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Taxidermist scrapes out a living

Posted: Sunday, November 09, 2003

The average day for Kenny Jones isn't for everyone especially those who have weak stomachs or are faint of heart.

Stepping into the area where Jones spends close to 24 hours a day, it becomes immediately apparent that what he does is quite unusual compared to the average person's job.

After stirring a large pot of water with two skulls boiling in it, Jones resumes his work on a third skull on the table. He is trying to carefully make a small hole in the bottom of it with a reciprocating saw, expediting removal of the gelatinous brain inside.

He needs to finish extracting the brain soon; his work is backing up. Nearby, a large carcass dangles over a fleshing beam, waiting for Jones to scrap the soft, pink fat from it in order to preserve the beautiful, brown hair on the other side.

Jones burns incense to mask the smell of the room, yet the musk of a large predator is overwhelming to those unprepared for the olfactory explosion.

Despite the macabre sounding description of his Soldotna shop, and the fact the Jones himself looks a bit like he just came off the road after following the Grateful Dead on tour, Jones is no homicidal maniac or serial killer.

Quite the opposite. In fact, he hasn't taken part in killing any of the dead creatures that are all around him.

Jones is a man who enjoys animals, nature and living a simple life, which is why he does what he does for a living taxidermy.

"I'm just pluggin' away, brother," Jones said in between taking calls from a phone that seemed to ring incessantly. He reassured one man that his wolf hide was almost done drying and told another that his bear skull was ready to be picked up.

This is Jones' busiest time of year. Hunting season is just winding down and trapping season is getting ready to begin.

 

Mike Schoessler displays a finished black bear skull Jones finished for him last month. Some of Jones' work involves bones while other projects involve an animal's hide.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Hunters from all over the state, and many from Outside, have brought Jones their prized possessions.

The species they bring him may be different, but his customers' hopes are all the same: They want Jones to make these animals immortal by preserving them.

This allows many to relive the excitement and adventure of the hunt in their minds every time they look at the mounted trophy, or at the very least they are left with an interesting conversation piece to mount where they see fit.

To be fair, "taxidermist" is a broad term. Jones is more of an artist who specializes in skull and bone cleaning; whitening and mounting; professional fur handling including skinning, fleshing and mounting; and big game expediting for hunters who don't live on the Kenai Peninsula.

This may leave many to wonder how one becomes involved in such a line of work.

"Well, I've been messing with critters since I was a kid," Jones said. "I grew up hunting, fishing and trapping. It was always for food, but I believe in using all of an animal, so I always skinned everything."

As Jones grew up, he maintained his interest in natural history and animal anatomy and further developed his patience, care and attention to detail with animal bones and hides. He also refined hand coordination and around 1997 began to really fine tune his work hides in particular.

In 2000, a business opportunity presented itself. Gary Hull, a friend of Jones and the owner of a fishing and hunting guiding service, was selling off the taxidermy portion of his business. Jones made the purchase and began his own business under the name Skulls and Bones. Since then his business has grown each year, keeping Jones pretty busy.

"In an average year I'll do 200 to 300 skulls," he said. And that's just skulls, which make up only a portion of what he does.

As interesting as Jones' work is, it's still work hard work.

"It's hard on the back, but it's hardest on the hands," said Jones, who, after years of pulling at hides, has hands that are almost as thick, muscular and animal-like as one of his charges. "After fleshing for 10 to 12 hours a day, arthritis can kick up."

 

Jones reaches to position a wolf hide onto a rack where it will hang to dry. Rock salt rubbed onto the skin helps speed the process.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

The process of fleshing is laborious. Jones must remove all meat and fat, and turn the lips, nose, ears and everything else he can inside out. He even splits the nostrils individually to make sure everything dries properly.

"If you don't, you have a chance of spoiling and then the trophy is ruined," he said.

Certain species also offer their own unique challenges.

"Wolf hides are touchy because they're kind of thin. Coyotes, too all the dog hides are, really. Also, the lice on the wolves here on the peninsula I don't like to deal with it," he said.

Many of the small marine and riverine animals also are difficult.

"Otters and water animals are extra tight to flesh water tight, as they say," Jones said.

One small creature known for its tenacious temperament didn't seem to be any easier to work with dead than alive. "They're tough just like you hear," Jones said. "Everything about a wolverine is tough. Tough to skin and tough to flesh."

