First of all, please read out blog post on "Cleaning Animal Skulls - A Basic Taxidermy How To Guide". That is the bulk of the information that you will need to clean an entire small animal skeleton. However, we will not simply be placing a small skeleton into water. Bringing a freshly dead small animal down to its skeleton tends to be a bit of a messy job, so I hope you have the stomach for it. If you have found a small animal (in the forest perhaps) that has been dead for some time, chances are nature has already taken care of most of the messy parts.
Assuming that you just found a freshly killed squirrel in the road or something similar, what you will want to do prior to macerating it is to remove as much flesh as possible and this includes the intestines. I won't go into too much detail on this process; however it is an important step. You can find many videos on the internet, such as on youtube.com, which explain the basics of cleaning animals (also known as "field dressing"). It's not 100% necessary; however it will help the process move along MUCH faster. Once the organs are removed, you will need to remove the skin and as much flesh as possible with a very sharp razor or scalpel. Take care not to cut yourself or damage the bones.
Now that you have the intestines out, skin cut off and most of the flesh removed, you're ready for the next step which is dismembering the various sections of the animal. While this may sound gruesome to some of you reading this blog, keep in mind that what you're doing is really no different than what the butcher does all day long at your local supermarket. The only difference is that you're not going to eat this animal; you are going to render it into a skeleton.
The more dismembering you do now, the easier re-articulation will be later on. I suggest removing the head, feet, legs and tail (if applicable) from the spinal column. You can keep the ribs attached to the spine for small animals, as they're easy enough to sort out with a good skeleton diagram to go by (found online). What you want to do is use a very sharp razor or scalpel and cut through the cartilage at the joints. Some good places to cut are: the base of the skull - where the neck meets the head, the front shoulders to separate the front limbs, the hips to separate the hind limbs, the base of the tail where it joins to the spine and lastly the joints connecting all of the feet.
Once all of the cutting is done you will want to place each individual piece in its own nylon stocking (dollar store ones work great). To make things easier later on, use different colored twist ties (like the kind used for loaves of bread at the supermarket) to mark each stocking so that you can keep track of exactly which parts are which. For instance - red is the spine and neck, blue is the tail, green is the front left foot, etc... Trust me, this will save a world of time later on when you want to whiten the bones and re-articulate them, instead of sifting through one stocking of mix-matched bones, or worse, through the bottom of a rotting wet death soup bucket.
Now you can follow the instructions for maceration found on our post "Cleaning Animal Skulls - A Basic Taxidermy How To Guide".
After all of the bones have been rid of their flesh and remaining cartilage, take each stocking, one at a time and cut them open. Clean each individual bone one at a time with running water and an old toothbrush if necessary. Make sure to put each section of bones back into fresh, clean stockings and color-code them again. Now you can move along and follow the instructions for degreasing and "bleaching" the bones if you so desire them to be a bit on the whiter side. We suggest NOT keeping the bones in stockings for the degreasing or "bleaching" though because the acetone or peroxide might have ill effects on the nylon stocking material. Instead, old soup cans that have been thoroughly cleaned work great to keep the separate sections in while degreasing and "bleaching" for very small animals. Metal paint buckets work just as well for slightly larger animals.
Once you are satisfied that all of the bones have been sufficiently cleaned and dried, the next step is re-articulation BEFORE varnishing (if you choose to varnish the skeleton, which we do suggest). Remember, the smaller the animal, the harder re-articulation is going to be. Cats and dogs may seem like a task, however just wait to attempt re-articulating a rat or small mouse. Tweezers and a desk mounted magnifying glass are almost a "must have" in those cases. No matter the size, you will want a good quality, detailed diagram of the skeletal bones of whatever animal you are going to re-articulate. Use this diagram as a guide when putting the skeleton back together and keep in mind this is a long process, especially with very small animals.
For very small animals, gluing the bones together with high quality super glue will suffice to keep them together. We suggest using Zap-A-Gap brand glue for this; however please note that this is an extremely FAST setting and STRONG super glue. Bones will bond almost instantly together as will skin on fingers. Take care when handling this material. For larger animals such as cats, small dogs, etc... We suggest wiring the parts together wherever possible in combination of using super glue. To wire the parts together you will need a small rotary tool such as a Dremel™ or jeweler’s rotary tool with a drill bit the same diameter as your wire. Brass wire works best, however stainless steel wire is also common and in my opinion, just as good. In a perfect world you would want to drill out all of the bones and run wire tightly through them and glue it all in place. However - that is VERY time consuming and nearly impossible to do (NOT impossible, just nearly). So, what you will want to do it drill slightly into each bone to be wired (such as the connective joints), cut a piece of wire to fit and glue the wire in with the super glue. Spines and tails you can drill through each piece and wire the whole thing together. Super glue it all in place once you have it sitting the way you want.
Once you have the entire animal re-articulated and sitting the way you want, now is a good time to varnish the whole skeleton. Varnishing protects the bones and keeps the skeleton looking nice and neat for many, many years to come. Once the varnish is dry you can mount the skeleton to a base, if you already had one planned out. Pat yourself on the back. You're done.
Now, if you want to tackle re-articulating small animal skeletons, but don't want to handle the dirty work of bringing the carcass down to bones, there are a few companies on the internet, such as www.boneshoppe.com that can take special orders for professionally cleaned and prepared, dis-articulated, small animal skeletons. What you will receive is all of the bones to the particular animal you have ordered, separated into clear plastic bags by section, ready for re-articulation. Depending on the size and species, we can also offer maceration services to clean an animal you may have and want rendered into a skeleton. Please feel free to drop us a line and inquire about special order skeletons or our maceration services.
There you have it folks - The basics of cleaning and re-articulating small animal skeletons. Many people find re-articulating small animal skeletons to be a somewhat fun way to pass time and mounting positions are only limited to your creativity and imagination. If you have any further questions, feel free to contact us.
Jesse A. House