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Teaching taxidermy

Teaching taxidermy

February 11th, 2018 by Josie Musico, For the News Tribune in Life & Entertainment

LINN CREEK, Mo. — You'll find the same notebooks and pens as you would in any classroom.

But you'll also find dozens of antlers, a plastic tub of tanning hides and a tackle box full of assorted glass eyes.

Missouri Taxidermy Institute, located along U.S. 54 between Osage Beach and Camdenton, has graduated roughly 700 students since its 2002 inception.

Chip Stamper is the school's owner and instructor. A former high school art teacher, he originally decided to pursue taxidermy as a side project. It allowed him to combine his enthusiasm for art and wildlife.

"As a kid, I was always interested in the outdoors, hunting and fishing. This is kind of an extension of that," he said.

With money already tight because of his meager teacher's salary and young family, Stamper took a risk. He and his wife, Carrie, invested in a new career. They loaded a few belongings and their infant son and headed to Montana, where Chip had enrolled in taxidermy school.

"I was once in your shoes," he now reassured his students, 25 years later, on their first day of his course.

The Stampers returned to the Show-Me State with Chip's new wildlife-mounting skills. Chip kept his gig at the local high school, but spent his nights and weekends stuffing birds and game heads. Eventually, his taxidermy business grew to a point that left him no longer able to teach school.

He worked as a full-time taxidermist for a few years, perfecting his techniques.

"I like the work — taking an animal that comes in messed up and bringing him beautiful," he said. "That's great."

Stamper returned to teaching when he realized he missed it. But this time, his boss was himself rather than a principal or superintendent, and his classroom was his shop.

Missouri Taxidermy School now holds two courses each year, beginning in January and July. Students can stay for four weeks or eight.

The first month explains the basics of wildlife restoration, from the first steps of caping and skinning through the final ones of airbrushing details. Because taxidermists are typically self-employed, Stamper throws in a few lessons on how to manage a business. Always keep your receipts for tax time, he advises, and schedule your work in a manner that allows you to receive consistent customer payments.

Then there are legal issues. Stuff a tiger smuggled back from India or a deer shot out of season, and you could see trouble, he warns.

In a typical four-week course, students will mount two fish, a pheasant and duck, a deer head, a simple antler plaque and a life-size animal such as a coyote or bobcat. Staying eight weeks? Expect to stuff all of the above, plus a turkey, another game head or two, and a larger animal such as an elk or bear.

Stamper recommends his program to other wildlife enthusiasts, particularly those with artistic skills.

"If you have an artistic nature, you'll have an advantage," he said. "Taxidermy is an art."

He warns those with weak stomachs about the squeamish side of what they'll be doing — skinning a bobcat might not be for them.

Students are often seeking a full-time career. However, it's not unusual to find a retiree exploring an interest or a hunter who wants to learn to mount his own deer.

"I think it's a really good class to learn, (and) I'm planning on doing this full-time," said Jake Shrable, 25, of West Plains. "I love it. I love everything about it."

Classmate Cam McCurdy plans to keep his day job and gradually expand his taxidermy practice. McCurdy, 24, traveled to Linn Creek from his home in rural Newton County, near the Arkansas line.

"I'll be starting out with this being a side job, with plans for it to become a full-time career," he said.

As a proprietary school, the institute does not charge extra for out-of-state tuition. Stamper estimates fewer than 25 percent of his students have come from Missouri.

The farthest-traveled was from Namibia. Now back home and operating a studio, that graduate's most popular mount is her Missouri deer head. In Africa, it's as exotic as a lion would be in the Midwest.

Stamper's own most rare piece was probably the bald eagle he mounted for an area school. That one required some extra legal paperwork. He's also mounted a bull dolphin and an occasional red stag.

But there are two types of mounts he doesn't do — snakes and pets.

"It's creepy," he said, shaking his head about the idea of stuffing a customer's beloved house cat or poodle.

That still leaves plenty of wildlife, though. As for the future of his new critter-mounters, he's optimistic.

"The climate right now is good for taxidermy," he said. "The outdoor lifestyle is very popular. There's a lot of work out there to be done."