Do Ick Yourself

The ABCs of Shrinking a Noggin

A (counterfeit) shrunken head     Photo: Dave Monk and Gregg Lowe

Say Hello to my Little Friend

Mary Roach follows the trail of head shrinker Gustav Struve.

The bobcat was no man’s enemy. It is one of the hundreds of wildlife roadkill whose pelts, bones, and tissue samples help make up the research collection of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California at Berkeley. My friend Monica Albe runs the preparation lab. I asked her if she might be interested in shrinking a head.

As it turns out, the most challenging part of head shrinking isn’t the shrinking; it’s the skinning. A shrunken head is basically skin removed from the skull and then contracted and hardened by boiling it and filling it with hot sand.

It takes Monica ten minutes to get from frozen bobcat (“He’s so pretty! Bye!”) to partially thawed bobcat with skinless head. It would have gone faster had I not helped. I did the top of the head, which is a straightforward skinning task, but some details take skill. Detaching outer ear from inner, cheek from gums, is confusing. There’s no dotted line. I quickly hand the scalpel over to Monica.

Our future shrunken head is now a floppy pelt draped over Monica’s gloved fist, a ­furry hand puppet that should never be given to a child. Next comes the part one ethno­grapher has called “the boiling of the flesh-head.” Monica drops it into a pot of simmering water. Never put your flesh-head on a roiling boil, because the hair may fall out.

After an hour and a half, a remarkable transformation has taken place. Most of the fat has melted out, and the boiling has thickened and drawn together the skin, more or less like boiled wool. Probably less. The flesh-head is not only visibly smaller but has retaken its original shape and become stand-alone firm. The hide has doubled from a tenth of an inch in thickness to two tenths of an inch. Monica fishes the object from the water and slips it over a tall glass jar to dry.

Monica pauses to review. “OK, so that’s drying, and we’re heating up the sand.” It could be Emeril talking to his studio audience. While I stir the sand, Monica sews up the eyes and mouth. Traditionally, this was done to trap the victim’s spirit inside and thwart attempts at revenge, but it also keeps the sand from spilling out. The sand part is tedious—many rounds of heating, pouring, replacing—and achieves little compared with the boiling.

In the end, the head has gone from six inches across to three and a half, the ears from three inches long to two. The effect is less impressive than a shrunken human head, because a shrunken bobcat head just looks like a house cat. In the weeks that follow, Monica will hone her technique and shrink a fox head by a full 50 percent, a reduction that even a Jívaro warrior could be proud of.

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