Soldotna taxidermist scrapes out a living

Kenny Jones started his business, Skulls and Bones, three years ago

Posted: Sunday, November 16, 2003

SOLDOTNA - Stepping into the area where Kenny Jones spends close to 24 hours a day, it's immediately apparent that what he does for a living is nothing like most people's jobs.

After stirring a large pot of water with two skulls boiling in it, Jones resumes his work on a third skull on the table. He is trying to make a small hole in the bottom of it with a reciprocating saw, expediting removal of the gelatinous brain inside.

He needs to finish extracting the brain soon; his work is backing up. Nearby, a large carcass dangles over a fleshing beam, waiting for Jones to scrape the soft, pink fat from it in order to preserve the beautiful, brown hair on the other side.

Jones burns incense to mask the smell of the room, yet the musk of a large predator is overwhelming to those unprepared for it.

Jones is a man who enjoys animals, nature and living a simple life, which is why he does what he does for a living - taxidermy.

"I'm just pluggin' away, brother," Jones said between taking calls from a phone that seemed to ring incessantly. He reassured one man that his wolf hide was almost done drying and told another that his bear skull was ready to be picked up.

This is Jones' busiest time of year. Hunting season is just winding down and trapping season is getting ready to begin. Hunters from all over the state, and many from Outside, have brought Jones their prized possessions.

So, how did Jones become involved in such a line of work?

"Well, I've been messing with critters since I was a kid," Jones said. "I grew up hunting, fishing and trapping. It was always for food, but I believe in using all of an animal, so I always skinned everything."

As Jones grew up, he maintained his interest in natural history and animal anatomy and further developed his patience, care and attention to detail with animal bones and hides. He also refined hand coordination and around 1997 began to really fine tune his work - hides in particular.

In 2000, Gary Hull, a friend of Jones and the owner of a fishing and hunting guiding service, was selling off the taxidermy portion of his business. Jones bought it and began his own business under the name Skulls and Bones.

"In an average year I'll do 200 to 300 skulls," he said.

And that's just skulls, which make up only a portion of what he does.

As interesting as Jones' work is, it's still work - hard work.

"It's hard on the back, but it's hardest on the hands," said Jones, who, after years of pulling at hides, has hands that are almost as thick, muscular and animal-like as one of his charges.

"After fleshing for 10 to 12 hours a day, arthritis can kick up," he said.

Jones must remove all meat and fat, and turn the lips, nose, ears and everything else he can inside out. He even splits the nostrils individually to make sure everything dries properly.

Many of the small marine and riverine animals are difficult.

"Otters and water animals are extra tight to flesh - water tight, as they say," Jones said.

He said of all the skins he works on, the thick hides of bears are probably the most "forgiving."

"One of my proudest was a brown bear that was 10 feet, 8 inches tall," Jones said. "That one stands out as a monster. It took me close to 24 hours to flesh, and the hide alone weighed 225 pounds. It was hard just to move it onto the fleshing beam. I was pretty exhausted when I finished with that one."

Jones' work reveals to him some unusual evidence of how species interact.

"I've fleshed out skulls before and found porcupine quills embedded so deep in the skull that they had to have been there for years," he said.

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