Sitting in his taxidermy shop with son Cody, 22, and surrounded by completed mounts, a shipment of hides and skulls from Africa awaiting attention, and the tools of his trade, Anthony Hill is explaining his passion for his chosen profession.
“There’s a lot to it. I sometimes think you’ve got to love to do this. It’s a lot of work.”
He began doing taxidermy work when he was 18 and has been running his business, Hill & Sons Taxidermy, since 2000.
“I’d go to taxidermy shops and wouldn’t leave,” Hill said about his start in the field. “I didn’t realize it was work involved in it.
“That’s how we got started,” he said. “Not wanting to wait on your own stuff, and we started doing our own stuff and then friends and family wanted (us to do work), and it just kept growing and growing.
“Cody’s been doing it with me since he was … old enough to walk. He’s been doing it all his life. My other son Hunter, he’s been doing it since he was about 9, and he’s 14 now. All three of us do it full-time and then when we’re busy, both our wives work in the shop part-time during the busy deer season months. It’s a family business.”
The Hills note that the first step in a quality mount is choosing a good specimen and taking proper care of the trophy animal.
Father and son emphasize the main steps a hunter needs to take — freezing the animal and keeping it clean and dry.
“Just wrap it up and get it in the freezer,” Cody said. “If you’re even thinking about getting it mounted, just freeze it. Cape it out and freeze it.”
“If you’re not sure you can get it to me the day of harvest, it needs to be frozen,” Anthony adds.
To a certain extent, the Hills have separated the shop’s workload. Anthony primarily handles mammals and exotics, while Cody concentrates on birds.
For mammals, such as the various deer hunted by many on the Eastern Shore, Anthony offers these tips:
“The biggest thing is … as soon as the animal is killed, keeping it dry and getting it properly caped out. The biggest problem is they’re never caped out right … they’re not giving me enough hide (for the chest) “Another mistake guys make, the deer gets wet or in dirt or mud and they think ‘oh it’s dirty so we want to wash it.’ So the worst thing you could ever do is wet them because that causes bacteria to grow and causes what we call ‘slipping’ and that’s when the hair actually pulls out of the follicle.”
“The biggest thing with the birds is just keeping them dry,” Cody says. “When you put them in the freezer, make sure they’re wrapped up and not destroying the feathers because once you pull the feather apart it doesn’t like to go back together.
“It’s good to tuck the head beneath the wing so the head doesn’t get freezer burn,” his father adds. “That slows the process down.”
Younger son Hunter prepares most of the deer hides, separating the hide from the deer and the horns and taking measurements so his father knows what mannequin to order.
“He’ll do what they call ‘the fleshing.’ He’ll start removing as much red meat as he can possibly remove off of it …” Anthony says.
The hide is then salted inside and out and hung up for four to 24 hours, depending on the temperature. Finally, it goes into the freezer.
Once a significant quantity of hides are built up, the Hills start tanning them.
They take pride in the fact that the whole process, including the tanning, is done in their shop.
“We tan most things in house here. When we go to tan them, we’ll wash them thoroughly and degrease them,” Anthony said.
The hides are pickled for several days to open up the fibers, with the pH monitored to maintain the proper level. The citric acid used in the pickling is then neutralized with baking soda.
After pickling, the hide will have a “raise,” the fibers will be open, Anthony continues.
The hide is hand dried and tumbled, then shaved to bring out details and make the hide thinner and more pliable for the tanning oil.
Once the hide is ready, the mannequin is prepared, and they make sure the hide fits.
“And then that’s where the art kicks in,” Anthony said. “You go from a process into the art. That’s when you start setting the eyes, doing all the detail on the nose, making sure nobody can see any stitches, the proper location for the horns, the proper location for the ear butts. That’s when it becomes an art.”
After the mount is put together and glued, it dries for two to four weeks.
“After that occurs, I call it putting on the makeup,” Anthony said. “Then you’ve got to go and put all the natural tones back into the ears, around the eyes, tear ducts, inside the nostrils, the veins, the bottom of the mouth, the thin parts of the mouth get the pink natural (color) …”
With birds, Cody skins the animal out, cuts out most of the flesh by hand and then removes all the fat.
“I have to get everything off,” Cody said. “The fat on a bird will turn into a liquid. It will run through.”
“It will soil the feathers,” his father adds. “If it’s not properly cleaned and the feathers get soiled, it’s trash.”
The bird is then washed in cold water to remove blood and in hot water to clean it, then put in an odorless gasoline. As the bird sits in a wire rack, the water drains to the bottom. The feathers are then blown out.
“Getting a bird dry, it’s all about the plume at the bottom of the feathers,” Cody said.
The feet are injected with an epoxy and a wire is inserted if the bird will be mounted in a standing position.
Cody then cleans and paints the artificial heads, measures and builds necks out of foam and cotton, and tests to make sure everything looks right before putting the bird on the mannequin.
If the bird will be mounted as if flying, he has to wire the wing bones.
The feathers are then shaped up.
“Shaping them up is an art of its own,” Cody said. “The major thing with a bird is once you lose a feather, you don’t get it back.”
After the animals are prepared, the Hills work on building bases and adding vegetation for some mounts.
“You’ve got to be part carpenter in this,” Anthony said. “You’ve just got to know how to do everything. An artist, a chemist, and then people bring you challenges.”
Asked his most difficult challenge, he points to a Merino ram mounted on the wall.
“The thing that most taxidermists don’t like to do. See that sheep up there with wool. A lot of guys don’t like wool. Wool does exactly the opposite of what a taxidermist wants to happen when you put it on the mannequin. They’ll actually rot right off the wall if you don’t pay attention to them, get mildew, mold, a lot of guys don’t like them.
Another challenge was when the business began working with exotic animals.
“The hardest thing I’ve ever faced, when I first started getting into African animals, some of the hides were sooo thick, they were really hard to cut and break down.
That first exotic was a gemsbuck, with a hide that was an inch thick.
“That gemsbuck, that first one (taught me a lot). And then some of the wool animals taught me you’ve got to be real careful with them. They’ve got to be darn near dry when you close them up because if not think about what it does, it’s wool, it won’t let moisture out, it does its job.”
Hill then brings the conversation full circle.
“The hardest thing for me, it irritates me when something’s not properly taken care of.
“If we had any good advice to give to a person, if you’re not sure, find somebody and ask somebody, like a butcher or a taxidermist. The right way to care for the hide and preserve it until you can get it to us. There’s a lot of mistakes made.”
In addition to mammals, birds, and exotics, the Hills mount fish and do freeze drying and hydro dipping.