He said of all the skins he works on, the thick hides of bears are probably the most "forgiving." Although due to their enormous size, some require lots of heavy lifting and hours of work to completely flesh them before they spoil.

"One of my proudest was a brown bear that was 10 feet, 8 inches tall," Jones said. "That one stands out as a monster. It took me close to 24 hours to flesh, and the hide alone weighed 225 pounds. It was hard just to move it onto the fleshing beam. I was pretty exhausted when I finished with that one."

Big bears aren't the only projects that are real doozies for Jones.

 

Tiny beetles work to remove flesh from skulls and bones in a heated freezer Jones has nicknamed "the bug room." The dermestid beetles are able to scour flesh from areas that would be difficult, if not impossible, for Jones to reach.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

European mounts a trophy mount that is just the skull and antlers also are challenging. This is especially true when they are the enormous size that Jones sees so regularly. One example was the huge caribou he did for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game after the animal was hit on Bridge Access Road earlier in the year.

"Yeah, the Euro mounts are time consuming," said Jones. "I have to hand pick them and air blow or run wires up in the tiny places to get them clean. Sometimes I have to boil them several times. I wish I could throw them in with the bugs, but they're too big with the racks."

The "bugs" Jones is referring to are dermestid beetles, also known as flesh-eating beetles. In many ways they are his business partners, since they do a huge bulk of the work.

"It depends on how ferocious the colony, and how hungry they are, but usually they can do a skull in as fast as a few days," Jones said. "Bugs also do a better job. They get into the nasal cone and all the tiny holes and tendons that would be tough, if not impossible to get to."

 

Smoke from a stick of incense wafts through the pungent air inside Jones' workroom.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Jones maintains several colonies of the carnivorous creatures he calls his "babies." Although they make his work easier in many ways, they are difficult to care for at times.

"Caring for them is an art really," said Jones. "It's like beekeeping. They require a certain amount of attention. I check on them every day, whether they're fleshing or not."

Keeping dermestids can be tricky since, given sufficient time, they can eat or dig their way through just about anything besides metal. Also, dermestids, like nearly all beetles, enjoy warm climates a difficult environment to create in Alaska. Further complicating matters is the fact that, unlike many other species of beetles, dermestids won't just hibernate if they get too cold; instead, they die.

Jones keeps his dermestids comfortable in large chest freezers that he has converted to hold the bugs. "I use heaters year round," he said. This keeps them at a cozy 80 degrees. He also regularly changes the wood shaving bedding to keep the bugs clean and to ensure that humidity levels don't rise too high, which could harm the insects.

"They're really neat," Jones said.

"I really like working with nature and natural stuff," he said. "Every critter is different, too. I can do two or three bears in a row and they won't be the same. Each one seems to have its own personality, so it's never mundane."

 

Mike Schoessler and Kenny Jones look projects Jones is working on after Schoessler picked up a bear skull Jones prepared for him.

Photo by M. SCOTT MOON

Jones also finds unique things in regard to how species interact.

"I've fleshed out skulls before and found porcupine quills embedded so deep in the skull that they had to have been there for years," he said.

"I've also seen some bite marks and scars in bear hides from where they have fought with other bears," he said. "One hide I did had a huge hole in the back where another bear had taken a chunk out. It was so big you could have thrown a basketball through it."

Jones said in addition to all the usual stuff like moose, caribou and bear, he sees a fair number of "oddities." He's done a few duck heads for people and skeletonized a boreal owl for the Bird Treatment and Learning Center in Anchorage.

He's also done some exotic work for hunters who travel out of the country.

 

Jones wears a necklace he made from the bones of a coyote.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I've done some small African cats, a baboon and an African lion," he said.

As to the most unusual thing that Jones has done outside of hunting and wildlife, he said it would probably be a 175-pound malamute a customer had him flesh, so the animal could be preserved for sentimental reasons.

"He had contacted me the year before the animal died," Jones said. "The dog had cancer, so the owner knew it was coming."

This year, though, it's been business as usual for Jones. He said summer was slow, but fall has been good. All the hard work leaves him sore at times, weary at others, but never tired of what he does.

He maintains a high level of standards for each item he works on.

"I do museum quality work," Jones said and added jokingly, "you could eat off my work when I'm done."



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