Stuffed Heads

Posted on September 29, 2020



The emotions that good hunters need to cultivate are love and service more than courage. The sentiments of the hunt then become translated into art, as much as or more than trophies. Even the trophies of the hunter are art, for good taxidermy requires extraordinary artistic skill. – James Swan, In Defense of Hunting



Walking up to a buck that now lies lifeless upon the forest floor, a buck that increases in size with each step to reach him, I’m amazed at what an incredible animal and specimen of the whitetail race it is. Grabbing his antler, points are counted, and the head is raised to fully inspect all the markings unique to him.


Like fingerprints and snowflakes, no two bucks are exactly alike, and no two sets of antlers are the same. In fact, each spring a new pair of appendages emerge from scabbed over pedicles, and by August, the artwork is complete, only to once again be cast during the winter months.



“Are you going to have him mounted?” my hunting partner inquired as we stopped for a break from dragging him out. Understand, “mounting” a deer head has now replaced the earlier terminology of “stuffing” the deer. In reality, no deer head was ever really stuffed. Wooden and papier-mache molds were used as a base to stretch the deer skin over and attach the antlers to. These early taxidermical displays were both heavy and showed very few tonal qualities. Today, with great advancements in taxidermy, there are endless Styrofoam forms of deer heads available in a variety of positions and sizes to match the deer taken. With all of that understood, the question becomes, why would someone want to have a deer head mounted?


Dead Heads on the Wall


Why on earth would someone want a dead animal’s head on the wall? Why would anyone want to display it? And furthermore, what is the fascination with looking at a lifeless form that only collects dust and cobwebs? And here is the biggest inquiry, why have more than one? Why would anyone want or need to have forty-to-fifty deer heads scattered throughout a home along with antler mounts and other mementos? Some might think that is downright sick, while others find it difficult to understand why one would need so many.


“At base it is an atavism, a reversion to ancient custom. Back when hunting was a necessity, and success showed how virile one was to potential mates, displaying that success played a part in gaining mating opportunities. The more modern (say, since the medieval time period) ethos of the practice is to show Man’s Dominion over Nature,” writes Steven P. Robinson.



There are as many reasons for having a deer and/or multiple deer heads displayed in one’s living quarters as there are methods for hunting them. For some, it is a memento, a memory of the hunt. It may be the hunter’s very first deer. Or it could be the size of the animal or perhaps the uniqueness of the antlers. And then there is also the other side of the equation where status, prominence, and ego creep in with each head added to a collection being yet another notch on the pole. Don’t get me wrong, it is okay and perfectly acceptable to have numerous deer mounts; Lord knows I’ve certainly got my share. However, if those heads are not there to preserve a lasting tribute to the animal, then they are there for the wrong reason.


The Big Idea


The question that next needs to be asked is: do we hunt for another deer head for the wall or do we hunt because we love the challenge and enjoy the chase? There are some within the whitetail hunters circle that find their identity only in what they have on their wall and the size of what they kill annually. In their mind it is all about home runs, batting average, and record-breaking performances.



In hunting, under fair chase conditions we have no control over what size buck will cross our path. As a wilderness tracker, one has no real clue as to the size of the antlers the buck being trailed has atop his head. And to further add to the uncertainty, when that buck bursts from his bed at break-neck speed, there is little-to-no time to evaluate his head gear.


On a personal note, I have nearly 50 deer mounts, all of which hold a special meaning in the hunt it took to take them, the uniqueness of the experience and the fact that the animal gave its life for my families nourishment. It shall not be forgotten long after we’ve consumed him.



However, I do not worship any of them or place them on a special pedestal – although I do have a few that are actually mounted on a pedestal – or believe they are anything more than what they are, one of God’s creatures and a resource to be utilized for our needs.


Why We Hunt is Far More Important than Where & How


In his book, Beyond Fair Chase, Jim Posewitz writes, “The ethics of pursuing a trophy animal are closely tied to why we seek such an animal. If you hunt these animals because they represent the survivors of many hunts, and you respect that achievement, then you have selected a high personal standard. If, on the other hand, you pursue a trophy to establish that you, as an individual hunter, are superior to other hunters, then you have done it to enhance your personal status, and that crosses the ethical line. No animal should be killed for that reason.”



Through time, man has always felt the need to conquer. The display of animals that he has been able to amass best provides him the result of, going, getting and returning with a successful bag. It provides a sense of achievement and in many instances, self-worth.


But as Posewitz extols, “Hunting is not a contest between humans…The basic idea of a trophy is the pursuit of an animal that has grown to maturity by having survived both nature’s limitations and many hunting seasons. The pursuit of such an animal limits the hunter’s chances of taking an animal because there are few of them in a population.”


No method of hunting is going to guarantee anyone a trophy whitetail the likes of which Jim explained above. It really all falls under chance and one’s own ability to be patient enough to only shoot such an animal, as well as being willing to go home with an empty tag if the opportunity does not arise.

Wall Art


On a cold January evening, with snow dancing in the fickle breeze, I sit contently in the warmth of what I have called my “Hard Work” room. I look to the wall on my left, pick out a buck with a long drop tine and begin to relive a hunt that transpired 35 years ago.



“Human perceptions of grace, strength, beauty, and edibility – along with the necessities of subsistence – contributed to the notion of game animals.” writes Posewitz. He continues his thought with, “For the hunter, the display of a trophy is a reminder of the hunt and a way of extending appreciation of the experience and the animal. In this respect every animal ever taken is a trophy. They are all things of beauty and remembering them through photography, taxidermy, or other forms of art is reasonable.”


But one must, if they be of sound reasoning, understand that one day those trophy deer heads, and antlers we worked diligently for in and during the individual hunts are only really meaningful to the one that took the animals. Yes, indeed our wives, children and grandkids all tolerate and come to accept those lifeless heads staring back at them, but once we’ve taken our final breath, then what? More than likely they will find themselves in the hands of a collector, at a garage sale, or relinquished to someone’s dusty attic, or even the trash heap. If we are fortunate, someone within our lineage will want to hold onto and even add to a collection that marked a hunter’s career in chasing trophy whitetails. One can only hope.



And in the end, “He or she”, Posewitz summarizes, “doesn’t know what those antlers would score if their length and girth were measured in inches and fractions of inches. Those numbers would have no meaning to trophies that are in all ways a product of a place and a time. You cannot measure nutrition, solitude, wildness, and a decade or more of passing seasons in inches or even feet.”



That drop tined buck stood statuesquely straight-on to me, blowing at the female deer just below him. With only his chest and head showing, I needed to take careful aim. The shot rang true as the bullet whizzed above the doe and hit him squarely on his left antler. The bullet had deflected before impact. I saw the fir tree that hid most of his body shaking, and for that reason alone, I hustled over to him. When I saw his left antler laying by itself on the snow, and him now attempting to rise with his bloody nose pressed into the snow, I immediately sent the next round that ended his struggle. Amazingly, that antler fit without any alteration back onto his pedicle…A special hunt, without question.



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Posted in: Whitetail Deer