This post contains some grizzly photographs.
My daughter and I hiked through a local regional park laced with trails and frequented by bikers, hikers, and horse riders when we decided to investigate a distant corner of the park we’d never explored before, thinking we’d just find weeds and trees and more fun for our dog. As we crested a ridge into this corner, we found much more.
My daughter suddenly stopped, grabbed my arm, and exclaimed, “What the heck is that?” A crowd of Turkey Vultures suddenly took air and revealed a grizzly scene — a young cow lying on its side, back half of its body torn open, the bones of its back legs exposed and cleaned.
As we returned from the scene, my daughter had an idea: “Do you think we could take the skull?” With the thought of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings in my head, we began to plan, figuring the skull would be picked clean in two weeks.
After two weeks, we did return with plastic bags and latex gloves, but while most of the carcass had been reduced to bones, the head was far from it. Most of its hide had been removed, but a lot of tissue was still there. We also realized we’d probably need to cut the head off and would need to bring a knife or saw next time.
One week later, we returned to find nearly all the tissue around the head gone, and only some hide on its forehead remained. It was time. I tried sawing through its neck but found it pretty difficult to make progress. I then found a softer area at the base of its skull that I cut through fairly quickly. We put it into a big shopping bag with the sobering knowledge that we were probably also bringing plenty of maggots home, along with a pretty bad stench neither of us had ever smelled before.
My daughter had done research and found a lot of people, as a hobby, take road kill or dead livestock, and bleach the skeleton for preservation. The usual technique involved boiling the carcass, removing the remaining tissue, then soaking the bones in hydrogen peroxide which makes the bones white. This all seemed pretty doable.
We bought a new steel bucket and put the head and lots of pre-boiled water in it, then put it on our barbecue grill. As we predicted, plenty of maggots fled the tissue and died in the boiling water, which gave us a nice feeling of satisfaction.
We boiled the skull three times, hosing it off and removing whatever hide and tissue we could after each one. I’d worried that the brain was still intact, but found that it had been reduced to small white chunks and liquid in the boil, and was pretty easy to clean out. We finally had a clean, though still dark brown, skull.
Though we tried to find hydrogen peroxide by the gallon, we could only find small bottles, and we bought whatever we could as cheap as we could. We did two soakings in the hydrogen peroxide which quickly changed its color to a light yellow.
We then sun-dried the now-clean skull for a few days, and now consider it done. We now have an interesting conversation piece, but more importantly we have a story and an interesting activity we researched and did together.