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Grizzly Bear and Cougar (Mountain Lion, Puma, Panther, or Catamount) Skeleton Project

Cody, Wyoming

It is practically criminal to leave Alaska for any part of our short summer after spending the rest of the year looking forward to it coming, but that is exactly what I did  this year. I went to Cody, Wyoming, for two and a half weeks to work with the Draper Museum of Natural History people on the articulation of a grizzly bear and a cougar skeleton. That is apparently a  tricky place to get to from where I live. It took four different plane rides over a twenty-four-hour period to get there. I'm not convinced "they" knew the way. From Anchorage "they" took me to Minnesota first. Then to Denver, Colorado. Then a flight that appeared to circle way around Cody after going through some snowy mountain passes before landing. The way home was much more direct and I was back in Alaska before lunch after leaving in the morning.

In Cody, I was amazed to see this town of less than 11,000 people, had a 300,000-square-foot complex of five very modern museums under one set of interconnected roofs. This was accessed from one main entrance with one ticket good for all five museums. Besides the Draper Museum of Natural History, there was the Whitney Museum of Western Art, The Buffalo Bill Museum, The Plains Indian Museum, and the Cody Firearms museum. All cutting edge modern and well done. I spent most of my time in a public corner of the Natural History Museum, working with their volunteers and docents on articulating both the bear and cougar skeletons. I had signed up for getting the bear skeleton done and if possible, the cougar skeleton done as well. I gave ourselves two and a half weeks to get these done. The bear was from an eighteen-year-old grizzly who had suffered some trauma that caused it to become a a problem bear with a taste for chicken. It was losing weight and was euthanized and donated to the museum. The cougar was a  two to three-year-old that got caught in a snare and died. It too was donated to the museum by the wildlife authorities. Both skeletons were cleaned in-house using dermestid beetles. I knew they were clean on the outside, what I didn't count on was the bones being as oily as they were on the inside, or curator Corey coming down with COVID (the day before I arrived), and having to stay away for the first week. (Corey was the person who brought me to their museum to work with his people on the skeleton articulations.)

Fortunately his  docents and interns came through with great enthusiasm. We got some big pots and electric cookers and over the next couple days and a  night, we drilled, and heated the oily bones in detergent and water and got the grease and marrow to mostly leave the bone. At the same time, with the help of a pair of documentary photographers  who were usually there (who happened to also be rebuilding their house at that time), we got some wood and hardware gathered up and cut, and  built some wood stands from which the skeletons were suspended as they were being assembled. Later, they were a huge help in building portable support stands for displaying the skeletons. They had brought some portable lights for photographing so we didn't have to work in the dark, and between photographing and building, they often stepped in and helped with the bone work. Their (Dan and Venessa Vastyan)  photography work was also cutting edge fantastic.

My goal was to place people doing things they seemed good at. I had one gal who wandered in at the right time. She was in charge of entering information into the databases of the other museums. I found out she had the silicone magic touch of getting it the smoothest. The silicone is used on the skeletons as a stand-in for the skeletal cartilage. She helped one day, then came back very early the next morning to help some more, before flying out for a long holiday weekend. When she came home, she came back and helped do more finish work. Some people didn't like drilling holes in bone and other people just wanted to do that. Some of the young interns had never held a drill or a hacksaw before and were surprised at how much they liked working with those tools. Others grew up working with hand tools and were good at just about everything they touched. Some needed a nudge for most everything they did to make sure they were doing it right, and others barreled on ahead like they really understood what to do. Some of them really did.

Corey the curator came back the second week full of enthusiasm and  took over the engaging with the public and helped with the bone work when he could. He and I would work after closing to fix things and brainstorm problem areas without interruption. We were doing okay time-wise. Afterwards, we would find a place to get food and drinks, which ended up as an enjoyable routine.

The super helpers were beginning to get the skills down such that they could make forward motion without needing as much instruction. The skeleton sections started coming together. The grizzly was posed standing up, scratching it's back against a sign-post (might be a tree before it is a permanent display). The cougar morphed into a pose as if it jumped up to grab something that suddenly took off to one side faster than the cougar could catch it. It will probably have a flying bird skeleton just out of reach when it is displayed.

The work was finished with one day to spare. It was quite the
successful project that incorporated a lot of enthusiastic museum helpers along the way. For now, both skeletons are mounted on an unfinished wood platform with wheels under it. I worry that the claws and baculum may prove to be too irresistible for some unscrupulous museum visitors, but we shall see.  

That extra day at the end of the project, was when I explored the other museums in the complex; all were impressive. I had a very nice little house to stay in the whole time I was there that belonged to a firefighter gal who was out in the field for the season--thank you very much. I had a bike Corey lent me to use for various excursions and my binoculars. Life was good. 

Corey Anco was the curator and person in charge of getting getting the animals to the museum, getting them clean, and bringing me onboard for the articulation part of the project. Corey was the volunteer magnet who recruited the helpers. Over the two and a half weeks of this articulation project, twenty-one people did hands-on work on the bones. Some came once or twice for brief visits and others came almost every day for as long as they could stay.

Click on photos to enlarge

Putting bones in anatomical order.

First step was to lay the bones out in anatomical order. This gave me an idea of who was most familiar with the bones and a chance to take an inventory of what was or wasn't all there.

First time tool user.
first-time tool user

I am always finding young people who haven't yet worked with hand tools. I put them to work doing projects with tools on bones in a way they never anticipated they would be doing. In a museum no less.

Skeleton spine on stand

We built these take apart stands to suspend the skeletons from, as they were being assembled.

Skeleton ribs being wired
Skeleton ribs

Docents doing plastic surgery on the grizzly bear chest, adding layers of silicone to replace the sternal cartilage. The docent above is learning how to do the wirework that connects the ribs to the sternum.

Skeletons in the yard

This town even had skeletons in a front yard on my way to work, and signs everywhere for electing a coroner.

Skeleton ribs almost ready
Skeleton ribs and silicone
Skeleton rib work

I'm always testing to find the ultimate silicone workers with the magic touch that can get the ribs looking smooth and natural.

Skeleton bear skull

The public was invited to see the skeleton go together. Sometimes the public was invited to totally get up close and personal. This young gal was fascinated by the big bear skull.

Skeleton leg articulation

This volunteer had other paying jobs in town but still showed up every chance she had to work on the bones. She is working on mounting the cougar legs this time.

Cougar Skeleton
Bear Skeleton articulation

The photographers, Dan and Venessa, did far more than capture images of the project. Here, Dan is test fitting the skull after making a custom bent rod for attaching the skull to the rest of the body.

The cougar in its finished pose.

Cougar skeleton and bear skeleton

Both skeletons were left standing on a rolling platform when I left. They will be displayed when their permanent home is finished.

Bear skeleton and Cougar skeleton and the moon

The two skeletons serenading a moon after the visitors had left.

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