Sunday, July 25, 2005

The right stuff: A love of animals and art makes for a successful career in taxidermy

By Liz Garone
Special to Bee Creative

A few years ago, taxidermists were considered a dying breed, but these days business is brisk and plentiful in stuffing and mounting. While big-game hunting may be on the decline in the United States, there are still lots of fish and bird enthusiasts who want to see their catches immortalized. What used to be simply sewing up animal skins and stuffing them has evolved into an art form. The goal in taxidermy is to create a lifelike, three-dimensional representation of an animal for permanent display. Like the hunters who utilize them, taxidermists also have begun to specialize - in fish, birds or African mounts, for example. The latest trend is taxidermists who specialize in catch-and-release fish mounts. Fishing enthusiasts take photographs and careful measurements of their catches and bring them to their taxidermist, who then recreates the catch with amazing accuracy. It's a win-win situation for everyone - the fish included.

Talk to a few taxidermists and you'll see a pattern for how they got into the business: they wanted to mount the animals they had killed but didn't want - or couldn't afford - to pay someone else to do it, so they tried it themselves.

For some, what might have started as a hobby has become a lifelong passion and a career choice. Take the case of Modesto's Bob Balch, owner of Bob's Taxidermy. He began mounting when he was only 14. "I didn't even know the word 'taxidermy' at the time," he recalls.

What caught the teen bird hunter's eye was an advertisement for the Northwest School of Taxidermy in Omaha, Nebraska, and its correspondence courses in an issue of Field & Stream magazine. He sent away for the lessons: 12 for $3. Balch started mounting the birds he had killed, and his business took flight from there, first with friends, then with paying customers. "I just stuck with it," he says, 43 years later.

Balch says he has been able to make a decent living as a taxidermist. Rates for mounts vary greatly but range anywhere from the low hundreds to the thousands. A duck mount costs about $190, while fish run $14 an inch, averaging around $350. A half life-size mount for a bear or other large animal will run $900. The strangest animal Balch ever mounted was a Florida alligator brought to him by an airline pilot.

Taxidermy is both art form and science, according to Balch and other practitioners of the trade. "This is the highest form of art there is. You have to know painting. You have to know anatomy. It combines everything," Balch says.

Manteca's Cindy Beck would agree. She started mounting three years ago. For her, it was a natural progression from the other work she was doing: skeletal articulation (cleaning up animal skeletons and making them lifelike). "I've always been sort of an artist, always drawing pictures," says Beck, of Bad to the Bone Taxidermy in Manteca. "This just seemed like another artistic way to have fun." For Beck and others, a love of animals is essential to succeed in this field. "I'm a true believer that if you kill an animal or an animal dies, it just shouldn't be thrown away," she says. "If the mount is done right, you can preserve it for many, many years." When she first became interested in taxidermy, Beck wanted to find a local school offering taxidermy coursework. But all of the taxidermy schools ( were located out of state. Modesto Junior College used to offer a taxidermy course taught by Balch, but when he quit a few years ago, the school stopped offering the class.

There are also online courses ( available, and a number of companies sell "how-to" videos detailing the steps for a mount. A number of taxidermists around the country offer one-day to one-week workshops (, but even those are hard to come by in California. The only course currently offered is bird taxidermy with Stefan Savides in Siskiyou County near the Oregon border (

Beck's approach was "hands on": she decided to watch veteran taxidermists at work. One, a Modesto taxidermist who asked to remain anonymous, took her under his wing and showed her the ropes. "Basically, I'm learning as I go," Beck says.

Beck's mentor says there is plenty of room in the industry for new recruits. He is so busy that he often has to turn potential customers down. He recommends that anyone considering the field read the 1943 book, Taxidermy, by Leon Pray, available in local libraries. "There are latter books and videos, but nothing compares to Leon's drawings," he says.

Taxidermy conventions are a great way to get started and to meet other taxidermists. Each year, more than 40 are held around the country. The 300-member California Association of Taxidermists ( holds its annual convention each spring in Redding.

The California Department of Fish and Game doesn't require licensing for taxidermy. What is required is proof that the animal was legally taken and possessed.

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