Expert builds grizzly bear, mountain lion skeletons for Draper Museum
POWELL — It didn’t take long for Lee Post to develop a love for the natural world. He was a collector before he could walk — so much so, his parents were forced to check his pockets before he came into the house.
“When I was a toddler, my parents had to empty the rabbit pellets out of my pockets before they washed my clothes,” he said.
Then he started finding bones. He was entranced. When he started realizing, “Oh, some of these bones fit together,” that’s when it all started.
Post lived much of his life in Alaska. His passion for bones transitioned into an obsession that never quieted. He tried a variety of jobs as a young adult; he was good with his hands and had short careers as a bicycle mechanic and a carpenter.
But bones never released their grip on him. He started assembling the decomposed animals he found, starting with small creatures.
Finally, after moving back to the small town of Homer, Alaska, Post began volunteering at the local natural history museum. It had received a complete collection of whale bones and asked if he would be interested in rebuilding the giant.
“Well, I had built a rabbit skeleton in high school,” he thought before accepting the challenge. “It was laughable.”
He thought he’d go get a book and figure it out. But there were no books available on articulating Bering Sea beaked whales — or any animals, he said.
So he winged it. It was the first whale of the species ever articulated, and it gained Post notoriety.
Eventually, he began to gain fame for his ability to do wildlife articulations.
“Skeleton articulation, or bone building as I call it, is the process of converting a dead animal into a completely cleaned and articulated skeleton,” he said.
Some years later, he was reassembling a 41-foot long sperm whale with a group of high school students. He loves interacting with students and volunteers. It puts fun in projects that would normally see him bury himself in his work for weeks — alone.
“I no longer had a great desire to be locked into a room or a closet, doing a skeleton by myself. I discovered it’s really fun working with young people, or with people who want to do this and have never done this before,” he said. “You know, the image had always been that this is something that only the museum professionals can do in the ivory basements of their museums.”
The project took two years and the children eventually dubbed Post the “Bone Man.”
Fast forward 40 years, and Post is recognized as one of the top marine mammal articulation specialists in the world, but there are few animals he isn’t willing to construct.
He travels to exotic locations to do his creations and has written 11 books on the subject.
He does the artwork for the books himself. Each bone is painstakingly drawn by hand, something that he does to keep busy when there is little else to do.
“It’s a product of the long winters in Alaska,” he said.
While he doesn’t consider himself an artist, the drawings and articulations suggest otherwise.
One of his joys – working with student volunteers – also comes with a secret. While he is always encouraging others to do their best, not everyone has the knack for detail-oriented work.
“I come in at night and redo or fix some things when I can work without being interrupted so much,” he admitted. “I watch it close enough that I can fix most things.”
Draper Museum project
For the past three years the Draper Natural History Museum has been trying to attract Post to come to Cody and construct two projects for a major display of a grizzly bear and a mountain lion. After delays due to COVID-19, he finally made it.
He has a solid crew of volunteers helping him, including three former Northwest College students.
The goal is to show the skeletons in natural positions; the grizzly scratching his back on a tree and the lion reaching for prey, extending its paw to show the lethal weapon.
The effort dates back prior to the retirement of Charles Preston, founding curator of the museum.
“Our goal was really to focus on raptors and large carnivores,” he said. “They seem to be missing in regional museums here in Greater Yellowstone, which is known for those [species].”
In 2017, the museum brought in Corey Anco, who is now the interim curator. Anco forged a great relationship with the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and was able to successfully apply for the carcasses of the two carnivores.
“We’re a salvage-based natural history museum, meaning that we don’t collect anything from the wild. All of our specimens come to us through salvage activities,” Anco told a group who came to the museum to observe the work in progress.
The entire process is open to the public to watch, and the construction project is a popular exhibit, he said.
The museum has state and federal permits to salvage wildlife. That means if a bird hits a window, or a vehicle strikes an animal, the museum’s permit allows staff to salvage the carcass for education and research activities.
Most of their birds come from wildlife rehabilitator Susan Ahalt, founder of Ironside Bird Rescue in Cody.
“If a bird suffers an injury that can’t be rehabilitated and is going to succumb to those injuries, it’s often euthanized and then transferred to us,” Anco said.
Carnivores come to the Draper as a transfer specimen from the Wyoming Game and Fish Department.
“Sometimes a difficult decision is made to lethally remove an animal from the landscape. When that happens, that animal typically ends up in a landfill and decomposes there,” Anco said.
The museum maintains a collection that represents the biodiversity, the fauna and the flora that’s representative of the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem. Salvaging carcasses for educational displays is one way to responsibly use what would otherwise be a wasted resource, said Luke Ellsbury, a large carnivore biologist with Game and Fish.
“We’ve been trying to give them as many species as they can take, but space is limited.”
Ellsbury pointed out that the skeletal system is something few people think about when they look at an animal.
“This teaches people more about the ways animals have evolved to survive in the environment. [Articulations] are a unique way to look at an animal.”
He said Anco has been great to work with, and it takes some of the pain out of one of the most difficult parts of his job.
The grizzly bear was a 14-year-old male who had been captured three times in livestock depredation cases. The last time it was live-trapped, it had a large abscess on its back from a fight with another bear. It had lost 80 pounds since the previous capture and was in poor health.
The department works in collaboration with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has authority over the species while it’s listed for protection under the Endangered Species Act, to decide when to remove a grizzly from the landscape.
“It’s an unfortunate part of our job, but it is nice to see them used this way. Hopefully we can continue to work with museums in the future,” Ellsbury said.
Julia Cook, one of three former Northwest College students who volunteered to help build the displays, was an intern with the Game and Fish when the grizzly bear was brought in. She helped skin and deflesh the carcass for the project and is now assisting with the process.
“When you look at the skeleton, it looks nothing like a human. But their paws look eerily like a human’s (hands),” she said.