If I’m in your car, and we’re not in a hurry, chances are that at some point, I’m going to ask you to pull over so that I can solemnly poke a stick at a dead thing along the side of the road. If we’re in my car—which is usually equipped with nitrile gloves, hand sanitizer, and garbage bags—and the decedent is more structurally sound than a fetid fur pancake, you might want to brace for a smell or two.
I’m into roadkill. I get messages late at night about a beautiful fox in good condition by the side of a highway, and in the morning curse Morpheus himself that I slept through the precious window between warm death and Pollockian spatter. I once left a fat, pristine squirrel carcass on a tree stump next to my then-boyfriend’s car as a gift, like a lovesick cat; he later married me. My friends gave me a bird carcass in a cooler for my birthday.
Dead animals are my shit.
My interests in the subject span more than just a pathological curiosity about the macabre reality of mortality and a steadfast appreciation for the slippery mechanics of life: no, dear reader, I am also into crafting. And what better way to memorialize the fair critters who meet their untimely ends during some shitlord’s 2 a.m. taco run than to turn their dick bones into brooches?
(Don’t answer that.)
Maybe you’re into dead stuff, maybe you aren’t. But if you’ve ever marveled at a pelt, or browsed bone jewelry on Etsy, or wondered what the fuck a rotten squirrel smells like, then I am here for you. Welcome to DIY Death Crafts. Please wash your hands.
First off, a word on the legality of scooping broke-neck Bambi off the interstate. There are states where this is not, per se, legal. State wildlife and game commissions work to regulate who can hunt what and when, requiring licenses to take down specific animals during specific seasons using specific methods. For example, in North Carolina, where I live, hunting feral hogs on game lands is prohibited from one half-hour after sunset to one half-hour before sunrise, unless you have a special permit. Oh, and public nudity on game lands here is prohibited, so no shirtcocking during your pursuit of pork.
I’m allowed to pick up dead animals—North Carolina is pretty friendly to crafty Southerners with a penchant for road steak and possum stew—but other states have concerns that if Billy can’t shoot a feral hog wherever he wants, he’ll just hit it with his car and take it home anyway, or at least tell you that’s what he did if and when some poor government employee comes to scope out his freezer to check that those kilos of sausage had the appropriate papers. So, if you’d like to stay legal, before you grab that non-federally endangered, catastrophically brain-injured animal off I-95, double-check to see if you’re technically allowed to do so.
There’s also the question of safety.
When picking up dead things, it’s best to a) be prepared, and b) assume it’s infectious as shit with something terrible. Rabies is essentially 100 percent fatal, and wild animals are often heavily parasitized with nasty little bugs, so don’t tongue-fuck roadkill corpses or let your dog hump them or anything. I’m not about causing harm with this DIY, so please be aware of the legal and physical dangers, and play at your own risk. Also, if I find out that you hit an animal with your car on purpose for crafting, I will absolutely punch you in the throat should we meet.
That said, now that you are aware of the danger and legality of your actions, let us begin.
Obviously, what you are able to do with your ode to the destructiveness of humanity depends on the quality of the body that you find. The best case scenario is a warm, fresh death, still soft without rigor, preferably dead of brain injury and relatively intact. These are also, as you might assume, pretty damn rare. Fresh is preferred, as it’s easier to skin a warm animal: you can peel ’em like a banana.
However, if you’re scouting for bone crafts, which is what I’m covering today, it doesn’t matter so much. (Word of caution: if you are maggot-averse, you might want to err on the fresher side, but don’t freak out too much, as a lot of roadkill gets pancaked or eaten before the fly babies hatch.)
Find a carcass with some intact bones—preferably not too stinky, if that’s the kind of thing that bothers you—and if it looks like it was pretty healthy, recently deceased, and merely unlucky, you can proceed to step two. Also, if the smell is really bad—like, for instance, dead squirrels fucking STINK—a little Tiger’s Balm under the nostrils can make the drive home more pleasant.
Here is where I like to cosplay CDC detective and get real serious about my safe-specimen-collection protocol.
Nah, just kidding, I use a trash bag and gloves. First, I use my gloved hands to examine the animal, because I don’t want a surfeit of weird raccoon fleas in my ancient Subaru, and also because I am curious to a fault and like to get up close with my new friend before I bring her home.
