I Cleaned A Coyote Skull: Repulsive But True!

by Matthew Norman

 

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Hey, before we get started here, it is important that you understand this:

Some readers will find the content of the blog post to follow utterly revolting. Proceed with caution. And if you’re prone to revulsion, maybe don’t proceed at all.

In case the title didn’t tip you off, this is a first-person account of cleaning a coyote skull. To give you some idea what to expect, the first step was that I found a dead coyote by the side of the road. The last step was that I placed a handsome coyote skull on a shelf in my home. Below I will describe, explicitly, the sickening steps in between.

And there will be pictures. Horrible, horrible pictures. It will not be for people with weak stomachs.

Just so you know. We don’t want to see a bunch of comments from readers who blithely breezed past these admonitory paragraphs and then got all grossed out, OK? Consider this fair warning.

So if you’re still reading, I’m going to assume you know what you’re in for, and have braced yourself, and are not trying to eat beef stew while you look over this post. Alright?

Alright.

STEP ONE: Find a dead coyote

 

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Last year, before some of us Woot staffers got relocated to Seattle, I lived in an extremely rural section of northern New England, where we had to do without many of the comforts city folk take for granted—like decent burritos, or broadband Internet, or cell phone reception, or the sight of young women on their way to and from yoga class in tight pants. In exchange, however, the untamed landscape offered up pleasures of its own. The spectacle of a clear, starry, winter night sky. An abundance of wild raspberries. And the occasional dead coyote.

One day, coming home from a walk, my wife told me she’d seen one on the side of our road. Excited, I asked her “where, exactly?” Immediately, she regretted telling me.

“You’re not going to go get it, are you?”

But it was too late. I was already on my way out to the garage to line the trunk of our car with garbage bags.

I have rarely felt so self-conscious as I did while pulled over on the side of the road, loading a coyote corpse into my car. I was really nervous one of my more respectable down-the-road neighbors might see me. Or worse, someone would stop and ask what I was doing and whether I needed help. It turned out to be fine; no one passed while I was manhandling the dead critter, and anyway I probably could have just said “gettin’ me a skull!” and most of the people who lived out there would have regarded that as a perfectly satisfactory explanation.

Helpful hint: When transporting a dead coyote of unknown expiration date in your wife’s car, be sure to roll down the windows.

STEP TWO: Separate the head from the rest of the coyote

This was the grossest step in the process so far—although, as it turned out, every subsequent step would win that distinction from the previous one. I used two tools: A Swedish military Mora knife (because it was both sharp and cheap, so I wouldn’t be too disappointed if, at the end of this gruesome project, it was forever unfit for any other type of work) and a hand saw (for the spine). It was very quick. And, fortunately for you, I didn’t take pictures.

It was at this point, by the way, that I noticed the bullet hole in the animal’s head. I had assumed it was roadkill, since it was dead beside the road. Did a farmer dump it there after shooting it on his property? Did it survive the shot long enough to run out in front of a car? These are questions we might one day put to the writers of CSI: DNR, which I am sure is in development somewhere. Until then, we’ll just have to be satisfied knowing the where and when… [puts on sunglasses] ...but not the HOWL. YEEEAAAHHHH

Here’s a picture of that bullet hole, taken before the decapitation.

 

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Helpful hint: After you’ve removed the relatively small part of the animal you want (the head), you’re left with a considerable amount of excess coyote. Bury it someplace in the woods on your property, and put a big, heavy rock over its grave to prevent the neighbor’s dog from digging it up, although it would sort of serve him right, and if he doesn’t want his dog to get filthy and smelly and sick from chewing rancid coyote flesh, maybe he should keep it from running rampant across his neighbors’ land all the time.

STEP THREE: Skin the head

After I completed Step Two above, it was getting dark, so I double-bagged the coyote head in plastic shopping sacks from the grocery store and hung it up on the side of the garage where it seemed unlikely to get scavenged by skunks or raccoons or cannibalistic members of its own species. That night, though, it froze, making Step Three more difficult. A possible upside: It may also have made it less bloody and less pungent. I guess I’ll never know.

By the light of the following chilly day, I got to work on the varmint’s frosty head-hide with the same Mora knife. The flesh was crusty with ice. I observed many interesting details of canid-otolaryngological anatomy that I might never otherwise have gotten a chance to see, and which will definitely not prove to be of any practical use at any time in my life. The fur came off in strips and tufts, which I chucked in the woods.

During this step, I found fragments of the bullet in the coyote’s head, on the side opposite the hole. It made me worried that the skull inside might be busted up. There would be only one way to find out!

