Last weekend, I went to a lovely wedding in Maine where the couple asked all the guests to bring something that means “magic” to us. I thought hard about what magic means to me and decided to recreate the moment I fell hard for science. It happened when I was 11. My obsession with science started as early as second grade, when I won First Prize at a science fair, but I didn’t take an actual science class until sixth grade. One day, Mr. Clark was teaching us about the digestive system, and to demonstrate just how long our small intestines are, he stretched a tube of plastic across the room. Across the whole room! Holy cow, all THAT was inside my belly? (Up to 5 meters, according to Campbell 5th edition, or 7 meters, according to the internets.) So, I linked together hundreds of paper clips, which are impossible to keep untangled by the way, to share my tale.
The other thing I thought about bringing was my shrunken skunk head, Flower. I mean, surely people must have thought shrunken heads were the result of magic… turns out, it’s just patience and craftsmanship, and a good stomach.
When chatting with strangers at length or standing around at cocktail parties, I almost always nervously revert to my go-to topics: taxidermy, head shrinking, and snake feeding (or rat defrosting, specifically). People have so many questions! So now here you have it, how to shrink heads! And why on earth I know how.
Around Christmastime 2010, I made my semi-regular visit to the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Usually Monica Albe, a senior museum scientist for many years, defrosts a bird for me to skin and stuff. But this time… a special treat. Mary Roach — author of Stiff, Bonk, and Spook, among others — had recently paid a visit, bearing a “recipe” for shrinking heads. (She tells her story in Outside Magazine.) And there just happened to be two skunk heads ready and waiting for me and fellow ex-MVZer Kim Tsao in the prep lab. You see, oftentimes with roadkill specimens, the entire skeleton would be preserved as part of the museum’s research collection, some tissue would be saved, and the skin would just be discarded. Not this time.
1. Start with a head
Carefully separate the skull from the skin and fur. Be especially careful around the ears, eyes, and nose, in that sequence. (Don’t worry, we’ve all messed this up before.) Once you’ve removed the bone, and the head is inside out, use a scalpel to scrape off everything: all the fat, muscles, flesh, whatever, everything. Scrape away until you can see the hair follicles. I’m not gonna lie, this could take hours. Then turn it rightside out.
Take a needle and thread, and sew up the eyes, the ears, and any holes or tears you may have made while skinning. But don’t sew up the mouth just yet! I picked a black thread so that you can’t really see it, but I guess you can pick a less camouflaged color if you want to make it look like stitches or something. Also, you don’t really need to worry about how tight your stitching is or how neat you tie the knots.
Drop the head into simmering water — NOT boiling water — preferably using a designated pot. (My snake’s rat defrosting cup is clearly labeled, as it should be.) I have to admit, I don’t even notice the smell anymore.
Then, watch the head shrink!! Right before your eyes! You’d be amazed! The amorphous, skull-less head will actually begin to shape itself so that it resembles an animal again. Monica adds: “I actually think it’s totally fascinating that the skin, which before placing in the water was as shapeless and floppy as a grocery bag, actually reforms into the shape it had while it was on the skeleton and flesh!” Even the thinnest layer of skin still has connections that “remember” the shape of the face in them.
4. Sew, part deux
Fish it out of the water and let it dry on a rack for about 10 minutes. You’ll notice that the formerly structure-less head now has a really furry face. (“It’s like a sea otter,” Kim says.) And that’s because as the skin shrinks and thickens in the simmering water, the hairs are drawn closer together. So densely packed, it’s almost fluffy again!
Then sew up the mouth. The lips will feel kind of gummy (as in Bears), and the insides have essentially become jerky. Again, I used black, but you can use a different color if you want to make it look like you’ve silenced the creature. That’s your aesthetic decision.
Heat up a large platter of sand and keep it warm. Using a scoop and a funnel, pour warm sand in through the neck hole (well, you know, if there was still a neck) with the face pointing downwards. The sewing you did earlier prevents sand from spilling out. Make sure to shake the head so the sand gets into all the nooks and crannies. Then dump the sand out. Repeat until you get bored (I think I did this for at least half an hour). This starts to harden the thing.
Let the head airdry. I hung it up by the neck hole onto one of those wood-pegged beaker drying racks (also great for mugs) that you find in labs, attached to the wall above sinks. I left it overnight. Once it’s dry, you can easily brush the sand off.
In the end, it doesn’t really look shriveled or shrunken like the human heads you might see in museums. Really, it just looks like a baby skunk, sleeping. (The head shrank by roughly 30mm in length, 10mm in width.) I named mine Flower, after Bambi’s buddy. It’s still sitting on my dresser at my parents’ house. Kim named hers Bear Jerky, who was eaten by her dog, Scooter, earlier this year. RIP, again. (“Rest In Pieces,” Kim says.)
Ready to do it yourself? Just remember, there are legal ways to get heads, and non-legal ways.
Some acceptable head sources:
Animal roadkill, along with proper permits
Some unacceptable head sources:
Discarded or salvaged human heads, under any circumstances
Serial killers who’ve evaded the Miami justice system
Werewolves, werepanthers, or any “Sups” addicted to V
Pet rabbits belonging to your former lover’s kid
And especially not direwolves, the personal protector pets of House Stark, at Red Weddings
Photos: J. Fang (They could be better, I know, but I didn’t really want to hold my camera with skunky hands.)