Death is a bit of a taboo subject, I know it is. But for those of you who are interested in working with dead things within their craft there’s a lot of really important safety information you should know.
Picking up (Carcasses)
Risk of contamination of any form is highest when dealing with carcasses.
Before you do anything, first ensure that the animal is actually dead. If the animal is not dead, only severely injured, it increases the chance of bodily harm, contamination, etc. The easiest way to do it is by following the age old “It ain’t dead till you poke it with a stick” humor. Indeed, prodding an apparently lifeless animal from a safe distance with a long stick, rake, or similar long-handled tool may be the best way to ensure an animal is dead while taking precautions to protect yourself. If an animal is not dead when you go to remove the body, you may startle it which can result in bodily injury, personal contamination, and possible contraction of any infections it has if it bites you, blood gets on you, etc.
Have a sheet of plastic, a pile of trash bags, or some similar items on hand to wrap the body in for transport. If possible, don’t touch it bare handed. If you have to touch it without gloves, make sure to wash your hands immediately afterwards (and thoroughly) with soap and hot water, then follow up with a hand sanitizer. Generally though, it’s best not to touch it without plastic gloves- preferably something that is impermeable to water or liquid and either disposable or easily sanitized.
If you can, opt to wear old clothes, an apron, coveralls, or similar materials when handling- again, preferably something that is impermeable to water or liquid. If clothes become contaminated, remove them as soon as possible and soak them in a hot water solution for 15 minutes, then wash them separate from all other clothing following normal washing instructions. Don’t forget to shower in hot water, yourself, and wash your body well with soap and water after handling dead carcasses.
If it is roadkill or an animal you’ve hit while traveling, please make sure to check your local laws and know where your state stands on the retrieval of roadkill. Different states have different laws concerning roadkill removal and may require you to report it to your closest Highway Patrol center so they can send an officer out to your location to supervise the removal of the carcass and file any necessary paperwork. In other areas, you may be allowed to remove some roadkill depending on hunting or game licenses you currently carry. Some states have after-retrieval requirements for the processing and testing for roadkill that is being removed. Always make sure to check your state and even county laws before retrieval.
If the animal appeared to have contracted Rabies, the carcass should be iced and the proper authorities alerted for disposal. Do NOT handle an animal further of continue processing if it appears to have been contaminated with such a disease.
After handling a carcass, make sure to thoroughly check your body for any ticks, fleas, or other carriers of diseases that may be picked up, and take a hot shower and thoroughly clean your body.
Also remember that some bones and Animal Parts may be illegal for you to own period, regardless of whether or not you found them. Be aware of what animals are illegal to own in your area, as ownership laws very from state to state. This is also one reason why it’s very important to notify the correct authorities when retrieving roadkill as in some circumstances ownership is limited to those who can prove they obtained the animals legally, and failure to provide record can lead to severe fines- especially in the cases of protected animals.
Picking up (Bones)
There’s less of a risk of contamination from weathered bones, feathers, or other items, but a few basic safety precautions should probably be follower here as well.
For bones, the same rules on gloves and having a plastic or similar material on hand for transport should be followed. It’s usually not necessary to worry about clothing, but do make sure to wash your hands, etc, afterwards and follow up with a hand sanitizer.
Bones should be cleaned when you get them home. First remove any dirt with a soft bristled scrub brush and straight water. Depending on the size of the bones you may just want to use a garden hose and a tub. Brittle bones shouldn’t be washed under high pressure though.
Most sources will tell you to follow up with soaking them in a Hydrogen Peroxide solution for about a week depending on how white you want the bones. Be careful not to use high concentrations of Peroxide in metal containers, however, as it is a safety hazard due to the reaction between high content Peroxides and certain metals. Generally, however, this isn’t a concern as most store bought peroxide ranges from 1% to 3%. After they are bleached with this method rinse them off, towel dry, then allow them to air dry for at least two days to prevent any growth.
If you do not have access to Peroxide but still wish to bleach your bones, simply leave them out to naturally bleach in regular sunlight. For those of you who are worried about your bones being drug off or exposed to the elements another option that does the same thing is hanging a sun lamp (such as those used for reptiles, indoor growing, etc). This method naturally mimics the sun and bleaches the bones in the same manner. However, be careful when turning bones when using either of these two methods of bleaching, as the bones can get excruciatingly hot during this process.
Crock Pots can apparently be a safe alternative to removing much dead tissue without doing too much damage to your bones while still cleaning and whitening them to some extent. Be advised, however, that boiling or steaming your bones may increase the decay and make bones brittle.
You don’t need to clean every bone you find, though. Generally if it has been out in the open it should already be clean so long as there isn’t any sign of soft tissue, no odor, or other visible signs of in-process decay.
Also remember that some bones may be illegal for you to own period, regardless of whether or not you found them. Be aware of what animals are illegal to own in your area, as ownership laws very from state to state.
Picking Up (Feathers):
Again, risk of contamination from feathers is very small. In this instance though you don’t really require any protective gear as it’s generally safe to remove feathers. It is still recommended that you process them, though the methods are much different for feathers as they’re very delicate.
An important thing to note here is to remember that it is actually illegal in some areas to pick up feathers from certain species’ of birds.
Any Raptor or Bird of Prey feathers should be left alone as it is considered a federal offence to have any item from one of these animals in your possession in the United States, The UK, Japan, Mexico, and several other countries participating in the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, The Endangered Species Act, The Lacey Act, and several other laws that prohibit the sale or ownership of any item belonging to a wide variety of birds considered “at risk”, “endangered”, or “protected”.
Learn to recognize the feathers belonging to these birds if any covered bird is found in your location, and avoid them.
Additional Resources include: “Cleaning and Preserving Animal Skulls” [web]; “Home Book of Taxidermy and Tanning” [Book]; “Small Game Taxidermy” [Book]; “Large Game Taxidermy” [Book]; “Basic Butchering of Livestock and Game” [Book]; “Deerskin into Buckskin: Tanning” [Book]; “Taxidermy Vol. 9” [Book]; “The Boneman Q&A” [Web]; “Cleaning Bones” [Web]; “Cleaning Skulls and Skeletons by Maceration” [Web]; and “Preparation and Storage of Vertebrate Skeletons” [Web]