Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story, Unarmed but dangerous critics close in on hunting.
John Stevenson, who runs Wyoming Taxidermy in Evansville, near Casper, used to mount 500 kills a year. But bad winters have taken a toll on local antelope herds, the number of hunting permits has been reduced and there are fewer kills to process. The essential changes in the business, though, are manmade:
"When I started (31 years ago), there were only two taxidermists in central Wyoming. Today there are 24 licensed, just in the Casper area. Taxidermy used to be seen as a full-time career. It took a long time to learn, through apprenticeship and studying on your own. Nowadays you can take a six-week course, or buy a how-to video, buy some supplies out of a catalog, mount a head or two and call yourself 'in the business.'
"The professionalism isn't there. A lot of people do it as a hobby - plumbers, florists - doing taxidermy on the side ...
"In the old days, you used papier-maché to make the manikin - the form that the hide goes on. Nowadays you use urethane foam ... A lot of taxidermists don't even make their manikins, they purchase them from a supply house, a catalog. You can get an elk in small, medium or large, (looking) left, right, or straight.
"A lot of the (mass-produced manikins) are done by sculptors who are going by photos - they've never seen a live animal or a fresh kill. They don't really know anatomy. They put in too much muscle definition. They try to pump up these animals to the point that the animals have big bulgy rippling muscles. I call it the Charlie Atlas Syndrome. Consequently, I still make my own or remodel manikins that I've ordered.
"Glass eyes have also changed. The process (of mass-producing eyes) has been speeded up, air-brushes are used to paint them. The eyes are designed to be more oval and lifelike, the white of the eye is right in the glass, but the quality isn't what it used to be. Even a novice can tell, once he gets one in his hand. The old, German, hand-blown, hand-painted eyes were much better quality.
"I can't compete with a novice who's charging half the price. The customers are just calling around, price-shopping; unless you can get them into the shop to show them the difference, they just don't know. It's a pretty cut-throat business."