The scene is a staple of many western movies.
Spurs rattle in the distance as a cowboy dismounts his horse.
The camera pans around the dry sand and mud.
A steer’s skull and horns poke up from the earth with a ghastly expression, a likely victim of the harsh conditions.
Whenever Bill Parham sees such a scene on his TV, he gets excited. Not about cowboy heroics, or the old west, but at the sight of the skull, bones and the process that — Hollywood aside — brought it to be.
“That always added to it, to me,” he said. “You know, man, ‘I’d like to have that.’”
Skulls and skeletons are a passion for Parham.
An avid hunter and trapper himself, he recently started a business called Skulls and Skeletons of Alaska that — through the use of flesh-eating beetles and other trade secrets — transforms his or others’ post-hunt skulls into works of art.
“I think it’s cool to see what’s underneath,” he said.
From a rotten mound, a post-hunt byproduct, into something people can hang on their wall, admire and respect the animal and the process of life.
“I think about this stuff all the time,” Parham said with a laugh.
Parham moved to Alaska about 15 years ago. He’s a Virginia native and used to serve as a taxidermist’s assistant in his home state.
He started heavily researching the process of forced decomposition through Dermestid beetles about a year ago. He purchased a set of the beetles from a dealer in Kodiak and set up a place to start the process.
His first skulls were a pair of lynx a friend and his son had caught over a decade ago.
“He said they’d been in the freezer the whole time and I said, ‘Well, I got the new bugs and I’ll give it a try,’” he said, motioning to the end result resting on a table in his basement.
He fed the beetles more and more, learning about what they needed and liked — water, Styrofoam, meat consistency and inside temperature.
“I kept going and I started getting more and more (skulls),” he said.
“I studied online a lot. There is a forum online where you can find a lot of information about how you can do this.”
Step into Parham’s basement on his spread near Soldotna and you’ll feel the temperature rise. And if your skin is thin the smell might get to you as well, he warns.
Walking over to a large wooden crate, Parham opens the top and looks inside at the millions of beetles crawling about.
“That’s a whole beaver — they did that in about four days,” he said. “I’m going to try and put the whole skeleton back together.”
Inside of the basement, in addition to his large custom beetle housing unit, there are total of five large beetle containers made from freezers and six smaller ones. Some contain close to one million beetles. But they won’t eat live flesh.
“I touch them all the time,” he said.
The sight and smell bothers a lot of people that see his setup, he admits. But not some.
“Most of the hunters get really excited about it,” he said. “They say, ‘This is really cool.’ They just love it. I have had little kids come here and they go home and the parents will say ‘That’s all he talked about for days.’”
His wife, Amy, can’t stomach it.
“Can you believe that? She is a nurse and she has seen some of the grossest accidents ... but I can’t understand why she can’t come down here,” he said. “She’ll have nothing to do with it.”
Parham said his wife appreciates the end product, at least.
Other processes, such as boiling the skulls, will destroy much of the detail in remains, particularly in the nasal cavity.
When Parham gets a skull he’ll cut the majority of the meat off, being careful not to get too close to the bone. And once the brains are removed, he’ll let the skull dry so the meat can get “jerky-like.” Once the beetles have done their job — a full sized moose skull takes about three days — he’ll start degreasing them with a soap, water and heat mix. Then, after soaking in peroxide to whiten the bones, he uses a sealant for the final product.
The skull is a shadow of its former self. Parham considers it a work of art and, like most artists, finds it a bit hard to part with.
“I want to keep them. Especially like that one, I would really love to keep that,” he said pointing at a mounted black bear skull.
In the passion, and now business, Parham said he has found his calling.
“I enjoy this more than anything I have ever done,” he said. “I like hunters and trappers, too. They are my kind of people. I enjoy being around them.”
Perhaps his favorite skulls are those of wolverines and wolves. But he likes them all, he concedes.
“I’d like to have a great big wall with all different sections from the smallest little squirrels up to the bigger ones,” he said. “As many as I can get.”
Brian Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.