Lucinda Coll has grown to expect it.
A hunter will walk into Sacred Spirits Taxidermy in rural Greene County with a trophy in hand. It’s something he wants to have preserved, as a memory of a special moment.
Coll will greet them.
That’s when the question comes.
“Can I talk to the taxidermist,” they ask her.
What they don’t know is that they already are.
“Most everyone who walks in the door thinks it’s my husband who’s the taxidermist,” Coll said.
You can understand the confusion.
For decades, taxidermy was a male-dominated profession. It remains that way today.
There were 1,245 taxidermists licensed in Pennsylvania for the fiscal 2015-16 year, according to Logan Hall of the state Department of Agriculture, which issues the permits. It does not break down licensees by gender.
But Delores “Dee” Carley of Allegheny Taxidermy in Kane, membership secretary for the Pennsylvania Taxidermist Association, said it’s believed only about 6 percent are women.
That number is growing, however.
In 2005, for example, 5 percent of the Taxidermist Association’s members were women, Carley said. Last year it was 9 percent.
The National Taxidermists Association was unable to provide figures on its membership. But Michelle Burkholder of Laurel Mountain Taxidermy in Mill Run, the group’s current — and first woman — president, said the trend there is the same.
“There are an awful lot of women taxidermists anymore, some of them world renowned,” Burkholder said. “A lot of young girls are getting into it, too.”
The job can be gruesome at times.
Jennifer LaRosa started out at Mike’s Taxidermy assisting her husband. Now she prepares 80 percent of the mounts.
She admits to not liking to skinning animals.
“There’s a yuck factor in getting those hides skinned out,” LaRosa said with a laugh. “When the hides come back all tanned, they’re leather, like a suede coat with fur. But before that, you wear rubber gloves, for sure.”
She’s willing to go through that to produce what is essentially art, though, she added.
That’s how many see taxidermy these days.
Years ago, taxidermy was little more than producing “creepy” stuffed heads, she noted. Today, they might mount a bear so that it’s climbing on a rock or put a deer head on a fence post with leaves and barbed wire or have a bobcat on a log lunging for a fleeing chipmunk.
“It’s really turned into an art form,” Burkholder said. “Especially when you see the work that’s being presented at competitions and shows, it’s more artwork than just a dead thing on the wall.”
That’s what LeRosa likes about the business. She takes a hunter’s animal and, with glass, foam, epoxy, glue and paint, creates something that stirs memories of his or her experience.
“It’s taking all of these elements to recreate the beauty of nature,” she said. “That appeals to the artistic side of me.”
Women are not, automatically, better or worse at taxidermy than men, said Marc Jordan, a 24-year veteran of the business and operator of the Western Pennsylvania School of Taxidermy in Olivesburg.
He’s been teaching students since 2003. Women are sometimes more patient and better at detail work because they have smaller hands, he said. But they are also sometimes behind in terms of the carpentry skills needed to build bases for mounts.
Professionalism and pride of work is what counts, he said, especially to the hunters waiting to get their trophy back.
“As long as they get a good job, that’s all that matters to them,” Jordan said,
“No one’s ever said anything or been awkward about my being a woman. Or if they have felt funny, they’ve kept it to themselves,” she said.
That doesn’t mean male customers sometimes don’t just like talking to other guys, LaRosa said. Her husband and daughter hunt; she doesn’t. So some who come in prefer to share their adventure with them.
So she talks to those who want to talk, and lets her husband chat with those who want a fellow hunter’s ear.
“And I’m not offended by that,” she said. “It’s like women who like to talk about shopping. Guys just don’t get it. They don’t understand the excitement of finding that perfect pair of shoes.”