Bringing Game Animals Back to Life
Sara VanMeter learns the tricks of the taxidermy trade
Story By Dianna Troyer
Photos Courtesy of Sara VanMeter
Sara VanMeter still cringes whenever she looks at the mount of her mule deer buck.
“The taxidermist did such an awful job of it, you just have to laugh,” says Sara, 33, an avid hunter and recently licensed taxidermist. “The form was the wrong size, and you can feel wrinkles in the hide.”
That botched job motivated Sara to enroll in a six-week taxidermy school in Montana. Several of her class projects decorate the walls of the Black Pine Steakhouse in Malta.
Sara and her husband, Travis, raise cattle on their ranch at Naf near the Idaho-Utah border. In their spare time, they hunt big game throughout southeastern Idaho.
“We love it, so we like to have quality mounts to remind us of our hunts,” Sara says. “We talked about me going to taxidermy school and decided, ‘Why not do this?’”
Searching the internet, Sara chose Pro Mount School of Taxidermy in Billings, Montana, for its individualized instruction. In April and May, she enrolled in classes dealing with mammals, predators and large game.
“Our instructor gave us what seemed like impossible projects —a road kill squirrel, a badger with holes in the hide,” she says. “He told us, ‘Failure is not an option. Figure out how to fix whatever is imperfect.’ He was a great instructor.”
Sara jokes she became a professional seamstress when repairing the hides.
“I learned to take tiny stitches so you couldn’t see any sew lines,” she says.
Sara says she learned “the tricks of the trade”—tiny details that are essential to make mounts look natural.
“You have to get the eyes and eyelids, lips, mouth, and nose right,” she says. “To teach us that, he had us flesh out an antelope and deer for one of our first lessons.”
Sara says she was surprised and grateful to learn how to do details correctly.
“For predators, there’s a certain way to sculpt clay at their forehead and between their ears to make them look realistic,” Sara explains. “With big game, their eyelids have to be open a certain way.”
When the class ended, Sara had completed a mule deer, whitetail deer, elk, antelope, badger, fox, squirrel and coyote rug.
“The mule deer was really sentimental because it was my first buck,” she says. “It was a four-point, but two of its tines had been broken off. I learned how to recreate the part that was missing and paint it so you can’t tell the antlers have been damaged.”
The antler restoration was a challenge. “I was painting it and couldn’t get it right, so I got up and walked away to take a break,” she says. “When I got back, the instructor was wiping the paint off the antlers because it didn’t look right. He showed me how to do it right.”
Since graduating from the program, Sara has acquired several clients and will mount anything from big game to birds and fish.
“I’ve got enough to keep me busy—a deer, elk, antelope, coyote, badger and raccoon,” she says. “I tell my clients that I guarantee their mount will be done within a year, unless there are unforeseen circumstances.”
She converted a section in a shop on the ranch for her workshop and eventually will build a shop just for taxidermy.
When the VanMeters built their home three years ago, they put in cathedral ceilings to accommodate their taxidermy mounts. Among those mounts is the deer that annoyed Sara and motivated her to become a taxidermist.
“It’s a reminder of what not to give to a client,” she says, laughing. “Fixing that buck is definitely on my to-do list. The taxidermy school was a blast, and I’m looking forward to helping people preserve the memories of their hunts.”