A talk with Mark Russell
By Scott Douglas
Mark Russell is a licensed taxidermist who works out of a shop built behind his house in North Yarmouth. A former truck and trailer mechanic, Russell got involved with the trade in 1990. He specializes in Maine-based game, primarily bear, moose and deer, and completes over 100 pieces a year.
The Bollard: With taxidermy, the common conception is that you’re stuffing animals. That’s not really the case, is it?
Russell: Years ago, that’s the way it used to be. They used to fill them with anything they could get their hands on, because there weren’t any forms, or what you probably call mannequins, to speak of.
What a lot of old taxidermists used to do — say they had a deer head, they would take the skin off, like I normally do, but they wouldn’t cut the antlers out, like I do. They would have the bugs or something clean out the skull, and then boil it…. Basically, they were filled with sawdust. The materials nowadays are far superior to what they were 25, 30 years ago.
And what are the forms you use made of?
The forms are made of polystyrene, basically a polyurethane foam.
This shows my ignorance, but I always assumed that, say, that bear over there is the actual bear — his eyes, his bones, everything.
Well, it is his actual skin.
But that’s about it, right? How much do you have to alter to make the bear look realistic?
It all depends — there’s a good array of forms…. It’s like if you tried putting your skin on me, and I tried putting my skin on you, it wouldn’t fit. You would have to add more belly if you tried to put on my skin. That’s the way it works with animals — they’re not all the same size. It’s pretty normal for most life-sized work to have to be altered, whether it be the head or the body or both.
Okay, so a guy shoots this bear and comes to you and says he wants it mounted. Do you order the form then?
I order it after it’s been [sent out to be] tanned, because the green measurement and tanned measurement can change a little bit.
Basically, what happens here is that the person will bring me the animal. Usually, with a bear, the paws and the head are still left in it, so I’ve got to skin off the paws, skin off the head, invert everything — the eyelids, the septum, the lips, the ears. Then I flush all the fat and membranes off the skin. After that’s done, I put it in my salt bin, and I salt it down and let it sit in salt for a couple of days. Salt helps draw the moisture out of the skin, and it also helps set the hair, and it keeps the skin from spoiling. And then you hang it up and let it dry until it’s almost as white as paper.
How often do you get animals that are damaged enough to interfere with your work? I mean, this thing has been shot.
Actually, a lot of the damage just comes from being in the wild — fighting with other deer, running through the bush. I mounted a deer that had half an ear missing. We figured frostbite got it — it was so clean, it wasn’t a rip — and figured it just fell off, like anything else that gets frostbite and dies.
How did you get started as a taxidermist?
It started when I harvested a little eight-point buck and took it to a local taxidermist. Looking around at what he was doing, I thought, ‘This is kind of neat.’ I’d been turning wrenches for years and kind of getting tired of doing that.
So I took seven weeks off from work and went out to Iowa to a taxidermy school and got the basics. I came home, opened up a shop, started studying the anatomy of animals, started going to a lot of competitions. At this point, I was doing it part-time, so it was easy to sit down and teach myself all this stuff because I didn’t have to worry about making a living at it. Going to the competitions, you learn a lot. You get to talk to other taxidermists, go to seminars.
I see that you have tons of ribbons. What are they judging at competitions?
They go by a score sheet that’s put out by the National Taxidermy Association. It has a list of a lot of different things — anatomy, color blending, difficulty. They look at the symmetry of the eyes, pupil placement. It can get pretty intense. The higher up you go, from novice category to master, the more you get critiqued. These guys are really picking your work apart, so, say, if you don’t have a good knowledge of ear butts, where the muscle attaches to the ear to make it rotate, you’ll pay for it. And then when you start moving up into national and world events, it gets even worse, in terms of how accurate they want you to be in your anatomy and what you know about the animal.
What’s the highest you’ve gone?
I had four years in a row of first place, best in show in the master division with white-tail deer; that’s what I compete with a lot. I’ve competed with other things, too: musk ox, bear.
Do you still hunt?
As much as I can. That’s one of the disadvantages to this business — it really cuts into your hunting time, because if I’m not here answering the phone, then I’m potentially losing business… they’re going to call the next guy in the phone book. I don’t get out nowhere near as much as I used to.
So if I harvested a deer and said I wanted the head mounted, what does that cost?
Shoulder mount, that’s $475 plus tax. Anybody who lives in the state has to pay five-percent tax, because I have to pay it. That’s the way the state organizes us in the tax code — for some reason, they call us ‘service providers.’ They won’t let us break it down into parts and labor like a mechanic can. A mechanic only charges you sales tax on the parts, not the labor. I have to charge it on the whole job.
I don’t think it’s fair, but that’s the way it is.
And what if I wanted a whole deer?
Eighteen hundred dollars, plus tax.
What’s your competition like?
Licensed taxidermists in the state of Maine, I think there’s over 120 now. But you can also do it unlicensed, if you don’t charge for anything — it’s a hobby, you’re not doing it for profit. I’m not saying there aren’t unlicensed people who don’t make money off it. To get a license, you have to pass a test, and Maine is one of only two states that makes you take a test.
And then once you’re licensed, you’re licensed?
Yup, you just send in your $78 a year and send in your log. I have to keep a log of what I take in, who harvested it, tag and license numbers.
What do they want to do with that log?
The report book is to try to keep you honest, so that you’re not taking in illegally harvested game.
Say you have a buddy of yours that shoots three big bucks in a year. Well, you’re only allowed one. Two of them aren’t going to get tagged, and if the game warden comes into your shop and finds you’ve got more deer antlers than what your book says, he’s going to want to know where they came from…. I keep very straight records—most anything I take in, I have to have either a paper permit or a tag, something that says it’s been taken to a game warden.
What kind of hours do you keep?
I work pretty much seven days a week. I mean, that’s one of the nice things about working for yourself — if it’s a nice morning and I want to go hunting, I might take the morning off. But generally I’m here seven days a week, because there’s always something to do in the shop.
You have to be fairly committed to working every day — you don’t come to the shop and just sit around and expect an animal to mount itself.