When Hunting is Done, Soldotna Taxidermist Starts Work

KENNY JONES: Wolf Hides are Among Hardest to Work With, He Says

Joseph Robertia / Kenai Peninsula Clarion / January 18, 2004

SOLDOTNA -- In the area where Kenny Jones spends close to 24 hours a day, it is immediately apparent that what he does for a living is nothing like most people's jobs.

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 scrape 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 anyone unprepared for it.

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 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.

November was Jones' busiest time of year. Hunting season was just winding down, and trapping season was getting ready to begin. Hunters from all over the state, and many from Outside, had brought Jones their prized possessions.

So how did Jones become 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 -- on hides in particular.

In 2000, Gary Hull, a friend of Jones and the owner of a fishing and hunting guiding service, was selling the taxidermy portion of his business. Jones made the purchase and began his own business under the name Skulls and Bones.

"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 animallike as one of his charges. "After fleshing for 10 to 12 hours a day, arthritis can kick up."

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.

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.

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.

"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," he said. "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."

Jones maintains several colonies of the carnivorous creatures he calls his "babies."

Keeping dermestids can be tricky since, given sufficient time, they can eat or dig their way through just about anything except metal. And, unlike 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. Heaters 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.

Jones' work reveals to him some unusual evidence of 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.

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."
Distributed by The Associated Press

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