Lauren Hull of La Grande, Ore., has made a professional business of cleaning and degreasing skulls and antlers.
As a child, Hull was fascinated by the intricacy of nature and all of life’s moving parts. She first worked with bones for a school art project, cleaning them with the help of dermestid beetles. A few years later, she completed a senior art exhibit that was comprised of bones from different animals, combined into unique combinations to create new species. “Most of these pieces were intricate,” says Hull. “A taxidermist happened to attend the show and recognized that I was using dermestid beetles. He asked if I might clean a dear skull for him, which was the start of this crazy journey.”
Also known as larder beetles, leather beetles, carpet beetles, and carrion beetles, dermestid beetles are known for thriving on carcasses and typically arrive on them about a week after death. They are used in forensic entomology and criminal investigations to determine the time of death.
At first, Hull only beetled skulls for her taxidermy connection’s business, but word got out about her aptitude. Soon, she was getting requests to beetle other people’s game animals. “I quickly realized that this could become a serious business and that I needed to learn how to clean skulls properly,” she says.
Today, Hull maintains about ten beetle colonies, each containing millions of beetle larvae (the ones who do most of the work). The colonies sit in plastic totes on the floor in a room kept at 80 degrees year-round. “I water them with a mister and keep them fed all year. Trappers bring me skulls, so I have an endless supply of coyote skulls to keep them going.” While she aims to keep the colonies separate, escapees are common and must be closely monitored. If the beetles lack decaying flesh, they will eat carpet, wood, and even concrete. They can even chew through Hull’s plastic storage totes, requiring her to replace them every few years. “There’s enough beetles that I’m sure if a horse walked into my beetle house and died, they could turn the thing into a skeleton in no time!”
While beetling lays the groundwork, it’s barely half the process. Hull soon learned that degreasing skulls is critical for getting the bones to turn white. Otherwise, they become yellowed and greasy after a few months. This requires hot water, a cocktail of chemicals, and plenty of time. Depending on the animal, drawing the grease out completely can take several months. Hull finishes each skull with a whitening treatment and a matte clear coat that seals it against moisture. “This is dirty, smelly work,” says Hull. “My process has come a long way since the day I began. I now clean hundreds of skulls a year.”
Pricing varies by animal and goes up if the animal is not skinned. Small skulls start at $65, while moose can be up to $450. All heads must be fresh or frozen. Maggots, mold, or rot will incur additional fees. Many customers ship her skulls directly. “Taxidermists from Alaska ship me totes full of skulls,” she says. Probably one of the stranger ones I’ve done is a guy shipped me his dead cat from Florida because he wanted the whole skeleton cleaned and articulated.”
Today, Hull primarily advertises through word of mouth and her social media accounts, “Lauren Hull’s Skull Cleaning,” on Facebook and Instagram. “The name is due to a lack of creativity on my end,” says Hull. “But also, I don’t want any confusion about the service I’m providing.”
Her advice for new people interested in the skull cleaning business? “Just roll up your sleeves and get used to smelling like a death every day,” she laughs. “You will get used to the smell, but your friends and family will not.”