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Bugs and Bones

TOUTLE — Bob Bicknell has built a thriving business from bleach, bugs and bones.

Over the past decade, Bicknell has found his niche in the taxidermy world by specializing in so-called European mounts, in which only an animal's skull and antlers or bones are displayed.

Bicknell's SkullDuggery shop next to his Toutle-area home is filled with rows and rows of bones and skulls of beasts large and small. The antlers of a European red stag are displayed near a giraffe skull. Boxes on Bicknell's shelves are labeled "nutria" and "muskrat."

A particularly popular item he sells is the 5-inch-long raccoon penis bone. However, the bulk of his business revolves around the less exotic: deer, elk and cougar skulls. He processes 2,000 to 3,000 skulls per year, he estimated.

One day last week, Bicknell was working on the horns of a musk ox from Alaska. "Of the thousands and thousands I've done, this is only the second musk ox," he said.

When he gets a skull or bones, Bicknell firsts scrapes away as much of the soft tissue as he can with hand tools. He works on stainless steel autopsy tables he bought used on eBay.

He then enlists dermestids, black beetles that are voracious flesh-eaters. The back of Bicknell's shop holds the "Bug Room," a chamber filled with racks of bones beset by bugs. The beetles spend a week or two munching on the body parts until the flesh resembles jerky. Then, "it goes into the soup," Bicknell said — plastic tubs of industrial-strength hydrogen peroxide that bleaches the bones white. He takes care not to get bleach on antlers, which would get discolored during the week-long soak.

Bicknell, 60, a native of the Midwest, first learned about the bugs-and-bleach technique while studying zoology at Michigan State University. He later got a master's degree at the University of Oregon, honing his interest in exotic species by studying the ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar.

Bicknell worked for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife as a habitat biologist for 23 years. A decade ago, he quit his job researching everything from steelhead to salamanders for the state and decided to focus instead on his business.

When he started Skullduggery, he concentrated on local species such as deer, elk, bear and cougar. "I sell a lot of small bobcats and bear (skulls) to stores up and down the West Coast," he said. He gets the skulls from trappers.

Bicknell later branched into more exotic species. A wart hog skull in a case greets visitors, near that of a liger (a cross between a lion and a tiger). "That came from somebody's pet in Portland," Bicknell explained.

A full lion skeleton came from a collector in Ohio, who had obtained it from a zoo.

Educational tools

In addition to preparing mounts for hunters to hang on the walls of their dens, Bicknell produces animal skeletons for display at museums and zoos. Last week, his projects included a lowly opossum ordered by a university in California.

Bicknell helped preserve for posterity some of Cindy, a beloved elephant at the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma that died in 2002.

"They decided they would save a hind leg and the head," he said. However, he first had to unearth the remains, which had been buried for four years. "I got it out just in the nick of time," he said. "It was a terrible organic goo, but it turned out beautifully."

Pieces of another big critter — a gray whale skeleton — lie in several locations in the shop. The whale, which washed up on a Pierce County beach in 2006, is a long-range project.

Bicknell also assists those who want reminders of their pets. "I do a lot of house cat skeletons for people," he said. With full-fur taxidermy, "you can never make Fido look like Fido or Fluffy look like Fluffy," he said.

Bicknell enjoys sharing tips on wildlife skull identification during sessions with school groups. He first looks at the teeth. For instance, sea otters: "They have these huge flat crushing molars" they use for crushing shells. Despite their peaceful reputation, llamas have fighting teeth. "They have these really sharp canines," he said.

Another tip he shares is that elk antlers have different hues of brown depending on what kind of fir trees they rubbed against. "You can tell by the color of the antlers where it came from," he said.

As a sideline, Bicknell occasionally is called upon to examine bones found in the wilds to determine whether they're from animals or humans. Along with the hundreds of animal bones, several human skulls sit here and there in his shop, and a headless human skeleton hangs in one corner.

Bicknell gets the human bones from medical classes. "We'll take them in and run them through our whitener," he said.

He also has acquired skeletons that once were used for fraternity initiation ceremonies at Odd Fellows lodges. "I've bought a fair number of those that have been painted," he said.

The cleaned bones and skulls are purchased by medical institutions for training purposes.

"I'll bet I sell 60 to 100 a year," he said. The prices range from $100 to $500, depending on the condition.

He doesn't want to meet people whose bones he will eventually tidy up, however.

"I've had a couple of clients call and say, 'I'd like you to do my skeleton when I die.' " Even though his profession is all about remains, Bicknell turns down those jobs. "I just don't want to do it," he said. "That's just too creepy."

Bicknell shows off a Pacific white-sided dolphin he preserved. Photos by Roger Werth/The Daily News
Bob Bicknell holds the skull and antlers of a Rocky Mountain elk he cleaned. Photos by Roger Werth/The Daily News