Lovely bones: Skull man of Bemidji strips taxidermy to its core

Tony Petrie works on skulls inside his Bemidiji, Minn. workshop.
Tony Petrie works on skulls inside his Bemidji, Minn. workshop.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

Tony Petrie has a shed out behind his house near Bemidji. He built it himself with chip board and 2-by-4 lumber. He's proud of it, and of the work he does inside.

But he also feels a warning is in order: There will be a smell, and it will not be pleasant.

"To me it smells like fresh-rotting meat, which is essentially what it is," he says, as he walks toward the shed.

Petrie works full-time as a sergeant in the Beltrami County Sheriff's Office, but his second job happens in the shed. He's an expert in a type of trophy taxidermy known as the European mount.

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The most recognizable form of trophy preservation is the full shoulder mount. That's when the skin of the animal is tanned and stuffed. But while the traditional shoulder mount seeks to preserve the look of the animal as it was, Petrie strips the creature to its core.

Skull Guy
A cleaned bear skull. It's a several day process from removing skin, meat, eyes, brain, and grease, cleaning with commercial hydrogen peroxide, and applying a shiny finish.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

The result is a clean skull that looks like it's been left in the desert for years — bleached by the sun and wind and sand.

It's an oddly beautiful style, increasingly popular among hunters and collectors. Achieving the look, though, requires a strong constitution, some patience and a lot of hydrogen peroxide.

Petrie steps up into his shed and breaths in. "I tell my kids, 'This is the smell of money,'" he says. "This smells good."

The shed is lined with rows of buckets filled with warm greasy water and bones. They're called maceration tanks, and Petrie explains the 95 degree water allows bacteria to bloom, eating away the meat and tallow.

He leans down and pulls out a bear skull which has been steeping for five days. Gray water streams from its sinus cavity.

Tony removes skin, meat, eyes and brain from a deer head.
With a scalpel and other tools, Tony Petrie removes the skin, meat, eyes, and brain from a deer head in Bemidji, Minn. According to Petrie, he and his wife handled about 400 skulls in the previous year.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

"This one's pretty much clean," he says. "I just have to check and see which teeth are loose, and make sure I don't lose them."

The skull will be scrubbed, dunked in a special degreasing agent, then hydrogen peroxide, then a clear coat of polyurethane. It's an incredibly labor intensive two-week process.

But the real dirty work happens before the peroxide — before the maceration tank. The very first step in making a European mount, is skinning the head.

Petrie demonstrates on a trophy buck head in his garage.

Skull Guy
Skulls are soaked in heated water for several days so that remaining grease or tissue comes off the bones more easily.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

"There's a small bone that goes from the back of the jaw to the skull," Petrie says.

He breaks the bone with a swift move of his knife. Then he cuts through the skin and fur with a medical grade scalpel, peels back the ears and pulls.

Tony Petrie is a patrol deputy with the Beltrami County police.
Tony Petrie is a patrol deputy with the Beltrami County police and also the K-9 handler of 7-year-old Jessi, a Belgian Malinois who came from the Czech Republic in Bemidji, Minn. on November 15, 2018.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

He turns on a compressor, and blasts air into the brain cavity till it empties.

"There's a lot of fat in the brain," he says. "Fat is the enemy. It stains the bone."

This part of the process only takes a few minutes. He's had a lot of practice. Over the last decade, many thousands of skulls have passed through his hands.

And he says, demand for his European mounts just keeps going up.

He averages 400 skulls a year, all while working full time and raising five adopted children. He charges about $130 per skull. That's more than $50,000 a year gross, before paying the cost of peroxide and electricity to heat his maceration tanks.

But while demand is rising, competition is not. Petrie's the only practitioner within a few hundred miles of Bemidji. A few taxidermists will take the order, but most contract out the dirty work, to Petrie, or operations out of state.

Cranial sutures weave across a cleaned deer skull.
Cranial sutures weave across a cleaned deer skull. Tony Petrie and his wife Amy produce European Mounts, resulting in bright white, clean skulls.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

When asked why more people aren't interested, Petrie says the smell is "not for everyone."

The smell definitely has something to do with it. But there's something else, too. A skull might be beautiful once it's sanitized and pearl white — but before that, when meat and tallow still cling to the bone, it doesn't look beautiful at all. It looks like death. And when it goes into the masuration tank, it smells like death.

And for most people, death is an uncomfortable thing to think about.

The skulls of several deer and elk are soaked for several days.
The skulls of several deer and elk are soaked for several days so that some of the meat and grease can be removed easier from the bones while cleaning.
Monika Lawrence for MPR News

But Petrie's been in law enforcement for 17 years. He's seen a lot of crime scenes, and has had to get comfortable with mortality in a way most people never do.

So rotting the flesh off a few hundred deer skulls he says, isn't so bad if it means other people can have something beautiful to hang on their walls.

"For someone who has never seen a skull like this," he says. "All clean and white and broken down, it's incredible. They just look down and go, 'Oh my goodness.'"