Vulture Culture: A Dissection
There’s an opossum dead on the side of the road behind my apartment building. His spine pushes up against the edge of the sidewalk while the rest of his small body (he is a young opossum), still covered in white fur, lies in the grass. There isn’t any blood. No guts yet.
I feel like I’m standing at the edge of a crime scene, but there’s no caution tape. My dog squats only two feet away to do her business on a clover patch no bigger than the corpse in front of me.
If I pretend hard enough, he could be sleeping. When I walk my dog in the mornings, I see him lying there, continuing his nap. It’s easy to get caught up looking at him, taking in the details of an animal I usually only see lurking behind trash cans, darting across the road, or in pictures on the internet. I flinch whenever a car zooms past, going well over the 30 mph speed limit posted on the opposite side of the road. I wish whatever South Carolina-plated pickup truck or dingy white sedan that passed by hadn’t hit the opossum. I’m also holding out hope that the landscapers miss him later in the week, so that when the maggots rolling around in his belly are finished with their work, I can collect his skull.
Vulture culture is a hobby. The “vultures” are a community of people who collect the bodies of dead animals, largely roadkill, and clean or taxidermy them. The reasons for this practice range from anatomical interest to morbid obsession, and the processes from weekly collection schedules and cultivating colonies of dermestid beetles to diaphonization and the simple tanning of hides and cleaning of bones.
Avid vulture and author of Vulture Culture 101: A Book for People Who Like Dead Things, Lupa, calls vulture culture “a subculture that in recent years has grown up around the appreciation of hides, bones and other animal specimens.” The tags on Tumblr, one of the online spaces where vulture culture thrives, describe it as #bones, #animaldeath, #taxidermy, #curios. Some also consider #TWanimaldeath an important descriptor.
I’m not a part of vulture culture, despite my opossum.
I don’t have a problem with dead things. Sure, the smell is probably atrocious, and blood and guts aren’t exactly trendy, but I know I could get past that. No, it’s my inability to separate the dead thing from the once living thing that keeps me from taking the necessary clinical step back to remove the fur and clean the bones.
Not all the vultures you might find if you looked up #vultureculture actually do the vulture work (and it is work). Some people collect their bones from the roadsides of Craigslist posts or pull them from eBay listings. Some of them don’t have the time or ability to collect dead critters or spend weeks prepping and cleaning them. The culture is diverse, but it’s the vulture artists that really hold it up. They have an aesthetic: all their bones and beetles, the careful process posts showing roadkill going from body to bones to something carefully reconstructed and labeled.
Vultures often collect their bones from animals that died naturally—still born kittens, genetically defected creatures that didn’t survive—but roadkill is a major source. Some vultures even taxidermy pets that have passed away, memorializing furry friends in their small, stiff bodies. I look at my dog and know I could never.
A popular and striking way vultures sometimes take on preservation is diaphonization. A chemical bath turns the skin diaphanous, clear as rice flour paste. The bodies are digested by trypsin. The flesh breaks down and is left transparent before the organs, bones, and cartilage are dyed with additional chemicals. They become like water spirits, transparent creatures suspended in jars, animal-shaped cases for the organs that take on new colors: Alcian blue, Alizarin red, a mix to create purple (but never a bloody hue).
This technique was developed by G. Dingerkus and L. D. Uhler in 1977 so that biological specimens could be preserved and observed in great detail without too much destruction. The creature’s secrets are highlighted, outlined in fluorescents. A ball python’s kinked spine is no longer camouflaged by the alien spots on its scales, every vertebra is visible, countable. An odd curve here zig zags back into another kink only a few notches later.
Diaphonization takes months—months for the skin to turn clear even before the dyes are used to highlight the inner structures. Not all specimens can handle the acidic compounds; some deteriorate, broken down by the compounds instead of transformed by them. But once the process is complete, the sight of it—a rat, a stingray, the ball python floating in a clear preservative like glycerin or formaldehyde—has everything left bare and exposed.
In the shower, I become diaphanous. The moisture collects in my hair, clings to my eyelashes, pools at my feet. The hot water becomes my trypsin solution, diluting whatever structures hold together my outer-world appearance. It’s like I am absorbed. The water replaces me. I am clear. All my secrets bared. Every scar and freckle gets its small chance to see the world, to scream out into the steam-filled pocket of my bathroom. Alone with itself, my body is my body. No projections. No lies or assumptions.
If there is music on, it clings to the calcium, the bones and cartilage of me in those reds and blues. Some Taylor Swift track pulls the girl out of my throat, purple and glowing. A heavier guitar riffing, a more desperate male voice calling out pushes her back down, dyes something deep Alizarin red.
When I wrap myself in a towel and pop the seal on the bathroom door, I slide out of the preserving steam, my skin covered in the world again like a specimen slipping out of its jar.
At a glance, an opossum has a rather round, full face, but its skull is narrow and triangular, its braincase small, with a defined sagittal crest rising out of it. If you press your thumbs into an opossum’s white fur, can you feel the ridge? When the rest is gone, how much of the skull has been manipulated by the skin?
Opossum skulls, cat skulls, and even the occasional mink skull make their way to vulture culture stores online. Etsy seller Chupacabrauk even carries the occasional Muntjac deer skull. The more common skulls, domestic animals, are fan favorites on Instagram and Pinterest, places where the vulture aesthetic thrives, even for people who do not want to keep bones themselves, opting instead for vulture photography, artwork, and other merchandise. The skulls are easy to get, and many of them can be picked up for $30 or less. Sometimes something more unique pops up, something deformed or cancerous, bones split or deteriorated. Destruction makes them more valuable.
