I'm Going to Rib-Cage World

Jay Villemarette has a crazy idea - an entire museum devoted to skeletons, from tiny shrews to boxcar-size whales. Sounds . . . great. When the heck does this thing open?

Jan 7, 2006
Outside Magazine

AS A SPECIMEN, JAY VILLEMARETTE is fairly unremarkable, though when he's viewed from the front, his cranial radius does seem a bit large. Other than that, as the 40-year-old stands before you with his largish head, blue eyes, and goatee, there's nothing to suggest he's the king of the bone business, the largest dealer of skulls and skeletons in all creation, a convicted but avowedly reformed wildlife smuggler (more about that later), and, in his own way, a visionary with a strange and redemptive dream.

As president and founder of Oklahoma City–based Skulls Unlimited International, Villemarette is the premier name in bone cleaning and assembly, turning unwanted carcasses of every kind into gleaming skeletons—and grossing more than a million dollars a year in the process. Now, inside an 8,000-square-foot building on the developing outskirts of town, he's augmenting his core operation by creating the Museum of Osteology, a monument to the beauty and power of bones. It's set two miles down the road from a Valero mini-mart, amid cattle blinking in their fields. If all goes well, the ribbon cutting will happen sometime in the middle of 2007.

"I want kids and researchers to come here," says Villemarette. "I want this to be the best skeleton collection in the world. I've spent 32 years on this, and now it's all coming together."

He's almost finished the building, the hub of a project that will cost him at least $750,000. The skeletons are ready to go—there are roughly 80 in here already, lined up against the walls on wheeled stands, arranged in lifelike poses. Among the specimens—all of which Villemarette says he obtained legally through a worldwide network of collectors, hunters, and zookeepers—there's a white-sided dolphin leaping through the air, an African lion about to grab an eland, a rhino, a giraffe, a killer whale, a hippopotamus, and a king penguin.

Others are on the way. A big-game-trip packager from Tulsa recently donated an enormous elephant bull, sans ivory, which was shot by his daughter during a 2005 hunt in Botswana. There's also a 44-foot humpback whale lying under horse manure on a friend's spread in rural Pennsylvania. The friend brought it from Cape Cod after it beached. Villemarette will fetch that one himself, flying out and driving his smelly prize back in a U-Haul.

Over the museum's entrance, Villemarette plans to display a flying flock of skeletal birds. He'd like to hang a 40-foot sei whale at the mezzanine level. On the ground floor, he wants to display a skeletal "pioneer family" in a wagon, pulled by wo skeletal horses, with a skeletal dog nipping at their legs. To Villemarette, such a display would be neither tacky nor weird but cool and educational.

"This is what I love," he says, looking around and contemplating his own destiny, like Hamlet with Yorick's skull. "I've got maybe 20 or 30 years left on the earth, and I'm going to enjoy it."

EVERY BONE-LOVING Starsky needs a bone-loving Hutch, and Villemarette has his in Joey Williams, the museum's 33-year-old educational director. With his swept-back red hair and freckles, Joey looks like the Eric Stoltz of the skeleton set. He's worked with Villemarette for a couple of years but has known him since 1991. Neither man has a Ph.D. Villemarette is self-taught, a high school graduate. Williams majored in biology at a small state university in Kansas. Together they're like two kids on an adventure, answering questions for each other, chiming in constantly.

Williams, who's with us inside the museum, points at the killer whale skeleton. "Look at the fingers there," he says, showing me the flipper bones. "It's got a hand. Now, why would God put five fingers in a flipper? He wouldn't. Clearly, this animal used to have hands."

"Exactly," says Villemarette. "It grew up on land and then crawled back into the water."

It's true. The killer whale (actually a species of dolphin) has the hands of a piano player, with five slender digits. Biologists hypothesize that whales and dolphins, mammals both, evolved from land-based creatures that returned to the sea 50 million years ago. But evolution can be a tricky topic in Oklahoma, and some visitors who come through might want to debate that sort of thing. Villemarette and Williams say they'll let the bones speak for themselves. "We don't want to argue," says Williams.

"We're scientists," adds Villemarette, as if that term implies not arguing.

Skulls Unlimited—which everybody shorthands as "Skulls"—employs 13 people, including Michelle Hayer and Allyson Reed, two women who answer phones in the shipping room. Stacked high around them are boxes of bones, stamped with the words THE WORLD'S LEADING SUPPLIER OF OSTEOLOGICAL SPECIMENS. The headquarters for all this is a five-acre mini-campus housed in two large, mostly windowless buildings. The museum space is fronted by a gift shop, where you can buy souvenirs like rodent skulls and Skulls coffee mugs. Across the parking lot is the processing building, home of the "skeleton crew," where carcasses go in and finished skeletons come out.

