I grew up exploring creeks, wooded lots, hills, and valleys surrounding my home. It was a wonderful time learning woodsmanship and about the natural world. I collected things from nature, bringing home frogs, salamanders, lizards, and snakes. At an early age, my dad exposed me to hunting and together we would pursue wild game, search for arrowheads, and sift through artifacts left by early homesteaders. From these early experiences I recognized an innate desire to be a wildlife biologist.
In Elementary School I could not afford to send my first deer to a taxidermist. So, using one of my dad’s deer skull plaques as an example, I went about figuring out how a taxidermist makes a skull plaque with plaster, leather, and wood. Soon, I had mounted my first set of deer antlers, and for many years this is how I did things.
My next experience with skull and bone cleaning came when I worked at an exotic wildlife preserve near the Napa Valley in California. We used to take some of our deceased animals and place them in huge water troughs and just forget about them as they rotted away. Then I would gear up in gloves, apron, and goggles to fish around the putrid tanks to retrieve the skulls or even a giraffe vertebra! Later I learned this process was formally called maceration. Before the days of Facebook and with limited access to information, unlike today with the internet, much of what I did was through trial and error and with blind ambition.
In college, while studying wildlife management, I found out the Biology Department had a “beetle colony” in the basement. It was just a blue plastic tote with some airholes poked in the top. I took my nature-dehydrated deer skull and dropped it in rawhide, jerky, and all. Months later, I retrieved a partially cleaned skull and remember having had to use a screwdriver to pry off rawhide that remained around the antler burs. But hey, it worked more-or-less I thought. I never gave any thought to degreasing or whitening at the time; Needless to say, that skull stayed in the garage and never made it above the living room mantle.
My first alligator skull was cleaned with fire ants by placing it in a cage and then covering with dirt. The ants did a fantastic job cleaning, but some delicate bones and teeth fell apart and got scattered around. I managed to recover most of the teeth and glued everything back together. Then, I put the skull into a tub of concentrated chlorine bleach and water to “bleach” it. Well, that got it white but also DESTROYED the bone integrity and made the skull chalky. So, I “chalked” up that attempt to a valuable learning experience. For years, I continued using the burial method to clean my coyote, beaver, river otter, and deer skulls. Each time I moved, the yard would look like a scene out of the movie Holes as I tried to locate my buried treasures. I can imagine the surprised look on a homeowner’s face finding skulls buried around their yard that I had forgotten. In hindsight, I should have marked the burial sites to find them later; Brilliant idea I know!
When I finally moved to a house out in the country, I had the opportunity and desire to start up a beetle colony to clean personal skulls used in wildlife education. I am proud to say that today we still have this original colony thriving from over a decade ago! I learned a great deal during this period and made a lot of rookie mistakes cleaning skulls of wolves, bears, lions, elk, deer, coyotes, fox, beaver, small rodents, various bird species, and the list goes on. With each mistake I tried to learn the “Best Practices” caring for my beetles and improving on cleaning and whitening methods. It was not long before friends began asking me to do European mounts of their harvest and the seeds of Boneyard Beetleworks™ were planted. I was also giving away beetles to taxidermists and other skull cleaners when I decided that I would really enjoy the business side of selling and marketing dermestid beetles. From there, I set out perfecting my growing systems to make commercial propagation of dermestid beetles possible. Now, all year I sell dermestid beetles across the U.S. to taxidermists, hobbyists, artists, universities, schools, state wildlife agencies, and even medical examiners.
- Todd Sullivan