When photographer Abby Altom and I arrived at Southern Wings Taxidermy, we were most graciously greeted by LA Ralston, the owner’s wife. We were swept into the shop and introduced to the Southern Wings Taxidermy crew – Garrett Ralston, Jason Anderson, Logan Gardner, Chris Carranza, Christine Ford, and Tyler Fox. There was a lot of action going on, as they continued to explain the different processes they were doing. There was a deerskin being tanned, a deer head mount being fit to a form, a duck’s feathers being blow-dried, and a European mount being adjusted. It seemed like any other day for the Southern Wings Taxidermy crew and they continued to hastily work as they kindly shared with us their work.
You find all sorts of animals at Southern Wings Taxidermy. No animal is too exotic for the Ralstons and their crew, and each animal brings a fresh excitement to the shop. Southern Wings Taxidermy is all about quality, and when you see what they produce, you will believe that. If it wasn’t for the head mounts and the animals missing over half their bodies, you would think they were real. Even though this is a “Day in the Life” article, the process of taxidermy is not limited to one full day, as it can take a great deal of time to finish the process on each project.
Garrett Ralston started Southern Wings Taxidermy under his carport about 10 years ago. Garrett was a former engineer in the oilfield and really enjoyed taxidermy as a hobby. With his expert eye and need for detail, his passion has turned into a business that is about to outgrow their current shop. While Jason was checking out some of the work that Garrett was doing for him, Jason became very interested. Garrett began training Jason, and the rest is history. The same story (different people) has happened with Logan and Chris.
Southern Wings Taxidermy has a wide variety of clients. Everyone from the man down the street to the members of Buck Commander. They treat all of their clients the same, and the clients receive exquisite mounts. The clients also range all ages, and they find it exciting when a young client comes in with their very first kill.
Southern Wings Taxidermy can be a family affair. LA and daughter Bailey enjoy helping out. LA has the task of greeting customers when they drop off and pick up their animals. She tags the animals appropriately and makes sure the animals are stored in the right places until it is time to start the taxidermy. It is sometimes all hands on deck, and both LA and Bailey help with the taxidermy process, especially the treatment and tanning of the hides.
Garrett and Jason have entered in competitions where their work is judged. The first time Garrett entered a contest, he came away with ribbons and awards showcasing his hard work and talent.
We decided to take things in a different direction with this Day in the Life of article and describe for readers the process Southern Wings Taxidermy goes through to have a complete mount. The process can take any amount of time. Each animal taxidermy is unique and different, and that comes from the talent of the staff at Southern Wings Taxidermy.
Preparing the animal
After the animal is killed and the hunter decides taxidermy is what they want for the animal, it is then frozen. The hunter then takes the animal to Southern Wings Taxidermy, where the animal is tagged and labeled. The staff then asks the client what type mount they desire. Clients have many choices that can then be made, and some clients even want duplicate horns made. The animal is then measured so appropriate supplies can then be ordered. The animal is then skinned. Depending on the type of animal, the appropriate actions will be made. For example, an alligator’s head is not skinned, yet the original head is left on the hide and will later be preserved to be part of the mount. This process is for (but not limited to) fish, birds and reptiles. Now the hide is ready for the tanning process.
European mounts are dealt with a little differently. A European mount is a skull mount. To get the hide from the skull, the head is boiled until the hide can be easily removed.
Tanning without the rays
Now the staff needs to preserve and tan the hide. It is very important that the meat of the animal is completely removed from the hide so a proper mount can be successful. Southern Wings Taxidermy has a liquid they completely immerse the hide in, and they then let the liquid do the magic. Salt is also rubbed on the hide to help dry it out completely. They want to make sure all the moisture has left the hide. For any meat is left on the hide, a razor is used to scrape it away. The hide is then treated with chemicals to ensure the preservation of the hide.
The hide is then fit onto the form. This step may sound simple, but don’t let that fool you. It can be quite challenging to make sure the form is unique to the animal and the natural look is kept true. Everything from the blood vessels to the curvatures of the muscles is then curved into the form by staff at Southern Wings Taxidermy. Eyes are then placed on the form. The eyes may sound like a minor detail, but they are ordered accordingly to the type of animal and to resemble them in real life. The hide is then fit on the form and then attached. All wounds are then disguised and patched, as if the animal was never even touched.
Once everything is in place, the real artwork begins. Placements and adjustments are made until the animal passes the test for perfection. A pheasant may be placed in the mouth of a bobcat to make an image of nature, or a liquid pond placed underneath the feet of a mallard duck. Christine applies her artistic abilities to make the finishing touches on beaks or create the scales of fish. The European mounts are bleached and treated until the perfect color is achieved. It is then affixed to a piece of wood, and antlers are attached.
It takes a full team effort to make each animal ready for the clients to retrieve. Clients are thrilled and excited to get the finished product. Southern Wings Taxidermy even does deliveries. LA enjoys making deliveries and will go to any length to deliver and make their clients happy.
Not everyone hunts. But you don’t have to be a hunter to have great appreciation for the time and artistry involved in preserving animals through the taxidermy process. Thanks to our friends at Southern Wings Taxidermy for sharing your craft.