I suppose many of these skulls come from opossums like mine, unlucky jaywalkers who played chicken with too many pairs of speeding headlights. It’s the middle of the opossum that you usually see crushed on the road, guts flattened out like pressed flowers on the asphalt. This means that ribs, femurs, and vertebrae tend to get ruined. But skulls, the one piece that—even stripped of its flesh—makes us see the living thing that was, are often intact. When the eye sockets are empty, the orbital ridges still hold something of the soft, black-eyed stare. There’s still a hiss, an odd smile in the recemented teeth.
Skulls are where the money is. Perhaps that’s where the soul lies, too.
I don’t know what my own skull looks like without flesh, what my eye sockets look like hollowed out, naked orbital ridges wide with shock. When I first learned to draw faces, and later when I memorized skeletal anatomy for an anthropology course, I would press my fingers to my face, pushing each digit hard into my skin to find the places where the bones existed, where the hinges met, where the skin and muscles reshaped the stark thing underneath. Even though my chin does not show it, there is a soft dip in the center of my jaw. If I press my thumb there, I can feel that small bit of muscle giving into the space beneath.
I wonder what else my skull shows that my face cannot. Two narrators tell the same story in different prose. Skin heals and scars, but bones tell hidden stories in fractures and stress. You cannot trace out the scar where a tooth went through my lip on my actual teeth. The scar above my eye from a frightened cat does not curve across bone. I can’t manipulate my skull to seem more friendly when all the rest is gone.
I collect bones, too.
I have a small quarter-machine capsule stuffed with a wad of toilet paper that houses four of my baby teeth. One of them is shattered, though I’m not sure when that happened. The baby teeth didn’t fall out of my mouth post-Tooth Fairy, when I was too old to expect my bones to be whisked away in the night in exchange for cash. They are “the Tooth Fairy will come later” teeth that have followed me from place to place in that capsule. The Tooth Fairy’s been booked for a while, I guess.
When my opossum’s teeth are exposed, there is still so much of its body left. Its long pink tail has shriveled, and the grey, dehydrated skin is shrink-wrapped to the vertebrae clinging like zipper-teeth to the sidewalk. I never visit my opossum without my dog, though I do check on it from my bedroom window when a rain shower threatens to push it off the sidewalk. I cannot see its teeth, but I imagine them gleaning in the moonlight.
I keep my teeth rattling around in the quarter-machine capsule, tucked away with other spare junk and knick-knacks. They don’t quite belong to me anymore, but I also can’t imagine tossing them in the trash. Those are my teeth. How could I send them off into the world without me?
When an animal dies and the flesh rots away, teeth will often fall out of the skull. Without the gums to hold them in place, the teeth slide out of their little bone pockets like unhinged puzzle pieces. I have learned from the vultures that they can be reattached with a bit of glue. You’d never know the difference.
The first two teeth I lost were ripped from me. My lower central incisors, those two directly in the center if your mouth is lined up straight, were loose at the same time. They wiggled a little, rubbed against each other when I stuck my five-year-old fingers in my mouth and screwed with them. Screwing with loose teeth would become a solitary ritual, my fingers carefully teasing a tooth until it could do a whole range of acrobatics before finally coming quietly out of my mouth. But with those first two teeth, I didn’t have much time with them before my mother took my small chin in her hand and, towering above me, used a washcloth to pull them out one after the other before they could even so much as shimmy in my mouth.
The rest of the teeth I lost I kept like boney secrets. No one ever knew I had a loose tooth until I had already taken it out. Pushing my tongue into the gummy hole, tasting the blood trickling out of it, I would wonder if, even with my patient way of pushing and pulling them until the roots wore out, it was still too soon. I would take the lost tooth, place it back in the hole, and smile into the mirror, pulling my lips back so I could see it balanced precariously there. Cold, they never again felt like a part of me.
After a good rain, the opossum is still there. The eyes are gone, taken by a crow or some other small carrion eater (a vulture, human or bird, would have made off with the whole thing), but I can’t bring myself to get close enough to look at the exposed sockets. Wet fur, gray from too much time outside, too little movement, clings to its skeleton. The ridges of its spine are outlined by it. Even with so much of that soft covering missing, the fur gives it some life.
Vulture artists might use an intact spine for earrings, a choker. Spine terrariums are even popular, though not as popular as those containing skulls. Individual vertebrae might be fitted with gems. Larger animals like deer have spines that can be hung from trees, sliced to be turned into bracelets. They dangle loosely from vulture necks and wrists.
If I sit up straight and arch my own spine, I can feel it crack. Each vertebrae pops, starting at the bottom and moving up to my neck like a skeletal xylophone. If I have been sitting for too long, the pops and cracks are loud. They sound like a handful of colored pencils being dropped on a tile floor. My spine screams about the stress of my office chair, the weight of my back. It speaks for me.
When a car zooms past, small pieces of fur move in the passing wind. The ridges of bone are outlined like road reflectors. The opossum’s spine is silent.
It can take over a month for an opossum to decompose. After two weeks, there is still so much of it left, too much for me to sneak out of there with my dog. Too much to use the gray plastic Walmart bag that I brought to pick up after her, to snag the skull I’ve befriended instead.
Three weeks after my initial discovery, I head out to walk my dog. She pulls me toward the sidewalk, her wet nose close to the dirt. A chilly breeze ruffles the pine trees. The swish of their needles brushing together sounds like whispering. It stirs up bird song. I look at the clear blue sky. The opossum, my sidewalk landmark, is gone. I release the breath I didn’t realize I was holding.