PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- Whether it is a bearskin rug or a full-sized deer, taxidermists are preserving more than the animals they spend hours working on. They are preserving memories.
Ted Pilgrim, who grew up in Verndale, has been practicing the art and science of taxidermy for 40 years in his shop four miles south of Park Rapids.
Polar bears and Kodiak bears are the two biggest animals he has preserved.
“I’ve worked on animals from Canada, Alaska and Russia over the years,” he said. “Most of my customers live within a 50-mile radius of Park Rapids, but I have done work for people from all parts of the country, especially when I was doing fish.
"Back in the days when there were a lot of resorts in the area, new guests would come up every week. In the 1980s and 1990s, when fishing was a big part of the resort industry, I gained customers from all over the country, and a lot of my business comes from referrals."
Learning by doing
Pilgrim has been hunting since he was 10. His love of nature led him to pursue a biology degree from Bemidji State University, but when he couldn’t find a position in this area working in natural resources, he decided to follow a trade he learned at a young age.
“One of my high school teachers was a hobby taxidermist and he taught me taxidermy when I was in seventh or eighth grade,” he said. “When I first started, it was a learn-as-you-go process and throw the mistakes in the garbage and start over with another one."
Pilgrim said he went to a lot of seminars where he learned techniques from other taxidermists. “There are many good taxidermists who never went to college or trade school,” he said. “They just have a natural artistic ability.”
The artistry of tapestry is expressed in recreating how the animal looked in the wild. “I try to make it look alive,” he said. “There are a lot of tools that help me along that path."
It begins by skinning the animal.
“It has to be done in a particular way to get a good quality mount," Pilgrim said. "Just taking that hide off the carcass, if it's done improperly, can make it really difficult to make a good mount.”
He said hunters should consult their taxidermist before going out in the field. “You can’t rely on YouTube videos,” he said. “Some of the information on YouTube is good, but some is totally wrong."
Pilgrim said when he started, it was common for taxidermists to tell people to wrap their fish in a wet towel and then put it in a plastic bag and freeze it. But that practice will destroy the color, he said.
"But if you went on YouTube right now and Googled how to take care of a fish for taxidermy purposes, you’ll get all kinds of results that say to wrap that fish in a wet towel. That information is 40 years old, but it just keeps repeating itself.”
Pilgrim said he is no longer taking in fish and birds and instead, working on big game as he's trying to semi-retire.
“I’ve got a lot of work piled up in my freezers, both personal and family animals I want to try and get done one day," he said.
Those heading to western states need to skin their animal before returning to Minnesota. “Because of CWD (Chronic Wasting Disease) regulations, they can no longer bring the carcass into Minnesota,” he said. “Having knowledge of how to take a cape off an animal or skin the animal completely is very necessary for a western hunt. People going out of state need to pre-plan if they want to have their animal preserved through taxidermy.”
Hides are stored in a freezer until he is ready to work on them. “That way they stay fresh,” he said. “There is about a two-year wait from when hides come in until the project is completed.
I take that tanned skin and order a form, then bring that animal back to a lifelike-looking state. Two or three large bears I’ve worked on have been life-sized mounts. But my customers run the whole gamut. Some want a shoulder mount of a bear or a bear rug. I do quite a few where I just tan the hides for people to hang on their wall.”
Changes in the tanning industry have led to mounts that look better and last longer.
“Years ago, the hides tanned using acid and a lot of salt tended to break down over time," Pilgrim said. "Now a lot of the tanning is synthetic or a combination of synthetic and organic, and that makes the hides more subtle and workable. Now hides can hang on the wall for 30 years and not deteriorate.”
Pilgrim gets his hides from a commercial tannery. Forms of animals called mannequins are used for life-sized models. Paint science has evolved from using automotive paint to specialized taxidermy colors that adhere to protein and skin.
On big game mounts, all membranes on the face that don’t have hair need to be painted. Glass eyes have also become more life-like.
“Looking back at the eyes that were available in the 1970s and '80s, they were terrible,” Pilgrim said. “The new-age eyes that we can buy today have such great detail. It’s an incredible improvement.”
“Customers who come in bring a certain level of excitement with them when they come in the door after a hunt,” Pilgrim said. “I hear some absolutely phenomenal stories.”
Pilgrim said while a mount might not look exactly like it did when the hunter was in the field, what taxidermy customers are looking for is for something tangible connected to the hunting experience.
“They look at that years from now and remember what the hunt was all about,” he said. “The memories are in a person’s head and the taxidermy work is just a way to keep the memory alive. People do the same thing with a photograph.”
Other times all the customer wants is a deer head on the wall or a bear rug on the floor. “Especially in this area, owners who may not hunt want something to give their cabin or lake home a rustic northwoods look,” he said.
Pilgrim said it takes more time to do a lifelike mount than a shoulder or head mount.
Right now he estimates there are 300 mounts waiting to be done in his nine freezers, not counting his own kills and those of family members.
When he can get away, Pilgrim enjoys hunting deer, elk and antelope. “I have to be selective in the time I take off,” he said. “If I tried to do everything outdoors that I enjoy, my backlog would be even worse. My wife Kathy is a big part of my business. Over the years she’s been my best critic and has helped me develop my technique. And she takes care of the business when I go hunting."