The occupational path that lead Paul Rhymer from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to a TV reality show is hardly typical—but, then, neither is his profession. A trained taxidermist, Rhymer spent 25 years working at the Smithsonian. Starting Feb. 14, he can be seen applying his expertise as a judge on AMC’s new taxidermy competition Immortalized. He recently spoke to TIME about the taxidermy renaissance, the hardest animals to preserve and treating specimens with the respect they deserve.
TIME: How did you get into taxidermy?
Paul Rhymer: My dad was a taxidermist, so I was always around it as a kid. Every kid wants to do what his dad did, or at least that was my impression. My first job at the Smithsonian was as an illustrator doing entry-level stuff; then there was a position for taxidermy and model-making that was more permanent. I spent the next 25 years at the Smithsonian doing that.
What was your reaction when you heard that there would be a taxidermy TV show?
Over the years I’ve heard lots of crazy ideas, schemes and trips and projects and all that sort of stuff. But given the way that people have been responding to taxidermy for the last 8 to 10 years, I wasn’t that surprised. It’s one of those things where I didn’t get too excited until I started to hear really serious conversations about it. And the show is tastefully done. It doesn’t treat taxidermy as an icky, morbid, red-necky kind of thing. It treats it as something fascinating and interesting and something where you have to be skilled to do it.
Why do you think there’s been such a surge in interest over the last decade?
People find things popular and then they go out of vogue and then they’re popular. You can probably pick a million things. You know, “stained glass is really popular” and then all of the sudden stained glass is kind of whatever. Taxidermy is certainly no exception to that. Back in the 1800s there was this boom of naturalist things, and it became very popular then. At some point in the museum world, in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it became politically incorrect to do a lot of taxidermy. But something happened within the last 10 or 15 years and people now think it’s cool and artistic. I’m not sure what drives fashion. How long will it last? I don’t know.
What’s it like when something you’ve done professionally for so long suddenly becomes so trendy?
I’ve just been walking around with a goofy smile on my face about it. You’re just happy that you stuck with it long enough to see it come around. Like, “See? I told you this was cool!” And people are like, yeah, you’re right. It’s enjoyable to see that people appreciate the thing you spent your whole life doing. It’s nice as a taxidermist and it’s nice as an artist.
On the show, what’s the basis for deciding who’s the best?
The show has three criteria that we judge: craftsmanship, originality and sticking to the theme. A traditional taxidermy competition is more about just craftsmanship and how good of a taxidermist you are. This opens things up in a really big way. They’ve got to bring a different element to the competition, which is not necessarily in their comfort zone. Some judges look harder at the craftsmanship or someone will look more at the artistic point of view, but judging is always a subjective thing. We try to be fair to all the people who are contestants, but it’s up to us to evaluate. That’s why you have three judges, because we don’t always agree.
Did you have a favorite moment?
I had some favorite moments that I can’t talk about in episodes that are coming up, but the way that they did the show—and because I come from a more traditional taxidermy background—they did conventional taxidermy versus rogue taxidermy. And there are some really unique and surprising things that happen as a result of that. There are a couple moments in there where it’s like, “Holy cow, I’ve never seen anything like that in my life.”
Where do the animals used on the show come from?
One of the criteria is you have to legally acquire things, but I have no idea where the contestants got their animals. Whenever you’re dealing with this kind of subject matter you have to be very careful that you’re following federal regulations and then since you’re traveling from one state to another there’s all kind of laws about what you can legally do and bring across state lines. You just have to know federal and local laws dealing with particular specimens and species.
During your career, what’s the most difficult animal you’ve ever worked on?
There’s a lot of answers to that one. There’s the biggest, the smallest, the one that came from the zoo that had the most missing parts. The biggest thing I did, when we were working on the mammal hall at the Smithsonian, was a 15-foot giraffe. Three of us stitched for 15 hours a day for three days. Then we did an orangutan that had died at a zoo and all we got was a skin, so we had reference information about what the body was like. I had to get a cast of an orangutan skull and use forensics to rebuild the muscles on the head so I could make a mold to have a form to put the skin on. Then you would get animals from zoos that had died and they had done the scientific work on it after the animal died and a lot of times they would just cut stuff off and you’d have to replace it. There are all kinds of challenges.