Bleaching animal bones
April 20, 2010 5:51 AM   Subscribe

Flesh eating virus on found deer jawbone?

I took the jawbones of a dead deer home April 4 in a plastic ziplock bag, placing that inside a tied grocery bag. There was only a small amount of "flesh" left on them, the rest almost completely white.

Thing is, I left the bones in the bags for the past couple weeks and now I'm wondering, "Should I open it?" My worry is that something virulent has been incubating in the closed environment. I'm not even sure if I should open the grocery bag to see how the bones are faring in the ziplock bag.

My plan is to wear latex gloves and a kercheif tied around my face, take the bag outside, and transfer the bones to a container of hydrogen peroxide for soaking until they're safe for handling/display.

Is this a bad idea or no big deal? Also, if anyone has experience "bleaching" animal bones and wants to share, let me know!
posted by hagelslaag to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you'll catch anything if you wear gloves and wash your hands, but that's going to stink like nobody's business when you open it.
posted by electroboy at 5:54 AM on April 20, 2010

Electroboy is right.

Viruses don't eat flesh; some bacteria do. Flesh-eating bacteria are a problem when they are multiply-antibiotic-resistant, but your deer has probably never taken antibiotics, so it won't contain any resistant strains. Also, to be a problem, flesh-eating bacteria would have to get beneath your skin, which would require some sort of wound. The fact that your dead deer parts have been in a bag this long has probably also killed off any parasites from the living animal that could possibly infect you.

If they don't smell too horrible to do so, I'd leave the bones outside for a while to let the ants clean them off and allow the sun to bleach them, before trying the peroxide. You probably want to avoid using chlorine bleach, because it is likely to do too much damage.
posted by Ery at 6:08 AM on April 20, 2010

Not sure if this applies to you but, we used to put snake skeletons and bones with bits of meat still attached, into an ant pile and let them do most of the work. Good luck.
posted by winks007 at 6:21 AM on April 20, 2010

Calm down. The "flesh eating bacteria" we're talking about are the sort that get into dead things. We aren't talking about anything more exotic than the stuff you come into contact with every day but that your immune system deals with as a matter of course. If you decided to chow down on whatever's been growing in there, yeah, that could be bad. But simply getting some on you isn't going to be a huge deal, particularly if you wash your hands afterwards, and aside from a godawful stench you aren't likely to contract anything via the air.

Still, and this is unrelated to the bacteria you're talking about, you will want to be careful here. Chronic wasting disease is endemic in some deer populations, and unless you know how this thing died, it might be a good idea not to touch it much. But proper precautions like the ones you've described should make this of little concern. Basically, use gloves, wash your hands, and don't eat it.

Here are some pretty decent-looking instructions for "bleaching" bone. You appear to be on the right track with the hydrogen peroxide, which will have the added benefit of sterilizing the sucker.
posted by valkyryn at 6:25 AM on April 20, 2010

I found a boar's skull that still had some nosemeat on it and I just put it in the garden for a while. After not very long, no more nosemeat. I'm under the impression that soaking bone in something like hydrogen peroxide can damage (soften) it, but I could be wrong about that. I wasn't worried about catching anything - I didn't have any open cuts on my hands, and I washed then well after I handled it.
posted by rtha at 6:27 AM on April 20, 2010

Take it outside and stab the bag (no protective gear needed), leave it out in the sun for a year (keep your eye on it though, someone may steal it).
To safely bleach the bones artificially, drop them in 3% hydrogen peroxide (in a plastic container with a lid) for several days. The hydrogen peroxide used is the kind you can buy in the brown bottle at the drugstore. The bones should come out very nice looking. Let them dry. If they start looking oily and greasy, they will need to be de-greased some more. This should really be done first before bleaching.
posted by tellurian at 6:37 AM on April 20, 2010

stab the bag (no protective gear needed)
Not 'frenzied' stabbing though. If you aren't going to gently pierce and aerate the bag to allow natural putrefaction to occur but prefer frenzied stabbing, you should wear some protective gear like Dexter.
posted by tellurian at 6:48 AM on April 20, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've worked with deer - let's say 'deer portions', thanks to the CT DOT - before, in a forensicy anthropology sort of setting. It will stink to the highest heavens. Vicks under the nose will help. It may ooze, like a garbage bag with wet horrors inside.

Your plan - to remove outside, with gloves, and dunk in peroxide or whatever - is fine. Sun and insects are traditional, but that means you have to expose it, which can be a problem in your area depending on the wildlife. I know some places put wire mesh screens or put the bones/shells in cages outside to prevent their disappearance.

You can help it along by scraping the flesh off, if you have the stomach for it . Experimental trials in my experience say X-acto knives work only OK. Chert blades work surprisingly well.
posted by cobaltnine at 7:46 AM on April 20, 2010

Dermastid Beetles!! Of course, once they've finishd your deer jaw they will still need feeding. You'll have to ... acquire... some more body parts for them.
posted by The otter lady at 9:18 AM on April 20, 2010

Thanks, everyone! I can handle "ick" but didn't know if I was asking for more serious trouble than dealing with bad smells.

This deer spent the past year+ in my friend's backyard, so it's pretty far along in the natural stripping process. Since I carted it away to Brooklyn, I don't have space for more weathering or insect maceration. I'll try the peroxide trick.

I think I'm clear from contracting chronic wasting disease, and you guys have put my mind at ease about the bacteria/virus/parasites concerns.

I appreciate the thoughtful answers!
posted by hagelslaag at 9:21 AM on April 20, 2010

You would have to actually eat the animal to acquire chronic wasting disease. Interestingly, there is a theory that prions (or whatever causes chronic wasting disease) can contaminate the foodchain (at least here in British Columbia). Dear dies of chronic wasting diseases, dies, decomposes, pushes up daisies, deer eat daisies, acquire chronic wasting disease...
posted by KokuRyu at 10:10 AM on April 20, 2010

I think you'd also be able to clean up bones in the state you've described by soaking them for a couple of days in a mix of biological detergent powder and water - the enzymes in the detergent will break down the remaining flesh. I tried this method out on a nearly-clean seabird skull and it seemed to work OK - YMMV.

My standard method during fieldwork some years ago was to leave the animal bits (quite fresh skulls mainly) outside for several months, half buried, and underneath pegged down chicken wire. As I said, my bits were quite fresh, so you should be able to get away with less time. After some time has passed there will still be straggling bits of flesh present. To get rid of these I'd boil the skulls for a few hours (warning! it smells BAD) and watch the flesh come off. Stubborn bits can be removed with a scrubbing brush. The bones should then be oven dried.

There are some nasty bacteria that you can pick up from handling decaying animals. So wear latex gloves and/or wash your hands very thoroughly in something anti-bacterial when you're done. And don't attempt any of the above in your own kitchen!
posted by jonesor at 4:55 PM on April 20, 2010

I'd be more worried about botulism growing due to the anaerobic conditions in the sealed bag.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 9:06 PM on April 20, 2010

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