Close To The Bone
The image has sent shivers down the spines of countless throughout the ages. It has struck in our hearts fear and fright and the realization of mysterious shadows and spirits in the dim light. The mere sight reminds us of our mortality, and that life and death only exist between the years of dust to dust. From black flags on pirate ships to mass graves and horror movies, the images of bones and skulls, in particular, are imprinted in the human psyche.
What was once was taboo and a profession of thieves under cover of darkness, bone gathering has become a thriving business right here in Oklahoma. No longer are their hunchbacks moving about the autumn fog of a moonlit graveyard with a shovel and a burlap sack in which to gather a few bones to be sold to medical schools. In this modern age, we have Skulls Unlimited located in Moore, Oklahoma. Samantha Tutor, Director of Sales & Marketing for the company, spent a few minutes with Uniquelahoma to tell us how bones has become a business that is nothing to pick at.
Skulls Unlimited International Inc. is the largest distributor of osteological specimens (Bones) in the world. For those studying the structure and function of the skeleton and bony structures or just interested in owning a specimen to a skeleton, Skulls Unlimited is the place to check out. Who knew that most of the bones for study around the world came from Oklahoma? It’s an interesting story of how such an enterprise originated here. It starts with the fascination of a young boy who found the skeletal remains of a dog in the forest near his childhood home. Unlike many parents who would tell their child not to touch the bones, Jay Villemarette’s father encouraged him to follow his curiosity and even begin collecting bones. A passion was born that day.
As he grew into adulthood, his unusual hobby of collecting skeletal specimens grew as well. Following high school, he began selling his bony finds to those who shared his fascination, including even selling door to door, Tutor said. By 1986 Villemarette and his wife Kim were cleaning skulls in their kitchen and working on a plan to turn the hobby into a viable business. After four years of collecting and cleaning bones, the two had established a retail and mail order business. Two years later they went international with Skulls Unlimited International Inc. Then, with the help of the internet, the company then began professionally selling and distributing bone specimens to medical and veterinary schools and museums worldwide Tutor said.
Through a partnership with the body donor program, the company legally acquires human bones and complete skeletons to sell to medical professionals. Tutor stressed that the company does not promote the selling of human bones to the public because as it is still a sensitive subject, She went on to say that a need for human bones belongs to those learning and science institutions which have legitimate purposes for having them. So for those of you who want one as a Halloween decoration, Sorry! As for the remaining specimens of animals, the company only uses legal avenues to obtain them. Their website states they, do not condone and will not support the poaching of animals or approve of the destroying of an animal solely to gain an osteological item.
“Our suppliers and their sources obtain osteological material from natural & predator deaths, road kills, food source by-products in exotic regions, legal hunting & trapping operations, and from attrition in zoological gardens. You can be assured of, and take comfort in knowing that your purchase conserves treasures and promote the ethical utilization of limited resources,” the website reads. Tutor also points out that the bones they receive from their suppliers worldwide serve a great educational need that would be difficult to meet if bone suppliers such as themselves were not in business. Many of the specimens would be lost to the wild or incinerated and not be available as teaching tools.
Although human specimens are a part of the business, most of what they deal in consists of animal bones. Their affiliations with many zoos allow them to obtain exotic animal bones which the company uses to help educate children about the animals. It uses field trips to its museums and outreach programs to schools to achieve this objective, Tutor said. She goes on to explain that there has been a shift from skeletons and skulls being “taboo” items in society to an updated concept that they are simply a structure of nature that does not possess some negative connotation in and of themselves.
However, one does not erase thousands of years of superstition, folklore, and well…just creepy fascination with the dead. So obviously there is still a market for such items as decorative items as skulls and skeletons and for exotic animal bones which are not available in real bone. This too is a market that Skulls Unlimited has also tapped. They possess over 500 various replicas which are available to purchase.
But there is more for bone enthusiasts. In 2010, the company opened SKELETONS: Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City to showcase specimens from Villemarette ‘s personal collection. In 2015 a second museum location was opened in Orlando, FL. These museums allow Skulls Unlimited to showcase hundreds of skull and skeletal specimens acquired over the years, but also to provide an insight into the otherwise hidden workings of the animal kingdom. The Oklahoma City location has 800 specimens, and the Orlando museum has 500 specimens on display. Tutor said that is an incredible experience for children and adults to see how animals are structured and to interact with a part of nature that most never experience.
“The goal of our museums is to serve as an educational experience, with the hopes that through education, an appreciation of the natural world will ultimately lead to conservation for the future,” Villemarette wrote on their website.
As with all things in life, even death evolves. Thanks to the innovations and actions of thinkers like Jay Villemarette and many physicians and scholars before him, the days of midnight Resurrectionists carting bodies and bones from dark cemeteries has vanished into the dust. In fact, make no bones about it, it’s something all these people felt was necessary deep in their own bones. And so maybe, just perhaps…the old taboos are finally finding their place among so many others that time has put to rest in the boneyard.
To learn more about Skulls Unlimited and the Museums of Osteology, visit their website at skullsunlimited.com