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On a recent walk my girlfriend and I discovered a decomposed horse carcass, nothing but bones left. We took some photos and moved on. She's now decided that the bones would make great ornaments and we should go back and pick some up...?!

How is the best way to obtain and clean bones found in the wild? Preferably without obtaining some kind of skin eating disease in the process?!

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    Hi Liam! I think bones are cool too, but I just want to mention that taking bones violates one of the principles of Leave No Trace. If that's not a consideration for you, making sure they're clean is certainly important! – Sue Saddest Farewell TGO GL Apr 7 '17 at 19:59
  • Hi @sue. These are farm animals typically. The farmer is supposed to remove the carcass themselves legally but often if it's in a remote spot they don't find them,etc. So you could argue we're actually cleaning up! :) – user2766 Apr 10 '17 at 7:57
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The great thing about finding bones outside is that for the most part, they're already clean! I'm from a small hunting town, going out for hikes to look for bones and sheds is a popular thing to do in the spring. I found bear skull on a game trail once, you don't need to do much more than collect them in a garbage bag or a cardboard box, old bones aren't toxic, just dirty. If you're going to use them for garden decorations then I probably wouldn't do anything to them, just drop them back in the dirt once you get them home, but if you plan on bringing them inside then you'll certainly want to clean them.

Taxidermists have several methods for cleaning a skull, the trickiest part is always de-fleshing (and getting the brains out) which is often done with maggots or beetles, but can also be done by boiling the skull, or just soaking it in water (which is stinky and gross). In your case it looks like nature has already done all the dirty work for you! All I would do no is boil the skull for a bit (outside, some BBQs having heating elements that work good for this) to disinfect it and soften up any grime you may need to scrub off (use a bottle cleaning brush to get up inside the skull and scrub away any leftovers) then proceed to whitening the skull.

Whitening is best done with Hydrogen Peroxide, you can use the over the counter stuff from the drug store, or you can buy the heavy duty stuff from a taxidermist. just soak the skull in a tub overnight or for a day or two (no longer or you can start to ruin the skull) then let it dry for about the same amount of time.

After your skull is nice and white, you can superglue any loose teeth back in place, and finish your skull with a spray coat of clear wood finish.

Of course you could always give your local taxidermist a call to see how much he would charge you to clean them up himself, you'd be surprised how cheap they'll do some jobs, it would probably be good to consult them about the condition of the bone either way.

  • Do you happen to know how durable antler velvet is? I frequently find moose antlers that have green mildew, but I would like to preserve the color and texture of the dried velvet. – orangejewelweed Nov 12 '14 at 18:11
  • You find moose sheds with the velvet still on them? That sounds... unusual... The velvet is basically the same as skin, and isn't really easy to preserve. Taxidermists will usually use fake velvet, the alternative is to freeze dry the antlers (which can be expensive) or use formaldehyde (brushed on as well as injected through the veins, which can be a lot of work). I'm not really sure what can be done to preserve old dried velvet, besides leaving it alone, and maybe putting a light spray coat on it to keep the bugs off... I'd recommend calling up a taxidermist and asking them. – ShemSeger Nov 12 '14 at 18:34
  • I wonder whether bleach would be good for this too? Bleach is a germ-disinfectant (kills bacteria) so perhaps it would be choice for cleaning after the boiling? Or maybe the hydrogen peroxide already handles that? – Michael Martinez Nov 13 '14 at 22:11
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    No Bleach! Bleach will most certainly disinfect, but it will actually deteriorate the integrity of the bone as well. After the boiling, there will be nothing left kill anyways. – ShemSeger Nov 13 '14 at 22:47
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    In addition to the beetles and maggots, you can tie a heavy cord onto the skull or bones and throw it in a shallow pond for a while. The fish and other organisms will pick it clean. I did a deer skull that way and it came out OK. – David Apr 7 '17 at 4:47

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