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Amanda Weathers, a Ridge Farm native and graduate from Georgetown school, has been in the taxidermy business since 2009 and owns Panther Creek Taxidermy in Ridge Farm.
“I’ve been hunting my whole life. I grew up hunting with my dad,” Amanda said. “In school, I always loved biology, anatomy and art. Taxidermy combines aspects of biology, anatomy with artistic stuff that I enjoy.”
In the state of Illinois, to be a licensed taxidermist you can just apply for a license. “It’s just like buying a fishing license, there’s not really a certification process,” Weathers said. “I did take the extra steps because I had no one to show me what I was doing.”
Weathers attended a school in Iowa and completed their ten week program to learn the basics. “Beyond that I’m really involved in the Illinois Taxidermist Association and the National Taxidermist Association,” Amanda said.
The conventions are also a place to attend seminars to learn more and meet other taxidermists. “They’re a great network of people that want to help one another and improve taxidermy as a whole and what we do. To do good work, you really have to get involved and take some classes and learn from people that know what they’re doing”.
Being in the Midwest, White Tailed Deer are very popular pieces that she works on. “I’ve gotten to work on things from Africa, I did a Stag from New Zealand, Black Bears from Canada,” Weathers said. “Most all of the small fur bearing animals that have made it to this area, I’ve gotten to work on.”
In addition to the normal animals that hunters have mounted, a few unusual animals have sneaked in. “I’ve done skunks and a long horn steer head. A lot of people have asked me to do pets and I always respectfully decline,” she said. “I know I’m a taxidermist and I’m also an animal lover, it’s just not in me to work on someone’s pet.”
When a piece is brought in, it’s usually freshly harvested. “I always tell people to get it to me in a day or two. If they can’t get it to me, then they need to get it into the freezer,” Weathers said. “If they can’t, they have to get it here pretty quickly. When something is spoiled, it’s spoiled. If the skin has sat out for days or weeks and has started to rot and the hair is falling out, once decomposition starts, I can’t reverse that.”
Once brought in, the animal will then be skinned and cleaned. “I have to remove all of the meat and fat, everything off so we’re just left with the skin with hair on it,” Amanda said. “It then gets submerged in a few different solutions to tan it. Then it’s shaved down to be very thin and pliable so it’s really subtle when I go to work on it – so it takes the same shape of the animal that it came off of.”
After the skin is tanned, it’s placed over a mannequin or armature of that animal that is the same size. The skin is essentially glued to that armature with clay that has rebuilt the muscles around the eyes and the skin gets glued to it.
As it dries, Amanda makes sure the skin stays where it’s supposed to be and examines the piece for any places that have lost color. “They will get painted or airbrushed to bring the natural fleshy tones to bring the color out.”
The main areas that would need fixed would be the exposed epidermis around the eyes or inside of the ears.
The mold for the animal can either be bought or customized if the piece is too large for the animal that was brought in. If a customer wants the animal in a pose, it can be made from scratch. “If it’s something really unique or if I just want it in a unique pose that’s not available, I’ll actually make it from scratch and make my own mannequin.”
The way the animal is posed or mounted is up to the customer. Some give Amanda free reign to make their mount, even then, there’s steps taken. “If they don’t know what they want, we usually start with where they are going to put it. Sometimes they’ll look through pictures of stuff that I’ve done or things other people have done,” Weathers said. “My favorite is when they bring me a photo of a live animal and say I want it to look like this and I can re-create what that live animal looks like.”
The eyes for the animal are bought commercially, but can be made. The implants that Weathers buys are high quality and have been painted to look like each specific animal. “There’s a catalogue for different species, different shapes and sizes. Different shapes of pupils, all that kind of stuff. I order them by the millimeter by how big they are.”
Another option for the piece is to use the animals’ real teeth. The teeth are different from human teeth and do not decay. “The teeth have to be cleaned off of the original gums from the skull. Then you put the teeth into the mold and re-pour all of the plastic mold of the original gums around that,” Amanda said. “If you’re going to make more of that mold, it’s going to be plastic or acrylic.”
If they do not want to use the real teeth, there are commercial teeth available. The interior of the mouth and the teeth would be plastic. If real teeth are used, the soft tissue and gums would be the only thing plastic in the mount’s mouth.
The length of time to do the mounts depends on what problems might be encountered. “Sometimes you have that skin that has issues and needs to be corrected and sometimes they just fall into place really nicely,” Weathers said. “It just really depends on the species and what I encounter when I get going.”
