Super Senior: Harry Pelton a master at the fading art of taxidermy
October 25, 2017
Harry Pelton knew he wanted to be a taxidermist when he was just 11 years old.
In 1961, when he was in sixth grade, Pelton saw an advertisement promoting taxidermy.
"The ad said you could learn taxidermy with one lesson each month for 10 months, and it cost $1 per month," recalled Pelton, whose father was a hunter and fueled Pelton's interest in wildlife. "That was my monthly allowance, and I spent it on taxidermy lessons."
Taxidermy has been Pelton's hobby and passion ever since (HarryPeltonTaxidermy.com), although he worked most of his adult life as a painting contractor. After a 30-year career with paint brushes, he retired in 2005.
“The best compliment is when someone says, ‘Oh, it looks alive!’”
— Harry Pelton
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"I couldn't sit around the house and do nothing, so I decided to take my hobby and make it a retirement business," he said. "Taxidermy is a dying art. Not that many people do it anymore.
"Hunting is getting less and less politically correct, in California especially," said Pelton. "But the work is still there. I could hire 10 employees and still never catch up."
Pelton enters — and wins — a lot of taxidermy competitions. At the 2002 World Championships in Reno, Pelton won third place with a mounted raccoon.
"That made me feel pretty good," he said. "I was on the world stage competing against taxidermists worldwide. There are exceptionally good taxidermists in Eastern Block countries and Scandinavia."
He also enters the Western States Competition held annually in California.
"I've won a lot of awards on birds, mammals and game heads. If you compete and you get enough points, blue ribbons, you earn the title of Master Taxidermist. I have that in all three categories."
Above that level is the Master of Master Taxidermist.
"Once you reach that level, you can't compete with the novice or open divisions," he explained. "You have to compete as a Master. The bar is very high."
Judges are internationally-acclaimed and most have won at the world level. They critique the most minute details.
"For example, with game heads, they'll use a strong, small flashlight and wear magnifying glasses," Pelton said. "They'll look at the nasal detail, inner ear, eyelid placement and feel to make sure the musculature of the ear bases are just right. Every tiny bit of anatomy is scrutinized."
Judges compare the mounted entries to reference photographs of live species. Pelton said there is specific praise taxidermists long to hear.
"The best compliment is when someone says, 'Oh, it looks alive!'"
Pelton's customers are primarily hunters, and he produces an average of 150 to 200 pieces a year.
He does work for the Audubon Society, preparing birds for educational programs so school children can see in detail differences between types of birds. Pelton also creates pieces for the National Forest Service, California Fish & Wildlife, and museums.
Generous with his time and talent, Pelton takes under his wing high school students who want to focus on taxidermy for their senior projects.
Unless it's a wall mount, the bird, animal or fish is just part of the overall creation. The habitats are just as important.
"When you create habitats, you try to put the animal in its own natural setting," said Pelton. "The more natural it is, the more natural the whole scene is going to look. Bears usually live in the woods, so when you mount one you'll have pine cones, rocks and wood in the background. With a coyote, you do something with sagebrush and natural ground cover."
Pelton makes his own rocks, and collects different types of wood and branches so he always has on hand whatever is needed.
"You want the best presentation of the animal," he said. "Habitats are a lot like the dioramas you seen in museums. It's not just a head on the wall. I like to incorporate nature with the animal so it's pleasing to the eye and a natural situation."
Up for any challenge
The entire taxidermy process is complex and time-consuming.
"You don't just sit down, skin and mount an animal," Pelton said.
First, the animal is skinned and the hide is fleshed, salted and dried. The hide is sent to a commercial tanner, and returned in three to six months. The only part of the animal used in the mount is its hide, plus antlers if it had them. Everything else is artificial and ordered from catalogs, such as jaws, skulls and body forms.
"Each animal has its own type of eyes, jaw sets, ear liners and body form," said Pelton. "You can order the body forms in different positions. The forms are made of two-part foam, so they're easy to cut and alter. You have to know your anatomy and everything has to flow the way nature is supposed to do it."
Taxidermists use a special paste to keep the hide glued to the form and maintain precise contours and musculature. They use glass eyes that are species-specific and set in clay. Clay is also used to form the nose and lips to achieve the finest, most accurate details of each species. The piece must then dry for two weeks after mounting.
That's why the turnaround time for a deer head, for example, is roughly one year.
"Everything I do is first come, first served," said Pelton.
Pelton said he enjoys making it possible for others to view bobcats, bears, and other wild animals up close. People can see detailed features they can't see when they view those species from a distance behind bars at a zoo.
The 69-year-old "Super Senior" lives in Alta Sierra with his wife of 44 years, Kevil, who is a retired school teacher. The couple has a son, a daughter and three grandsons. Both Harry and Kevil are avid hunters, and their house is filled with different mounted species from their domestic and international travels.
Pelton is up for almost any taxidermy challenge, but he won't do pets.
"I don't feel it's right," he said. "You wouldn't mount a member of your family, would you?"
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County. To suggest someone to be featured in her occasional series of "Super Seniors," contact her at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com.