If the animal is small, I’ll just put it in the trash bag using my gloves. If it’s larger or awkwardly positioned in rigor mortis, I’ll take my gloves off, stick my arms into a garbage bag, grab the roadkill, then inside-out the bag around the corpse the way people pick up dogshit off the sidewalk.
Then just tie the bag off and go home. Please don’t forget there is a dead animal in your trunk. Learn from my mistakes.
There are lots of ways to do get the bones out of your roadkill buddy. Personally, I use my dissection skills from college to skin the animal, remove the viscera with minimal damage to all the stinky guts, then strip most of the muscles from the bone is a fairly haphazard fashion. Alternatively, you can also just bury the body in a bucket full of dirt, preferably in warm weather and damp soil, and check on it on a few months, if it’s small. (Bonus points if you can bury it near an ant hill, which will expedite the process.)
For skinning, run your knife crotch to chin, trying not to pop the peritoneal sac full of viscera. Then, with gloves on, run your fingers between skin and muscle and just rip the two apart. From here, pull out the guts, hack off the muscle, and get ready to macerate. This isn’t precious work—there’s no one way to do it if you’re just wanting bones—so my suggestion is to watch some YouTube tutorials and fucking try it.
Once you have mostly bone, put the bones in a bucket of water or a glass jar, close it—but not too tightly, as a lack of oxygen will slow down the process—put it in the sun, and leave it. This is called maceration, which is a sped-up rotting process whereby the bones are cleaned by bacteria. One handy tip, which works well for small carcasses but can be scaled up as needed, is to stuff the bones into some pantyhose for easy retrieval. I mean, unless you want to fish though the soup of liquified death for vertebrae. Your call.
After two days, change the water. You don’t have to change all of it, just dump out some of it and replace it, being careful not to use water that is too hot, as it will kill the bacteria that you are relying on to eat the body. As you do this, remember to enjoy the horrible smell that will happen! I love this part, probably because it makes people throw up. When you change the water, try to remove as much meat and fat and gross shit as possible; you want the bacteria eating food off the bones, not the greasy remains left in the death stew. Check again after another couple of days, and keep scooping shit out and replacing some of the water until the bones are clean. Could be as quickly as five days or so, and it probably won’t take more than two weeks for larger animals.
If the process seems to have halted, put the bones in a stock pot, simmer for about an hour, careful not to boil them, then restart the maceration process. This is a pretty hardcore step, as it’s gross and smells bad and you have to do it in your kitchen. But I figure you should know that the option is there.
Once the bones are clean, remove them and dry them carefully. Don’t dry them in the sun or the oven, as this can cause cracking.
For extra-pretty bones, degrease and bleach that shit. There are several ways to degrease, but my preferred lazy-girl way is soap and water. Stick the bones in a container of hot water and healthy amount of dish soap, and leave ’em for at least a week. There will be gross shit floating on top of the bone-soup when you are finished. Do not eat it.
Once the bones are clean, bleach ’em in a 4-percent hydrogen peroxide solution by soaking them for a day or two or three, whatever you need to get the visuals you like. Very important: the bleaching container should not be airtight, or it could explode! Chemistry, man. You can keep doing the bleaching step until the solution no longer foams when it comes into contact with the bones, usually about two or three times. Once they are nice and pale and clean, dry those babies on paper towels and get ready to get weird.
Congratulations, you have a pile of bones! Now get out there, crank up that glue gun, and tap that creativity like a maple tree. A few ideas for newcomers include gluing plastic gemstones all over a skull like some kind of fucked up death BeDazzler, making brooches from the bones that look the coolest and pretending you know which ones they are, gluing the bones together in an intractable mess that would make David Cronenberg weep, and—my personal favorite—leaving the whole jumbled disaster in a pile on your kitchen table and calling it art.
Death comes for us all, my friends; might as well make it beautiful.
Leigh Cowart is a freelance journalist covering sports, science, and sex. Her work has appeared in Vice, The Classical, and NSFWCORP, among other places. Follow her on Twitter @voraciousbrain. Not for the faint of heart.
Adequate Man is Deadspin’s self-improvement blog, dedicated to making you just good enough at everything. Suggestions for future topics are welcome below.