In our search for happiness and fulfillment, many of us seek out a job that allows us to do what we love. Joey Williams has found the perfect fit in a career that combines his hobby (collecting skulls and bones) with work that he enjoys (wildlife and environmental education). “This job ties it in a knot for me,” said Joey.
The Bone Collector
Joey, a self-described “farm kid from Kansas,” has collected bones and animal skeletons since he was a child. “When I was ten I started collecting skulls because I was interested in the shape of them—what the differences and similarities were between the animals—and I ultimately just thought they were cool.” This life-long interest eventually led him to Oklahoma City.
Today, Joey is the Educational Director for Skulls Unlimited International, a South Oklahoma City company that provides museum-quality cleaning for skulls and skeletons. It’s also the leading supplier of osteological (dealing with the structure and function of bones) specimens to museums, schools, and zoos worldwide. Jay Villemarette, who shares Joey’s affinity for skulls and bones, founded the company in 1986 after cleaning and selling specimens from his home.
In 1991, Joey met his future wife, Robin, while they were in college. Their first date was a trip to Skulls Unlimited. “I told her I collected skulls and she was like, ‘Why?’ She thought I was lying when I told her I had 80 different skulls.”
Joey told her about Skulls Unlimited in Oklahoma City, and he asked her to come along with him on his first trip. In time, there were many more trips to Oklahoma City, and Joey started to work as a consultant for the company while he finished his degree in biology and went on to work in educational outreach programs at Pittsburgh State University in Kansas. In 2002, he made the move to Oklahoma City and took a full-time position with Skulls Unlimited.
Though Robin doesn’t share Joey’s interest in osteology, their two-year-old daughter Mariposa seems to be following in Dad’s footsteps. “She can already identify different specimens,” according to her proud dad.
According to their literature, Skulls Unlimited has over 25 years of experience providing the preparation of skulls and skeletons. “There are other companies that will process bones from a dead animal to an articulated skeleton or a clean box of bones, but we specialize and do more,” says Joey. Everything from mice to whales can be handled by this facility.
Dermestid beetles provide much of the processing, though a chemical process also helps prepare the bones. “Most people think that it’s gross,” says Joey with a smile. “But then it is kind of gross. It smells.”
Along with cleaning natural bone, Skulls Unlimited offers a wide range of replica skulls and skeletons for sale. Many specimens that are not legal to obtain—endangered or protected species—have been made available via replicas.
Museum of Osteology
The company recently expanded again to a second building—half of which will be taken up by the Museum of Osteology, a non-profit museum primarily funded by the company. The museum, designed to be “educational, friendly, and fun,” according to Joey, will feature more than 1,000 specimens over approximately 8,000 square feet and two floors. One of the unique features of the museum is that it will display the specimens so form and function are highlighted.
Programs are planned to meet the various state science standards for children in grades K-12 as well as college students. Self-guided tours for school groups or families will be available, and scheduled tours with an expert will focus on the structure and purpose of the skeletal adaptations on display.
The vast specimen holdings of the company will provide the museum with the opportunity to rotate exhibits. According to Joey, “Over a thousand species’ skeletons and skulls will be displayed, but most of the holdings will be off display and available to researchers and others with interest.”
The museum store is open now and offers everything from a replica dinosaur tooth to a fully- articulated natural or replica human skeleton.