A day in the life of a taxidermist

By: 
Jenny Gessaman
Reporter
Two taxidermied bunnies cautiously watch the camera as a seated woman, facing away from the camera, works at a bench.

Two bunnies, one adult and one baby, sit on a bench to dry at Forbes Taxidermy in August. The pins, as well as the paper in their ears, help the rabbits keep the proper shape as the glue dries.

Photo by Jenny Gessaman

“My husband wanted to be a cowboy.”

That, according to Linda Forbes, is what brought her to Montana, and eventually to a career as a skilled taxidermist.

While her husband’s dream put her in the right place, it was trapping that gave her the right interests. During the Forbes’ first years in the state, Linda sold furs from trapping to make extra money for Christmas.

Finally, it was mail that gave her the right instruction. Although Linda watched her father “dabble” in taxidermy, Forbes said her first real schooling was delivered by the postal service.

“I did some mail-order courses out here, when I was in Grass Range,” she said.

Linda’s first pieces were practice, animals that came from friends or family. In 1989, she started doing more pieces for more people, and Forbes Taxidermy was born.

 

Based in the basement

The shop lies just beyond Sapphire Village, a town that starts at the bar and ends at the town fire hall less than a mile away. The words “Forbes Taxidermy” are painted big and bold on several signs, pointing clients through the unmarked gravel roads that define rural Montana.

By a mowed lawn with a stream cutting through it, and down the cement steps of a quaint blue house, is Linda’s workshop. Cement walls and wood benches give her the room to work, and the space to organize her tools.

After more than two decades of taxidermy, Forbes has scaled down her list of services. She focuses on deer and antelope mounts, along with some birds and small animals. Occasionally, she will do mountain goats or bighorn sheep, but only from the shoulders up.

In the past, full-size mountain goats and bears have seen her shop, and her work has traveled across the nation, shipping to states such as California and Florida. Forbes has created countless conversation pieces: many gophers have left carrying rifles or six-shooters, and jackalopes proved popular among more imaginative clients.

While some can be whimsical, all the animals that leave Forbes Taxidermy are frozen in time. For clients, it’s an invisible magic that replaces muscle with a more permanent, but perfectly identical, form.

So what is the magician’s secret?

 

Fresh from the hunt

Two decades of experience as a taxidermist has given Linda time to perfect her process, and the steps are so ingrained she can recite them without blinking.

She starts with the obvious essential: an animal. The most important thing, Forbes said, is that she gets the mount fresh. If an animal, such as a deer, is left out for a couple days, the areas around its ears and nose dry out, making it harder to skin.

When an animal is skinned specifically for a taxidermy mount, the hunting world calls it caping. The process creates a cape, or a skin that was taken from the animal’s head, shoulders and chest.

Although it may sound like extra work, Linda prefers to be the one caping an animal, especially for shoulder mounts. Years of practice have left her with an intuition about how much of a cape she will need for her work.

Caping may evoke Forbes’ days as a trapper, but part of the practice makes her more comparable to a seamstress. Before removing the skin, Forbes takes meticulous measurements, like a tailor starting a suit. The numbers she measures will ensure the form and the skin will match, so she writes down the inches from the corner of the eye to the tip of nose, from the nose to the back of the head. Forbes always takes a minimum of five measurements.

The numbers, their descriptions and a hunting license number are recorded and filed. The cape is carefully stored in a freezer, with a tag matching it back to its records. Forbes wants a fresh cape because it’s easier to preserve and work with, although she doesn’t work with them right away.

“I don’t work on anything during hunting season,” Forbes said.

Instead, she explained, she works on taking in the trophy animals hunters bring in. Forbes waits until the new arrivals die down, and larger chunks of time appear, before tackling any projects.

 

Giving back shape

Once the season closes, and the hunters stop arriving, Forbes Taxidermy kicks into high gear. After the freezer, and Forbes’ own preservation process, the second essential comes into play: the form.

The magic that refills the skins of deer, antelope and even gophers, giving them lifelike shape, is, more often than not, plastic. The naked shapes can be oddly chilling to look at: the forms are like monotone musculature diagrams for every animal imaginable.

This is where Forbes’ attention to detail comes into play. She pulls out her previous measurements, seeing where the generic form fits or fails. Even if the structure is close, matching the shape to the cape can take some fiddling.

“I try it on to see if it can fit,” Forbes said. “A lot of times, it doesn’t fit the first time.”

Most taxidermists are prepared for this, and Forbes has her own set of tricks: She can lengthen muzzles with hot glue, or thicken areas with clay.

For smaller animals, and some birds, Forbes finds it easier to create her own forms. She keeps the bones, using them to guide her as she molds shredded wood into the proper shape. These projects require more measurements and several drawings.

Once the form and the skin match, the two are glued together and finishing touches begin. This is the point Forbes enjoys the most.

She works with the eyes, nose and lips to tuck in skin and make realistic edges. She does any sewing using wax or nylon thread to do a clean, precise baseball stitch where needed. Any seams are hidden, and needed touchups to the skin are done.

Shoulder mounts for game animals such as deer or antelope take roughly 15 hours. Small animals can take 15 hours and up, and can be a challenge.

“The life-size animals are really challenging,” she said. “The little animals are really tedious and challenging.”

By the time the client, whether hunter or museum, receives their mount, they may do a double take.

“I like putting things together and finishing it so it looks real,” she said.

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