Who are the customers? Hollywood calls a lot. Bones from Skulls have appeared in Shanghai Noon, The Flintstones, and Pet Sematary II. Villemarette says movie people tend to ask for more bones than they end up taking—the classic kid-in-a-bone-store reaction. The producers of The 13th Warrior, for instance, called to order 20,000 pounds of cow bones but bought only 5,000 pounds—or so Villemarette estimates. "It was a big old pile, I'll tell you that," he says.

Nature centers call all the time, too, as do medical schools and prominent museums. Skulls has sent skeletons to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., which recently bought a zebra skeleton. The Smithsonian has its own taxidermists, but they don't "articulate" skeletons, a Skulls specialty that involves gluing joints, drilling and wiring bones, and welding custom stands.

"Skulls Unlimited is probably the leader in the field," says Randall Kremer, a Smithsonian spokesman. "If you can really call it a field. There probably aren't many competitors out there."

TO BECOME KING of the dead, it helps to start early. Villemarette was seven when he found his first skull. He was living in Levittown, Pennsylvania, where his father used to take him and his brother Joe out for walks in the woods. One day, the boys came across something wrapped in a blanket. They thought it might be a person but peeked anyway. It was a decomposed dog, and for Jay it was love at first sight. He still has the skull.

When Villemarette was 14, by then living in Oklahoma City, he'd already found enough critters to start a small bone collection. Word got around, and people started letting him know whenever they came across an interesting dead thing. One afternoon, a neighbor brought over a bobcat. Villemarette asked his mother if he could boil it in the kitchen. She said no, so he boiled it while she was at work.

During those early years, Villemarette tried to perfect his skeleton-cleaning methods, learning by trial and error, experimenting with acids and fire. Eventually, he found some flesh-eating dermestid beetles working on a carcass, took a few, and started his first bone-scouring insect colony. That colony lasted for years but picked up a mystery disease and died, down to the last bug. Villemarette's current bug team, housed in the processing building, is his second.

High school came and went; Villemarette turned his obsession into a business. He got married in 1985. In 1986, when he was 20, he printed a list of available skulls and sent them to schools, generating a few orders. As the business started growing, it took his wife a while to get used to the fact that her husband was a bone merchant.

"She pretty much cried herself to sleep the first few months," says Villemarette. "But she's fine with it now."

While Villemarette tells me these things, Michelle Hayer pokes her head in to announce that the Oklahoma City Zoo is on line one. Like many zoos, OKC's puts its animals in a freezer after they die. When the freezer fills up, Skulls gets the call to collect some free, rare, dead animals. As Villemarette and Williams swing into action, it seems like they should be sliding down a Batpole.

Alas, I'm not invited. "Zoos don't like to talk about the fact that their animals die or what they do with them after," Williams says as he and Villemarette head for the door. "They're just weird about it."

"We'll leave you with the skeleton crew," says Villemarette. We walk into the hot Oklahoma sun and cross over to the processing building, where I'm handed off to 32-year-old Eric Humphries, a 13-year Skulls veteran. The guys hop into Villemarette's maroon pickup (license plate: SKULLS) and they're off.

STANDING OUTSIDE the processing building, I hear a drill screaming in bursts. "Come on in," says Humphries, a clean-cut guy with a constant smile.

Inside, stretched out on the cement floor, is the skeleton of a 30-foot gray whale, legally harpooned in 1999 by the Makah Indians of Washington State. The skull is wedge-shaped, about seven feet long, and features a ragged hole above the eye, where the harpoon went in. Skulls employee Clark Griffith is hunched over a football-size vertebra, drilling it with a spade bit, filling the room with bone dust. He'll spend more than 170 hours putting this skeleton together, at a total cost to the Makah of around $11,000.

Humphries says he came to Skulls in a roundabout way: He was an art student looking for a human skull to draw, and one thing led to another. As he talks, he picks up a length of bone and starts tapping his left palm with it. I ask him what it is. "Oh," he says, "that's a humerus." He holds it against his upper arm for comparison. So it is.

Human skeletons come through Skulls all the time, mostly bound for medical purposes. The current asking price for an articulated skeleton is $3,700. Villemarette gets all his human skeletons from companies in China, which handle supply and sourcing on that end. He has no idea what their sources are.

Humphries puts the bone down and we resume the tour. In another part of the room, there are stainless-steel lab tables, vats, tools, and bones everywhere. The smell is a combination of powerful chemicals and decomposing tissue. It shivers the nostrils. "You'll smell like death all day," Humphries says cheerfully.

Dale Dorsey, who oversees animal flensing (flesh removal), is sitting in an office chair, talking on the phone. He waves hello with an enormous mallet. When Dale is flensing, he's stationed by a sink in the corner, either wielding a knife or operating a powerful vacuum that Villemarette designed and built himself. It's used to suck out brains.

