How Do You Clean a Skull? – Interview with Son of a Skeleton Tycoon

By: Justin Nobel | Date: Sat, March 30th, 2013

Skulls Unlimited International cleans the skulls and skeletons of anything from people's pets to humpback whales to humans.

Not only is there a company called Skulls Unlimited International, they even have their own museum!

Digital Dying spoke with Jay Villemarette Jr., the son of Skulls Unlimited founder. Jay Jr. has been working with skulls and skeletons pretty much his whole life.

Tell me about growing up in the skull business?

I was told my mother went into labor while my father was boiling skulls on the kitchen stove. There are pictures of me when I was three years old, next to dead gorillas and cheetahs. I went on my own for a bit right out of high school but always knew this is where I wanted to be. I spent my first six years articulating skeletons, now I oversee the production side of the company, from a bloody dead skeleton to a finished piece of art.

Other Great Reads: Sleeping with skeletons and dressing up skulls, Halloweens across the world

How do you clean your skeletons?

Ninety nine percent of the time we get complete carcasses, with the tissue still there—it looks like beef jerky. First is the flensing stage, we remove as much tissue as we possibly can with a knife; the eyes, brains, guts, tongue and a lot of the bulky muscle tissue. The carcass then goes on a drying rack and from there will be introduced to the beetles. The whole skeleton sits in something like a big fish tank. In each colony are about 100,000 dermestid beetles, they can clean a bear skull in three to four days. It smells exactly like what you’d expect, a bunch of rotting animals. There are easier ways to get tissue off a skull but they are more damaging to the bone. Boiling can crack the teeth, and the skull can sometimes come apart. Another technique is maceration, putting a skull in bucket of water and letting it rot away.

What does “articulation” involve?

Every skeleton is assigned to a technician that takes care of it pretty much from start to finish. We drill through the bone and use wire to connect every bone to another, so the skeletons will literally last hundreds of years. A domestic dog skeleton would take about 24 to 28 working hours to articulate, a bear skeleton would be about 40 hours. We do a lot of research on the species, on their natural habitats and on how they differ from other species. Our goal with the Museum of Osteology is for any person to walk off the street and say, “That’s a koala”, because it’s in the natural position of a koala. A koala skeleton looks nothing like the koala animal. We have a raccoon skeleton in the museum that’s digging through a box of Milk Duds. A person coming in can relate to that because everyone has raccoons in their trash can.

What types of skeletons and skulls do you typically handle?

We recently did a 30 foot right whale for the Georgia Aquarium. We did a 40 foot humpback whale, it took us about three months to prepare and is hanging right now in our museum. The whale came from Jacksonville, Florida. We did most of the tissue removal in Jacksonville then brought back the remains with us on a U-Haul. We do a lot of custom cleaning for individuals, deer hunters, big game hunters, and also people who have recently lost their pets. We clean a lot of skeletons of dogs and cats and rabbits. We also supply schools and museums with skulls and skeletons used for educational materials.

You clean pet skeletons!?

Yes, people send their pets along with photographs of how they would like the skeleton articulated. Usually it’s a pose that the dog or cat liked to sit or play in, and we will recreate that for the client. At any given time we could be working on 20 pets. Our turnaround time is about two to three months. A cat cleaned and rearticulated coasts about $1,000 dollars.

Other Great Reads: What to do when a pet dies

How many skeletons in total are you handling at any one time?

Right now is our down season and we have about 100 skeletons going through. During the busy season we have upwards of 5,000 to 6,000 skeletons. The busy season is usually fall and early winter. That’s when hunting season takes up and that’s when a lot of the universities start buying.

Has working so closely with bones changed the way you think about the human body?

Once you start to handle these bones you realize how fragile they are, and a lot of people take bones for granted. One thing that’s eye opening is that in working with multiple skeletons for different species you start to see similarities. The lion, mouse and gorilla all have the same scapula, they just have different sizes and shapes.

Sounds like a lesson in evolution, do you guys believe in it?

Evolution is definitely a topic of interest to the company, but we don’t push it one way or the other. We just supply the material. I think we all do a pretty good job of separating our work from our personal beliefs. We all come to work and it’s just that, no different from if we were making shoes in a factory.

There have been articles in the news of late on using DNA to bring animals back from extinction, is that of interest to you guys?

No one has come pitching the idea yet but we would absolutely be willing to take on a project like that. It would definitely be a milestone for the company.

What animal would you bring back?

Probably some of the early humans, like the hominids. That would prove a real scientific treasure, and answer lots of questions and theories.

What’s the weirdest skull you’ve ever seen?

A lot of the deformities are really interesting. We recently acquired a two-headed calf skull. Just think of two calf skulls melded together into one, half and half, it’s a pretty cool skull. I think we have seven two-headed skulls in total in the museum collection.

Do you clean human skulls and skeletons, too?

Yes, human skulls and skeletons are about 99 percent for education; schools and universities. But individuals can order them. There is really no federal restriction or law at all that prohibits a human skeleton from being purchased by an individual. The only state I’m aware of that has laws against that is New York. We have had a few people inquire about cleaning the skeleton of a recently departed loved one, but that’s something our company really is not interested in.

What’s the future of Skulls Unlimited?

The future of the company that we see is supplying perfectly cleaned human skulls to the medical and educational communities. Right now the human skulls that are out there have been around for hundreds of years, and they’re not the best quality.

One thought on “How Do You Clean a Skull? – Interview with Son of a Skeleton Tycoon”

  1. Caren Hanson

    I’m writing a children’s story about early hominids, and in it, the children have to help ‘clean’ a homo erectus skull and also measure the brain cavity. Having trouble finding that info online.

    Can you help?

    Caren Hanson

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