- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 31, 2006

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — On one table, a worker places the final touches on a human skeleton, with the head still separated from the rest of the bones. In another corner sit three large whale skulls, one weighing about a ton.

Nearby, another worker carves flesh, muscle and other tissue off a bear skull. Enter an adjoining room, and one is greeted with the sight of aquarium tanks full of dermestid beetles swarming over animal skulls, eating the last bits of tissue left on the skull bones.

Then there’s the distinct, yet difficult to describe, smell that permeates the building, something between a slaughterhouse and rotting meat.

No Halloween haunted house has anything on the people who work at Skulls Unlimited International, an Oklahoma City company that bills itself as the world’s leading supplier of osteological specimens.

“If I don’t want to talk to [other people], I tell them I manage a museum exhibit company,” said Eric Humphries, who’s worked at the company for 14 years and now is its production manager. “If I want to talk to them, I tell them I clean skulls and skeletons for a living.”

Jay Villemarette, the company’s founder, dates his fascination with skulls to his youth, when he found a dog skull in some woods. His interest in skulls and science grew through his high school years in the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore.

When his job as an auto body mechanic ended in the mid-1980s, he decided to turn his hobby of cleaning skulls into a business. Skulls Unlimited began in 1986 in the kitchen of his home, where he would boil skulls — a process that helped remove attached tissues — on the family stove. He said that didn’t exactly thrill his wife, but the success of the business eventually allowed her to stay at home with the couple’s four children, two of whom work with their father.

Skulls Unlimited takes skulls and skeletons, strips them of tissue, sanitizes them and sells them. Almost all of the company’s business in human bones comes from museums and educational groups, with prices starting at $349 for a human skull to $3,700 for a full skeleton.

“We’re probably one of the few suppliers in the country that has real human skulls,” Mr. Villemarette said.

The company also has a catalog and offers more than 70 types of animal skulls for sale, and people routinely ship the company animal skulls for preparation.

Mr. Villemarette, 41, said Skulls Unlimited’s reputation has opened doors, allowing the company access to rare and unique skulls — such as a killer whale it obtained after the death of the animal, which once was displayed at Sea World in San Antonio. Zoos and animal parks also have sent the company animals after their deaths.

In a storage area, dozens of human skulls sit on shelves. That part of the business sometimes brings questions about the legalities of it all, and Mr. Villemarette said that he operates within all applicable state and federal laws. The facility is regulated as a rendering plant. Any necessary disposal of human material is handled by a medical waste company.

Mr. Villemarette estimates the company has prepared as many as 500,000 mammal skulls.

Even as his company cranks out the skulls and skeletons, Mr. Villemarette works on other projects. He is in the process of writing a book that will feature the skeletons of the 442 mammals indigenous to North America. He also hopes to open the Museum of Osteology next year in south Oklahoma City that will include skeletons of mammals both common and exotic, such as giraffes, whales, elephants and the endangered black-footed ferret.

He can’t foresee a day when he’d want to do anything else.

“I’m still having fun,” Mr. Villemarette said. “I love what I do.”

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