Schoharie County

SUNY Cobleskill students complete a capstone project that really stunk

SUNY Cobleskill animal science students Marta Suska, left, and Alexandra Delvecchio stand with the 205-bone horse skeleton they assembled and dubbed, "Smelly Skelly."
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SUNY Cobleskill animal science students Marta Suska, left, and Alexandra Delvecchio stand with the 205-bone horse skeleton they assembled and dubbed, "Smelly Skelly."

COBLESKILL More than 200 horse bones stank up the top floor of SUNY Cobleskill’s Van Wagenen Library – this was in 2019, and the bones had been cleaned as part of honors students in the Animal Science program’s capstone project. The stench was so bad that staff and faculty decided to pack the 205 bones away in tote bags, and there the bones sat. That is until new honors students in the program, Alexandra Delvecchio and Marta Suska, caught wind of an idea last year.

“We saw the bones. We would go into class and see them in the corner not being used,” said Delvecchio, a 21-year-old who plans to study Veterinary Medicine at Ross University in the fall, after graduating from Cobleskill this spring.

Delvecchio and Suska, a 22-year-old Cobleskill graduate who is still trying to choose between future study in veterinary medicine or animal nutrition, decided that for their honors capstone project they would clean the bones even more deeply and assemble them into a full skeleton to be displayed so that future Cobleskill students would have a lifesize model when studying anatomy or other subjects. They’ve lovingly dubbed the horse skeleton “Smelly Skelly.”

All it took was a semester-long interdisciplinary project that resulted in a completed skeleton that would have required $16,000 to purchase. The horse cadaver had originally been donated to Cobleskill several years ago so it could be used for scientific study.

Delvecchio and Suska began the project last fall with a renewed cleaning effort. Some of the bones still had tissue connected, and most of the bones were tinged yellow because of oil that had been trapped inside. The pair used peroxide purchased from Sally Beauty to bleach the bones and then – when the weather cooperated – they hung the bones outside to dry.

The students also used caulk and clay to repair bones that had been cracked or damaged.

Once the bones were finally cleaned and repaired, the students had to figure out how to assemble them into a skeleton that could be displayed. That meant not only putting the puzzle of the horse skeleton together, but also figuring out a way to properly hang all the bones. To do this, they worked with Agricultural Engineering students to design and build a steel structure that could support the weight of the skeleton.

Delvecchio and Suska also had to sand and stain the recycled door they used as the base of the display.

“In this project itself, the skeleton is being reused, so we figured why not reuse a door,” Suska said.

Once the support structure was assembled, it was time to put the skeleton together.

“Anatomy is a huge part of veterinary medicine. Being able to really see everything and hold it and have the physical structure in your hand and learn where [bones] go by literally putting the puzzle together was a huge learning experience for us,” Delvecchio said. “We took anatomy before this project and we joked that we wished we were taking it at the same time because it would have been even more helpful. We learned so much.”

The students carefully drilled holes through the bones and they strung metal wire to connect the bones to each other and the structure.

“Once we got the head on, everything became much clearer. We were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” Suska said.

She said working with the physical skeleton helped her better retain the anatomy lessons she had first learned via textbook.

“Now when I look at a horse that’s alive I can even see some of the structures and identify them,” Suska said.

The project took the entire fall semester, with the students working weekends and evenings – sometimes until 3 a.m.

“I even gave them an out,” said Kelly Yacobucci, an advisor in Cobleskill’s honors program. “I was worried to death. They had no experience with taxidermy. I said they should maybe look at a half mount. Talk about perseverance – they had a goal in mind, and they went for it.”

Persevere Delvecchio and Suska did, and thanks to their hard work, Cobleskill now has a full-size horse skeleton available for all teachers and students to use. Not only does the skeleton allow anatomy to come to life, but the display can be used by other programs, as well. For instance, Delvecchio has heard that a meat-cutting class recently used the skeleton to discuss where to make cuts when butchering a cow, since bovine and equine skeletons share many similarities.

“I look at it and it doesn’t even feel that we actually did that because it was so much [work],” Delvecchio said. “It’s still a shock to say that we did it. But it’s really rewarding knowing that we learned so much and now other students will be able to learn from it also.”

But does Smelly Skelly still stink?

Only if you put your nose really, really close to the bones, Delvecchio said. “Not as much as before at all, but a tiny bit.”

Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 

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