A Little About Me and My Childhood
I grew up on a long, meandering country road called Shelter Valley outside of the small town of Grafton. The landscape is exactly how it is described in the name of the road, it is a secluded valley with rolling hills that are filled with retired farm land and some small farms still surviving. Growing up in this area, I was around animals and had all different kinds of pets. My family and I have raised cows, horses, goats, chickens, wild birds, as well as raccoons, skunks, snakes, turtles, lizards and many fish. We were also Labrador retriever breeders for most of my childhood. My parents did a great job raising us in our country home to respect and appreciate all the animals and nature around us. I took this appreciation and added a desire to learn more about the outdoors, with constant sleep overs in the woods and snow forts in order to be outside more than in. I would much rather be on our property with our pond, creek, drinkable spring water, fields and forested area then in the nearest towns or cities.
The Starting - Natural Decomposition
I was twelve years old when I started into actually preserving animals in a way that I could learn from them. My father came in from bush hogging the fields and told me that there was an old raccoon skeleton in the tree line and that it was pretty "cool to look at when it is all cleaned." Naturally I went to investigate and retrieved the skull and entire spine to bring them home. I then cleaned them up in our bathroom sink and was hooked ever since. At this point in time, I did not know anything about about the correct processes in order to properly clean animal bones but I started my own collection of skulls regardless. I began picking up clean road kill and putting it under a large apple crate for me to eventually pick through the pile of bones and have the skull. This process worked out well but took a lot longer then I had hoped, since there was no ventilation helping the decomposition process and I couldn't uncover the specimens for fear of them being towed away by the wildlife. I wanted to find a method that would decrease the cleaning time between road victim to displaying on the shelf.
Method 2 - Boiling
I researched different procedures and came to the most socially acceptable one for the time being, given that I was still only around 14 or 15. I saw that other people boil their heads for a while and then peel all of the meat away from the bones. I started this with an old Coleman camp stove that I had purchased at a yard sale. The animals that I tried first were my second raccoon then a muskrat and fox over the next year or so. Even spending many hours boiling an entire moose head in a large barrel over my bonfire pit in the yard. I quickly realized that this method has a few setbacks, even though it is quicker than leaving it outside. It usually would crack the teeth of the skull because of the extreme temperature change. It would also destroy all of the nasal concha in the nose and other fragile bones that would serve as muscle attachments for the animal. I also quite often had skulls that were in many pieces (road kill) and it was difficult to keep the pieces oriented with the others as I cleaned off the boiled meat. The final setback was that the skull would always come out a pail yellow colour because I was boiling the oils into the bone of the skull. After figuring this out, if I wanted to improve my quality and presentation of my skulls and stop cracking teeth, I would have to try the next and best method out there - Dermestid Beetle colonies.
Final Method - Dermestid Beetles
I bought my first set of beetles on the very well known online shopping site called Ebay and surprised many people with the what you could buy on the internet. I was between grade 12 and first year University at this point so still only 18 years old. I set up an average sized fish tank with a homemade lid made of window screening and wood frame for stability. This would give the beetles the constant ventilation they needed to be comfortable. They also need a constant temperature of 24-28 degrees Celsius, which was simple to keep in the summer in the same apple crate. I fixed the ventilation problem by drilling vent holes through it. Although this method seemed to produce the highest quality of skulls, it also came with it's own stresses. The bugs did not like moist fleshy heads because they often introduced parasites that would overpower and kill the colony. This lead to me hanging the heads in an onion bag on the family clothesline. I would then freeze it for two days to ensure that all types of maggots and parasites would be killed. It was then ready for the beetles. I quickly realized that the beetles do not eat fur or the brain very well and began to clean those parts out before introducing the heads to the beetles.
Bleach or Peroxide?
I was very happy with the results of the beetles, the heads were coming out much cleaner, with all of the fragile thin bones intact. It was also much less unsettling for me to have the beetles do the work for me. I still had one problem with my process: I wanted to find a better method than bleaching my skulls. Bleaching would often leave the skull brittle and flakey and over time the skull starts to flake apart and break down. This was not something I enjoyed seeing with skulls that I spent many hours cleaning. I looked into other companies that do this very thing, like skullsunlimited.com which is the largest bone cleaning company in the world to my knowledge. I looked into it and they had books that would walk you through the process that they use to clean their specimen to produce grade A museum quality displays. Turns out I was supposed to be using peroxide because it is not as damaging to the bone as bleach. Which was good to know, but even with this I was still not producing skulls with the white colour that the professionals were.
I then realized I was skipping a step that I didn't even know was warranted, degreasing! After the skulls are cleaned by the beetles and rinsed clean of beetle feces, I was supposed to be degreasing the skull in order to pull out some of the yellowish colour due to oils in the skull. I noticed that this was important for every meat eating animal much more than the strict herbivores. I am happy to say that my process now produces whiter skulls that are sturdy for many years with out breaking down. I am for the most part a grade A quality skull production but cannot guarantee this quality yet for specimens.
The Beetle Habitat
Over one spring of having my beetles, the enclosure of the apple crate that I was using to water proof the fish tank, broke and let in a leak that would eventually be the death of the entire 10,000 beetle colony that I had kept for just under 3 years. At this point it was either stop all together, or make a beetle tank that would be free of all mishaps so that I could produce a beetle colony of a large size with out any trouble at all. I thought of building a water proof insulated container for them but realized that chest freezers are that very container. I put an ad on Kijiji for a broken chest freezer that anyone wanted to get rid of for free. I quickly got a hit for my add and got my freezer. I then started a project to set up ventilation and temperature that would automatically balance out to the perfect habitat for the beetles. I hooked up five inch duct piping to the outside of it at either side which would be my air intake and output that had a blower fan hooked into a timer plug. I also installed two 100watt heat lamps with an adjustment to change their intensity as well as a thermostat to turn them off when the container temperature became 28 degrees. With this I am glad to say that I started a new colony outside in this container in January of 2014 which deviated only a single degree in minus 30 temperatures. I now have a beetle habitat that will never have another foreseeable mishap again (I hope) and I can now clean animal skulls straight through the winter with out making my beetles dormant over the winter months.
My Upcoming Projects
- I have tried many times to produce a turtle shell from an unfortunate vehicle mishap but have never been able to keep it moist enough to keep the covering on the shell. It always flakes off, dries out and in doing so loses all of it's vibrant colours. I am close to perfecting a process to keep the shell vibrant and will post about it when I am confident with this. If there is anyone that has any tried, tested and true methods please let me know.
- One day I want to start using a process called sputtering with some of my skulls. Sputtering is a process using magnetically charged ions and different metals to produce a molecular thin covering on the skull of metal. This makes it extremely more durable and since it is such a thin covering there is no detail sacrificed by something like painting the skull. If anyone has any information or equipment in order to help me reproduce this phenomenon please let me know. It will take me quite a while to produce the contraption in order to do this but I will keep everyone informed of the success/failures.