Heads or Tails

Mounting memories on a hunter’s wall

Mounts of a warthog and impala have made their way to the cook shed in the McIntosh’s backyard.

Photography by Robert Clark

For many South Carolinians, hunting and fishing is a way of life. Hours are spent focusing, listening, thinking and waiting for the perfect catch or that elusive 10-point buck. Take a walk into any of these hunters’ homes, and there might be that trophy catch hanging on the wall, a perpetual reminder of the memories made on that special day.

Taxidermy –– preparing and mounting the skins of animals to provide a lifelike effect — is a fastidious art. Preparing an animal can take up to a year or more as the preservation and salt curing of the skin is a very detailed procedure. Ensuring the animal looks lifelike is critical, as is the pose of the animal. “The longer they take, the better they are,” says Bob McIlroy, a taxidermist and owner of Wateree Whitetails and Waterfowl in Lugoff.

Bob has been in the taxidermy business for more than 30 years. Specializing in birds and North American big game, he has seen some magnificent sites. Life-size grizzly bears, a black bear, elk, moose, wild boar and whitetail deer are among the countless prizes he has mounted for his clients. With his vast experience and exemplary skill, he has learned what works best when it comes to positioning and posing certain animals. 

“I try to recommend poses to my clients if I see an issue with what they are envisioning,” says Bob. “If a client comes in with a duck that has a broken wing and wants a flying mount, I will suggest that we do a standing mount instead. Or a client may want a right turn but a left turn would work best, so I won’t hesitate to suggest a different position or attitude to get the best look for the end product.” Bob also works to ensure any blemishes or imperfections are appropriately concealed, so that the focus is on the beauty of the piece.

For the hunter, the main reason for mounting a trophy animal is to preserve the memory. “When you see the mount on the wall, you remember the day,” says Duncan McIntosh, a seasoned hunter, who has had much success on hunting trips in Zimbabwe. During his trips to Africa, he has shot zebra, impala, warthogs, waterbuck, birds, ducks and buffalo, among many others.

While he finds all of the pieces special, he fondly remembers a trip to Zimbabwe in 1990 where he and Laurie, his wife, each shot a kudu, a big antelope. The kudu Laurie killed was so large it was included in Rowland Ward’s Records of Big Game. Duncan recalls the details of that day in 1990 clearly. 

“I remember the time of day, the weather, the full moon, the sites, the smells, the sounds,” he says. “Africa is an amazing place. The bird calls in the birds bush are unbelievable. It’s cool during the day and very clear –– like a crisp October day in Columbia. The people are great, the food and wine are amazing. Zimbabwe has had its problems, but it’s still a great country. The shooting part of the hunt is secondary. It’s really about who you are with, staying in the bush and hearing all the animals, large and small.” These epic trips to Africa can take a year or two to plan, figuring out where to go and what to hunt, and mapping out every detail.

The memories of all of those special trips all come back to Duncan when he sees the animals mounted on the wall, his favorite of which is the Cape, or African buffalo. “This is the only thing I have shot that can be dangerous,” says Duncan. “That makes it a little more exciting.” The style of the Cape buffalo is a European skull mount, a classic, clean look, that doesn’t include the whole head, just the skull and horns.

Laurie and Duncan recently restored a home in Camden and placed the mounts throughout the interior space. They brought in Ruthie Edwards, a decorator, to help pull the art collection of the home together and for input on how to best place the mounts. As an artist, Laurie is very eclectic in her design preferences. “You put stuff in your house that you love, and it all mixes together,” she says. They chose to make the den more masculine and hung a kudu, two impala and a bass on the walls throughout the room. The shoulder mount of Laurie’s kudu captures both the gracefulness and rugged handsomeness of the animal. “At one time, we were overrun with heads, but we have pared it down a bit. I got tired of so many eyes following me around all the time,” she says with a laugh. Mounts of a waterbuck and warthog have made their way to a cook shed in the backyard.

Cam Kreps, another avid hunter, agrees that mounting an animal is all about preserving memories. He and Judy, his wife, have taken two bowhunting trips to Africa and harvested a large number of animals. In one room alone, he has 30 to 40 mounts, exclusively from those two hunting excursions. And while some may think less is more, that is not necessarily the case with taxidermy.  

Cam had his taxidermist come to his home several times to help with the layout. “When you start dealing with bigger pieces, you can have issues with ceiling heights and wall spacing,” says Cam. His taxidermist measured what the finished product would look like to ensure there was enough clearance from both the wall and the ceiling. Care should be taken in placing mounts in terms of a room’s natural lighting because UV rays can have a deteriorating effect on the mount. 

Studs in the wall need to be located, and the positioning of each animal must be planned out to ensure the turns work well together with all animals facing “into” the room. “The direction the animals look is essential to the layout of the room,” says Cam. “The last thing you want to end up with is an animal that is looking the wrong way, and then you have to redesign the whole arrangement. Even if you piece meal it over 20 years, you would still be advised to have the taxidermist come and measure the layout because once it’s mounted, if it doesn’t fit or look right, you’ve wasted a lot of time and money.”

For taxidermists, the goal is always to bring out the beauty of the animal. Bob says the most common mounts he sees in South Carolina are whitetail deer game heads or shoulder mounts –– mounted from the shoulder up and including the head — and life-size birds. While he doesn’t mount fish, he says deer, fish and birds are the top three mounted items in the state, followed by bobcats, foxes and raccoons. Of the myriad of animals he has mounted, the most interesting, memorable piece he has worked on is a grizzly bear, followed by caribou out of Canada as well as odd birds that might never be seen again.

Bob, too, has many mounts throughout his home, including ducks, whitetail deer, mule deer, turkey and pronghorn. He agrees the number of mounts placed on the wall doesn’t matter, as long as it is tastefully done. “If you bunch three or four deer heads in the corner of the wall and they are all looking the same way, it can have a very cool effect,” he says. “Taxidermy is a lot different than it was years ago. The animals are a lot better quality and much more lifelike.” He does recommend seeing examples of a taxidermist’s work before hiring to ensure that he or she is creating high-quality work that meets the client’s expectations. 

That one mount on the wall can bring back the fondest of memories of time with friends and family — of that first buck that a son or daughter has shot; of that 12-pound largemouth bass that took 20 minutes to reel in; of that trip out west that ended with a majestic elk. The beauty and grandeur of the animals on display will forever tell the tales.