RANCHESTER — With the hunting season now several weeks in, quite a few big game animals have disappeared from the local landscape. While many freezers have now been filled with meat, parts of many of these animals will reappear in another few weeks not on the table, but on the wall.

“It is a total art form,” Ranchester taxidermist Patrick Pearce said about the profession. “I use the same type of clay that sculptors use.”

Pearce, who owns Big Bear Taxidermy, said many people do not recognize taxidermy for the art form that it truly is or realize how much artistic talent is needed to realistically recreate the form of a once-living creature. In fact, he noted that many taxidermists are former sculptors or take up sculpting to help better their skills.

To learn his craft, Pearce apprenticed with another taxidermist, and also continues his education by watching or reading videos and tutorials and talking with colleagues to learn new tricks and techniques. However, he noted that much of the preparation a taxidermist needs to be successful is taught by the animals themselves, through hours of observation.

“You have to be familiar with how they look in nature, their anatomy and their basic movements,” Pearce said, noting that a good taxidermist is familiar with the habits and habitats of the animals they work with. “That is why sitting there glassing (looking through binoculars) and just watching deer can help you so much.”

In its early days, taxidermy often involved toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde and arsenic to preserve the hides. In addition, much of the animal, such as the skull, was left intact, with the hide dried and tanned, then re-stretched over the bones.

Nowadays, taxidermists use Styrofoam forms instead of skulls, as well as clay, paint, glue and glass for eyes.

“We only use the skin and the antlers,” Pearce explained. “Everything else is artificial.”

The creation of a mount takes many weeks and begins with careful skinning and preservation of the hide.

“I’ll cape them off the skull, prepare the hide by salting it and drying it, then at the end of the season I’ll take it to the tannery,” Pearce said. “When I get it back from the tannery, I’ll measure it and order a (Styrofoam) form. Then I’ll do the final preparation work on the cape, such as set the antlers, sculpt the eyes, ears and nose and all the little details I want.”

How the mount ends up depends much on the instructions given by the hunter. Pearce said he visits with each hunter about what head position they want the mount to have, what position the ears should be in, where it will fit best in their house and whether the animal is looking left, right or straight on.

“I get a general idea from them and then I do my thing with it to make it look the best I can,” he said.

While each mount is unique, Pearce said they all give him the same difficulty.

“Always, it is getting the eyes correct because that can make or break your mount,” he said.  “The position of how they are looking, the rotation, how they set in an animal’s head, getting the eyelid just right so it sits flush on the eye and making sure your pupil is lined up right.”

Pearce estimated that he works on approximately 300 animals per year. In addition to creating new mounts, he also takes on a considerable amount of work repairing damaged mounts or cleaning old ones.

“I fix a lot of mounts because people just throw them in a box or stack stuff on top of them, especially fish,” he said. “I just repaired a deer mount that was about 100 years old. There was a piece of wood in the center with wire around it and newspaper for filler. That is how I could date it. It had saddles listed for sale for three dollars.”

He also has customers who need mounts cleaned because of years of accumulated buildup.

“To a certain extent I could bring those back to life a bit from the smoke and nicotine and years of dirt and grime that is built up on them,” he said. “But some of that stuff you just can’t get out without running the risk of ruining the hide.”

While much of his work consists of big game animals, Pearce also creates bird and fish mounts and takes in unique animals from around the world, including specimens from Alaska and New Zealand and African game animals.

“Each animal gives me something different to try,” he said. “Most people look at it as you are a mortician for animals, but really, I bring them back to life.”