Beetles Clean Wildlife Skulls In Thayne, Wyoming Shop

Ronell Skinner's business is a rarity, albeit a high-demand industry for wilderness communities. He cleans and prepares wildlife skull mounts using flesh-eating dermestid beetles.
Beetles Clean Wildlife Skulls In Thayne, Wyoming Shop

By JASON SUDER | The Jackson Hole News&Guide

THAYNE, Wyo. (AP)--Elk antler racks with 12 points protrude from a blue bin. Murky water hid their base, but with a nearby wall of European mounts, it was an easy guess that there was a skull soaking in the tub.

Ronell Skinner wore two sets of gloves and a smile Saturday. He took hold of the antlers and, with old bull-riding strength, pulled the wet head from its putrid bath. Fur and flesh still clung to the bone. Bloody water splashed off the plywood workbench as he plopped his specimen into working position.

"Anything I can get with a knife I get out,'' he says.

The brute may have spent two winters mummifying on the National Elk Refuge, but after three days rehydrating at the Skull Shop, Skinner could comfortably slice and ply the remains away to reveal a crew of maggots stealing food from his beetle collection.

Skinner's business is a rarity, albeit a high-demand industry for wilderness communities. He cleans and prepares wildlife skull mounts using flesh-eating dermestid beetles.

Every year the Jackson District of the Boy Scouts of America scours the National Elk Refuge in search of items to auction off during the Elkfest. Sometimes the Scouts return with armfuls of antlers; other times they come back to base with seasons-old skulls. To get bones ready for sale Dick Shuptrine and Loretta Kirkpatrick, longtime locals associated with the scouts, haul them to Skinner's Skull Shop in Thayne.

This year Skinner went to work on 12 elk, one bison and a bighorn sheep.

"I never turn anything away, no matter how bad,'' he said, "but I do charge extra.''

The nastier the remains are, the better his beetles eat. Of all the skull cleaners who have reported for duty in the region over the past 11 years, Skinner is the only one who still uses beetles. His cultures of Dermestes maculates, hide beetles, feed on carrion and scour the cavities of bones for their food.

"They'll eat anything,'' he said. "The fresher the meat is the faster they'll clean it and the nicer the finished product.''

In a shed behind his garage, Skinner laid an elk skull down in a large horse trough. Another one sat in the corner covered in brown cotton sheets, with black bugs crawling around the dirt floor. The room smelled like a battlefield. Kept at 80 degrees, the flesh Skinner leaves to feed the beetles was rotting.

"The warmer they are,'' he said, "the faster they work.''

But they need to be kept moist. A few times a day, Skinner will lift the grills that keep away flies to spray down his little workers. After two days, the elk skulls are clean of flesh. It takes the beetles four days for a buffalo skull.

"They can do an antelope skull overnight,'' Skinner said of his quiet co-workers.

All that remains of the life of the animal is a greasy, umber stain on the skull.

Never once has Skinner gotten sick from the process. There is always risk of infection or tetanus from knife wounds, but in his 11 years working with beetles and his nearly half a century's fascination with taxidermy, Skinner has not thrown up from skull scouring.

That doesn't mean he always likes to do it.

"The ones that gross me out are the ones they leave for two to three weeks in a black bag, and they come out covered in maggots,'' he says.

That is slightly more gruesome than when he uses a hooked spoon to clean out the brains.

With about 300 skulls coming through his shop every year, that is not an uncommon task. He just charges a little extra for the putrid work. Generally, an elk skull costs $180.

A buffalo will run $225, and he charges $135 for a deer. He also does bear, wolf and beaver, and he has seen a number of African wildlife. Once he cleaned a lion's skull. It was like a bobcat only larger, he said.

For the price he also boils off the grease in Dawn dish detergent and then bleaches and sterilizes the bones' dental white in 34 percent hydrogen peroxide. Drug store antiseptic is roughly 2 percent.

"It gets on you,'' he said. "It turns your skin white. It burns like acid.''

The final product is ready to appear on walls in shops or homes, shipped abroad or sold at the Boy Scouts of America Annual Elk Antler Auction, set to take place this year on May 16.

Information from: Jackson Hole (Wyo.) News And Guide,


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