With as much detail that each piece needs, the price depends on many factors. Some of those being the pose of the animal, the animal itself, the size and if it has to be customized. “I always tell people to give me a call and tell me what they’ve got and what they want done with it, then we go from there,” Amanda said.
Weathers stated that one of the most difficult animals to work on would be fish. “It holds its shape because of the scales, but it still gets tanned and preserved” Amanda said. The hardest thing about the fish happens once they dry. “They dry kind of a gray color and all that color has to be airbrushed back on. Fish are really interesting to work on.”
Due to their difficulty, she stopped taking them from clients. Other than fish and pets, any animal that is illegal to possess also can not be taken. “Say someone saw a hawk fly into their window or see a bald eagle on the edge of the road, do not touch it,” Weathers said. “It’s illegal to even possess it. People cannot bring me birds of prey at all or anything that has been harvested out of season.”
Hunters are given tags at the beginning of hunting season to keep track of whatever they successfully hunt in that season. “They have a tagging process and they have to call into the State DNR to get a confirmation number,” Amanda said. “If they don’t have the proper documentation to go with it, I can’t take it.”
Being around animals as long as Weathers has, it’s easy for her to tell if the animal was harvested in the proper season. “If someone brings me a coyote and they bring it to me in January, but it doesn’t have a coat that’s appropriate for January, that’s kind of a red flag,” she said. “Everyone that brings something in, they sign a waiver that states they’ve harvested it legally in season.”
Right now is the busiest time for Amanda’s business. Hunting season for deer began October 1st with most fur bearing animals following in November, going through mid January to early February. “When people are out in the fields hunting and trapping, that’s when things get really busy,” Weathers said. “It’s kind of what I base my calendar year on. I know that it’s coming when summer winds down.”
The business keeps Weathers busy all year, taking in a year’s worth of working during hunting season that will keep her busy until the end of summer and starting back into fall. “It’s pretty much a year around thing for me. I have several freezers in the back that keeps things stable until I can work on them.”
Being in the business for almost twelve years, things have definitely changed. Companies have improved the products that they send out as well as come out with new things such as eyes and habitats.
“There’s companies that make artificial rocks that you can customize, break part and make your own rock out of their panels,” Weathers said. “There’s a ton of different options for recreating moss and things like that. It’s amazing what is available to us now.”
Amanda has been married to her husband, Lance, for thirteen years. Lance is also a hunter, something that the couple bonded over early. “We both hunt, our parents hunted. We’ve both come from that kind of background.” Though he isn’t involved on a high scale, Lance has helped with a few small projects and has done taxidermy projects for himself. “He’s competed too and taken them to some of the conventions and competitions,” Amanda said.
It was at a competition that Amanda realized what she needed to improve on after receiving a low score on her project that she entered in her first competition. “I learned a lot from that. I needed that low score and that awakening to say ‘hey, this is what you could work on here, this is an area that you need to improve with’,” Weathers said. “I’ve learned more than anything from competing.”
In a competition, there are divisions that separate the novas competitors from the advanced master taxidermists, then by skill level divisions.
“In those divisions, there are categories. For the National Association, there are sixteen categories,” Amanda said. Some of the categories are small game and large game heads. Fish are broken down to four categories. Species are then broken down. Waterfowl compete against each other, as well as game birds and turkeys. “They’re broken down and you can win best in your category, then out of all of the best in categories, the best in show is selected,” Weathers said. “They break down all of the areas of anatomy and score it.”
Since 2016, Weathers has been at her current location at 500 North State Street in Ridge Farm. Before this location, she worked out of one of the garages at her home.
“We live out in the middle of nowhere and when someone wanted to bring something, it was really hard to tell them how to get to me,” Amanda said. “This is a lot easier to find. Being here has been really helpful.”
The name of the business came when she first started. Amanda and her husband lived on a property that his family owned and a creek ran through it. But it was the lore of an animal that gave the business its name. “It was always rumored that someone had seen a black panther out there. None of us have seen the mythological beast,” Weathers said. “That’s where we were first living when I came back from taxidermy school and it just stuck.”
If you have anything you would like made into a taxidermy piece, give Amanda a call at 217-247-2543 to discuss what you want done.
You can also visit the Panther Creek website at www.panthercreektaxidermy.com or stop by her location at 500 North State Street in Ridge Farm.