Carly Martinez Govea cleans the bones of a mountain horned lizard.

One of the most unique classes at Roaring Fork High School is Zoology, taught by Rachel Cooper. The final project involves working in a small group to completely dissect a dead animal down to its bones and then reassemble the skeleton. 

First, the students weigh and measure their animals and look for any signs of injury. They skin them and then continue on to the internal organs which they weigh and look for any signs of illness or poisoning. They also learn how the animal breathes, eats, reproduces and eliminates waste. 

Once they have removed the internal organs and as much muscle tissue as possible, they soak the remainder in water with Seventh Generation laundry detergent at 90 degrees. In approximately 24 to 48 hours, there is nothing left but clean bone. At this point they must recreate the skeleton and glue every part back together properly. The students are required to create a presentation of the process and findings, including a full necropsy report that includes the cause of death.

Over the 12 years that Cooper has been teaching this class, they have worked on many kinds of animals, including mountain lion, bear, raccoon, beaver, mink, tree squirrel, ground squirrel, owl, hawk, bird, bearded dragon, calves, deer, skunk, coyote, weasel, rabbit, turtle, goat, sheep, bobcat and snake. The animals are supplied by the Division of Wildlife, local ranchers, farmers, friends and even students who live on ranches and a trapper that works for the Division of Wildlife. Cooper’s favorite animal over the years was a stillborn calf, because it was so challenging. They found that there were so many uncalcified pieces that were just cartilage that it became “the worst bone puzzle ever.” 

Alexi Siva Arellano works on gluing all of a snake’s rib bones to its spine. Photo by Sue Rollyson

This challenging project requires determination and perseverance to work so far outside the “comfort zone” of the participants, and yet only six students have not finished in all the years of this course. They become intrigued, and many form a type of bond with their animal. Sometimes they name it and apologize when working on it or when making a mistake in putting it back together. 

Cooper said that, although they might be grossed out at many points in the process, they become fascinated by, and in awe of, the heart of their animal. This is a rare and challenging high school course that presents uncommon opportunities for learning and personal growth.

Finished skeletons (left to right): a raccoon, mountain horned lizard, another raccoon (different gender), ground squirrel and skunk. Photo by Sue Rollyson