No, not an MRI scan.

Or an x-ray.

OK, fine, there are several ways to find out, but only one that most people are equipped to carry out in their yards.

Helpful hint: There is more than enough fur on even a small coyote’s head to make a fashionable fur vest for your niece’s Barbie dolls! But you would have to really hate your niece to do this.

STEP FOUR: Boil the head

 

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By Crom, was this part disgusting. I built a small campfire and heated up a potful of water in which to boil my coyote head. Ugh, the smell of it.

Ironically, if it had smelled worse, it might not have been so nauseating. But as it cooked, it gave off an aroma that was about ninety-two percent foodlike. Like a meaty broth aboil on the stove. Except this was rancid dog’s-head broth, and that eight percent turns out to be what differentiates mouth-wateringness from stomach-churningness. Like a compost heap of pies. Or a fart that smells of the fast food tacos that made it. This was flat nasty.

 

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Helpful hint: For this particular cooking project, don’t use that All-Clad stainless steel cookware from your wedding registry. Because the pot you use for this is retired from kitchen duty forever.

STEP FIVE: Peel hunks of pungent, cooked coyote head-meat off the skull

 

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I fished the boiled head from its broth and let it cool a while. Cooking had shrunk the tissue around the skull, and turned the meat a muddy gray-brown color. When it seemed cool enough, I took the steaming coyote head into the woods, donned a pair of latex gloves from my at-home prostate self-examination kit, and started pulling hunks of cooked flesh off the bone. It was still plenty hot on the inside, especially where the meat was thickest. It hurt my fingers. Also, like all the steps before it, this was the most revolting step in the process so far.

Helpful hint: Latex gloves, schmatex gloves. There’s no way you can avoid the horrible stench of overcooked coyote head permeating your skin and clothes. Maybe you should sleep outdoors for a while.

STEP SIX: Soak the head to break down and loosen remaining tissue

By this point, it was really starting to look more like a “skull” than a “severed coyote head.” But it was still nowhere near ready for the mantel. It turns out our mantel has a rule that there must be “no stringy bits of dogmeat on the knicknacks,” which I hadn’t heard specifically articulated before, but that’s fine.

I put the skull back in its boiling pot, refilled it with water from the hose, and left it outside for several days where I thought scavengers wouldn’t get at it, changing the foul, greasy, fetid water regularly. During water changes, I also sprayed the skull gently with our hose, rinsing the nasal passages, and flushing out the last bits of brain. I ruined my wife’s bottle-cleaning brush trying to get at those.

The teeth fell out during this stage, which I expected they might, having read about how to clean skulls on the Internet. (Did you know there were pages and pages of skull-cleaning instructions on the Internet? I can’t believe some of the weird, creepy stuff people will read online. OH, WAIT.)

Helpful hint: As with any marinade of offal, you’ll want to keep your coyote-skull soak-pot out of the reach of any critters that might be attracted to it. Alternately, you could use it as BAIT for such critters, put THEIR heads in soak-pots, and watch your skull collection grow exponentially!

STEP SEVEN: Bleach party

 

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Once the skull was pretty much all the way clean, I changed its water bath for a hydrogen peroxide solution, which it soaked in all of one day and overnight. The next morning, I spread the pieces out in the sun to dry.

Helpful hint: Do not get hydrogen peroxide—or any of the photos from this blog post—in your eyes.

STEP EIGHT: Glue the pieces together

During the long soak, as you can see from the above photo, not only did all the teeth come out, the jawbone came apart at its seam. I used a leading brand of super-adhesive glue to reassemble all the pieces. It was a pretty fun jigsaw puzzle about death.

Helpful hint: Figuring out where all the teeth go is easier than you might guess, thanks to bilateral symmetry!

STEP NINE: Admire

 

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What a handsome item for the bookshelf! It’s hard to believe it was once a slimy, nauseating wad of reeking carrion. Now that it’s all cleaned off, you can see where the bullet, skating across the skull, apparently busted the sagittal crest. That’s an anatomical term. I looked it up! I wonder if it’s right.

 

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Anyway, this was a satisfying and educational project for me—if also disgusting enough to have me on the verge of retching at several points—and the result was an attractive keepsake of country living.

Displayed in a place of honor on a shelf in our den, it gets a lot of comments from visitors to the house! They’re mostly variations on “ugh, why do you have that?”

Helpful hint: In the future, keep an eye out for roadkilled humans! Their skulls are the rarest and most valuable to collectors.