We move into a small, windowless chamber, where some three dozen large terrariums are filled with brown dermestid beetles—millions of them, chewing away. New skulls and bones are placed in the tanks, and, in about a week, the beetles eat every particle of flesh in every nook. Humphries picks up a dog's skull, points into the nostrils, and says, "No way could we clean in there."

After the bugs have done their damnedest, the bones are dropped in vats of hydrogen peroxide in the outer room, then they go into a barrel of acetone, which dissolves the bones' natural oils. After that, it's back into the peroxide for another 24 hours and then out to Griffith, who articulates the skeleton and sprays on lacquer. Hippo or human, at Skulls everybody gets treated the same.

IN THE BONE BIZ, it can be tough finding good employees. Villemarette usually puts an ad in The Oklahoman, reading something like "Seeking person to remove tissue from animal skulls. . . . Weak-stomached people need not apply." More than once, new hires have shown up, worked until lunch, and not come back.

Skulls gets some strange requests from individual clients. One man wanted his own femur ball, which had been removed during a hip replacement, used as the knob of a walking cane. Recently, a model at an art school e-mailed to ask how much it would cost, after her death, to turn her into a skeleton the school could use. Villemarette quoted a price of $7,500, with a discount for prepayment.

Bone dealers, too, sometimes step outside the boundaries of normal behavior, which brings us back to the smuggling thing. In 1995, Oklahoma City–based agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service obtained a warrant to search Villemarette's business and home, charging that he'd violated federal and international wildlife laws and treaties by falsifying documents related to the origins, contents, and shipping of many of his specimens. In 1998, he pleaded guilty to a two-count felony charge for interstate trafficking and smuggling of skulls from rare, endangered, and otherwise protected wildlife. He served 180 days of house arrest, got five years' probation, and paid a $10,000 fine.

I'd asked Villemarette about this before I arrived in Oklahoma. He seemed comfortable with his past, the picture of a reformed man. "I don't mind talking about it," he said. "I have nothing to be ashamed of. It was a paperwork thing." Then, like a true bone nut, he started to reminisce about one of the seized items, a skull from a 100-year-old babirusa, an endangered Indonesian pig. He misses that skull.

According to Nicholas Chavez, the Fish and Wildlife agent who oversaw the case, Villemarette's problems were "hugely larger than just a paperwork issue."

"We seized well over 500 skulls in violation of CITES and the Lacey Act," says Chavez, referring to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the 1900 U.S. government act designed to protect "scarce" domestic wildlife. "In his house, there was a hidden room, behind a big Cape buffalo skull on the wall. Inside were documents and letters and the contraband. It was kind of cool."

Chavez believes Villemarette got off lightly, saying, "Sometimes we find that the judge does not see these things the way we do." Chavez also wonders if Villemarette was less remorseful than he should have been. "I think he thought it was OK because he considered himself a scientist," he says.

According to Fish and Wildlife, Villemarette is not currently under investigation for anything. Whether his obsession with bones will ever lead him astray again is something only he knows, but since the big bust his record has been as clean as one of his specimens.

VILLEMARETTE AND WILLIAMS are gone an hour, then they return with a truckload of animals, pulling up to the back door of the processing building. In the bed, there are a few garbage bags full of smaller specimens. A California sea lion and a grouper are wrapped in a tarp.

The guys crowd around the bags, now sitting on a lab table. There's a hedgehog and a Goeldi's marmoset, a lorikeet and a ferret. Williams pulls out a long hyacinth macaw, its blue feathers tinged with white frost, and says, "That's nice." He finds an amphibian and studies it.

"Surinam toad," says Villemarette.

"That'll make a cool skeleton," says Humphries.

"Not bad," says Villemarette. "No special mammals, though. I'm a mammal guy." After a bit, we wander over to Villemarette's office, a small, windowless rectangle. There are dozens of skulls in the bookshelves behind him, including one from a two-headed calf.

I ask Villemarette if he ever feels odd handling human bones, if he experiences moments of horror or transcendence. He shrugs. "Nah, I've seen too much of it."

What about offending someone's soul? "I've probably handled 2,000, maybe 3,000 human skulls," he says. "I've never gotten a complaint.

Is there anything he wants for the museum that he can't get? "There's not room for a herd of rhinos, unfortunately," he says. "Also, I'd like a panda, but I don't think that's going to happen."

Williams pokes his head in with news. "I just got an e-mail from the guy at Año Nuevo," he says, sounding very excited.

Villemarette jumps up, explaining, "There's a big die-off of elephant seals going on at Año Nuevo, in California. We're talking 4,500-pound males."

He sounds like a happy man.

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