May 27, 2009
Brian Brus, The Journal Record
Jay Villemarette, founder of Skulls Unlimited International, between ape skeletons at his public museum.
(Photo by Maike Sabolich)
OKLAHOMA CITY - Jay Villemarette said his professional success isn't so unusual – other entrepreneurs have formed businesses with the initial goal of supporting their related hobbies.
But he had no idea that his love of skulls would take him so far ahead in the industry. Villemarette is founder of Skulls Unlimited International Inc., an Oklahoma City-based company promoted as the world's leading supplier of osteological specimens.
"I remember telling myself that if I could make $2,000 a month, I would be happy," he said. "I never expected to actually be able to do that, much less for the business to grow to where it is today."
... selling skeletons mostly to educational centers such as museums or medical schools. A perusal of the company's catalog reveals the price for a full skunk skeleton at about $200, while a human skull (missing some teeth) alone can cost about $700.
He found his first skull in the woods when he was 7 years old; his father encouraged him to bring the dog specimen home and clean it up. A few years later he found a cat skull and was intrigued by their similarities and differences, setting off a lifelong quest for knowledge.
The self-described "skull junkie," now 43, started his business of removing flesh from dead creatures in mid-1986, a memory that's very clear: "My wife was pregnant with our son and went into labor while I was cleaning a batch on the kitchen stove," he said.
All three of his sons have since become employees of Skulls Unlimited. Like him, they have learned to work past the smell of the tissue or offal that has to be flensed to get the final product.
"I'm not sure you can say you ever get used to it; you just learn to live with it," he said. "Sometimes I remind my guys, 'You live a disgusting life.'"
Much of their raw material is donated by zoos, game farms, ranchers, hunters – Skulls Unlimited sometimes will even take roadkill. But Villemarette said he accepts only legally and ethically obtained specimens and no animals are destroyed for the company.
Workers carve away as much tissue as possible by hand, and then put the specimens in tanks for dermestid beetles to consume the remainder, leaving behind nothing but bones. The beetles don't like human tissue, which tends to be greasier than other animals because of human diets, he said.
Villemarette is just a few months away from realizing another dream, too – the opening of his own public museum dedicated to bones, bones and more bones to share his hobby with a wider audience. The museum was built off his main business but will remain a separate entity with 501(c) nonprofit status. Fully stocked, it will house about 5,000 skull and skeletal specimens representing more than 2,500 species with a concentration on mammals, ranging from a shrew to a humpback whale.
Villemarette said the museum will be the only one of its kind in the world.
"I can't imagine doing anything else," he said. "I'm really looking forward to sharing this with the rest of the world. It's something I've been planning now for about 20 years, and it's good to see it finally happen."