Heather Tomlin, who completed three classes from Surry Community College’s Taxidermy program, recently opened her own taxidermy business in Courtney.
While taxidermy had always been something she was interested in, it wasn’t until Tomlin had shot a bear, while on a hunting trip in the swamps of the East Coast, that she decided to take a taxidermy class. She wanted to save money and mount the bear herself instead of paying someone else to do so. For the Spring 2022 semester, she signed up to take two taxidermy classes - one class meeting Monday and Wednesday evenings, and another class meeting on Saturdays.
The Spring taxidermy classes cover both deer and game heads, birds and waterfowl. Students learn skinning, fleshing, tanning and drying of skins. They also learn the correct use, alteration and rebuilding of purchased manikins and other parts.
Knowing that she’d need to bring a deer to work on in the class, she convinced her 15-year-old son to trust her with one that he had shot while hunting.
“It worked out great to be able to taxidermy it for him. He knew he could trust me with it. Now he and his friends know I can fix these animals that they hunt and have them turn out looking professional,” said Tomlin.
Tomlin also found enjoyment in being able to hand make habitats for her taxidermized animals instead of buying them premade from vendors. While pointing to a habitat of water, stones and reeds surrounding a duck, she said, “To me it’s a form of art, to be able to see that vision and build something. I’m always thinking of ways to make them stand out and let the person relive what they saw when the animal was in its natural habitat.”
Tomlin praised SCC taxidermy instructor Doug Shores for his passion in the field and how he helps his students learn the different taxidermy processes.
“These were huge projects, but Doug was amazing. He’s very detailed. If we ever messed up, he wanted us to figure out exactly how to fix it, and that was the greatest part. I would have never taken three classes if he hadn’t been such a great teacher,” said Tomlin.
Tomlin’s mounted female bear, which she decided to name “Cherry Blossom” was her final class project and one that she was most proud of because she had hunted it herself.
“I had cherry blossom-scented lotion on while I was in the stand, and the landowner told me the bears wouldn’t come near me if they smelled it. Still, 15 minutes before dark, I spotted one. Nobody believed that I had killed it. I managed to be the first one on the trip to get a bear,” Tomlin explained.
“I knew I wanted a full-body mount done. It was a huge project,” she emphasized. “She was heavy to carry back and forth until I could get the fat off her hide. Her form was in three different pieces that had to be put together before the mounting process could begin. When Doug and I sat her down for the first time once I had completed the full mount and habitat, I burst out crying in happy tears, knowing that this was it, and the class was finished.”
After the class was finished Cherry Blossom, the bear, was transported by U-Haul to Heather’s shop where the bear now proudly sits in the showroom.
Taxidermy instructor Doug Shores remembers that final moment of the class well. Says Shores, “I am very proud of all of my students. I think that Heather will be very successful in anything she does because she has a lot of drive. I will never forget her tears when she finished her bear. She was so proud to have done everything from harvesting the animal to the completed taxidermy.”
Tomlin remains grateful for the opportunities that were available for her at Surry Community College, allowing her to become skilled enough in taxidermy to open her own shop.
“The grants that were offered to take my third class helped out a lot. I live an hour away from class, so being able to have this money for tuition and buying materials helped greatly,” she said.
Tomlin met with the master game warden and a biologist to prepare for her business. She had to be trained on testing for Chronic Wasting Disease (CWD) and how to process the lymph nodes of deer for CWD testing. After receiving her federal licenses, laying the ground for her building, and officially opening her own shop, Huntin and Fishin Taxidermy, Tomlin is now one of two licensed taxidermists within Yadkin County.
When asked how she feels about being a woman working in a primarily male-dominated field, she referred to how she had always raised her two sons.
“I’ve always told them that the sky’s the limit. Never let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. Whatever you put into something is what you’ll get out of it, no matter how old you are, if you’re a man or a woman, anything at all is possible.”
Taxidermy has become a love for her family, as well. Her youngest son wants to follow in her footsteps once he’s old enough to take classes.
Tearing up, Tomlin said, “If it wasn’t for Surry Community College, then this wouldn’t be possible. I hope one day to be able to hand this business to my youngest son if he wants it. My son stood by my side as I took these classes, throughout all the late nights and sweat and tears.”
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