive a Ford Pinto. But even so, he still considers taxidermy a growth field.

“Depending on the economy, the tighter things get for people, the more people want to get into taxidermy,” he said.

E-mail: akr2105@columbia.edu