Applied Taxidermy and Kosher Law

Recently there have been several crested breeds of waterfowl that have been sent to the kosher slaughter houses. The crest, is manifested as extra-long feathers on the head of the bird. This feature is found in waterfowl, as well as chicken, pigeons and doves. It is the result of a genetic abnormality known as a cerebral hernia. Due to the abnormal brain growth generated by the deficient gene, the cerebral hemisphere of the afflicted brain, in particular the frontal area, is larger than normal. The oversized brain is often accompanied by a deformed and perforated cranium. From a kosher perspective, if a bird has a perforated cranium it is problematic.

There was a rabbinic tradition that a hole in a cranium is fatal. Given the biblical directive to desist from the consumption of fowl and mammals which are mortally injured, once the hole developed, the bird or animal would have to be avoided. Thus, if the crested breeds were slaughtered, they could not be consumed until it was determined whether or not the hole existed.

Historically, crested breeds of waterfowl were not common in the meat market. However, recently these breeds have become available and as such there was a demand for a method by which these could easily be inspected, and their kosher status determined. In previous generations, when crested fowl were slaughtered, the post-mortem required a meticulous removal of the skin, muscle, tissue and meat to allow for an inspection of the skull. This had two drawbacks.

The first was that if sufficient care was not taken, the removal of the meat might damage the skull thus causing the bird to be rendered not kosher. The second drawback was the amount of time required to carefully peel back the skin and meat from the skull. The process could take more than half an hour, which would sufficiently add to the cost if such an inspection was to be undertaken in an industrial setting.

Firsthand Investigation

A few years ago, I was researching the dentition of mammals at the American Museum of Natural History. With a collection of millions of skeletons, they provided an unmatched resource for a comparative analysis of the dentition of the different animals. During my research, the museum staff taught me how the skeletons were prepared. The fur or feather needed to be removed, then the carcass was cleaned and frozen.

Finally, it was placed in a colony of dermestid beetles which cleaned the skeleton. I was not allowed to visit the facility where the bones were cleaned, but the museum staff explained that the dermistid beetles were able to completely remove tissue, skin and muscle from any skeleton regardless of the size. They used the same colony to clean the bones of small birds and massive whales.

Despite their instinctive drive to devour the flesh of dead creatures, the beetles would not eat live flesh. Thus, they were safe to handle. After calling the USDA to insure the legality of keeping a dermistid colony (and double check on the safe to handle part), I was able to order a starter colony on e-bay. They are somewhat rare, but many taxidermists use the beetles to clean skeletons. The beetles do have wings, but they rarely fly, and escapes are extremely rare.

One Chicken Head To Go Please

I found a third party that was willing to host the beetles, just to keep things safe and sanitary. When the beetles arrived, I realized how small and unassuming they were. I found it rather amazing that these small creatures could clean some of the massive bones I had seen at the American Museum of Natural History.  I was also skeptical that a creature tenacious enough to eat a massive skeleton, would be able to delicately clean the skull of a bird. If these beetles were just a bit sloppy, and they caused a hole in the skull, my project would have been a failure.

It is not possible to train insects; however, they can be conditioned to associate certain stimuli with food. To that effect, I went to the meat market to purchase some chicken heads.

Normal chicken heads are delicate, but they do not have holes. Thus, the chicken head could be a test to determine if the beetles could do their job. The chicken heads were given to me for free.

Apparently, no one else wants chicken heads. I froze the heads and then placed them in the colony. At first, it took a bit more than a week for the beetles to impact the chicken head. This took a bit too long. The meat began to deteriorate and damage the skull. However, despite the problems, the beetles did not cause any holes in the chicken heads. If people were slaughtering birds for sale, they could not wait a week to find out if the meat was kosher. It was crucial that cleaning process be accelerated.

As the beetles began to breed they became more efficient. At first, I was advised to have wood shavings as the substrate. This eliminated any noxious odors. After consulting with several helpful taxidermists, I found that there was a trick. The adult beetles consume flesh, but the larva is voracious and much more prone to clean the “hard to reach” areas. To encourage the growth of larva, a layer of Styrofoam was placed above the wood shavings. The setup was simple. A layer of wood shavings to eliminate liquid and smell. Then a piece of Styrofoam and the skull placed above the Styrofoam.

When the new setup was tried, the behavior of the beetles immediately changes. They emerged from the wood shavings where they had been burrowing and began to explore and then dig small holes into the Styrofoam. The larva must have been small because I did not immediately see them, but I instantly saw what they did to the chicken head. After the beetle colony was allowed to develop for about a week, I discovered a bird head could be cleaned in as little as four hours. The colony is now housed in a fifty-five gallon tightly covered fish tank (still held by a third party). The colony has been allowed to grow. Now when the crested fowl are slaughtered, before the close of the day, the butcher will know if the fowl is kosher.

Personally, I enjoy studying nature, but I have never found beetles to be as interesting as other creatures (with all due respect tocoleopterists).  There are four hundred thousand species of beetles comprising one of most diversified taxa in the animal kingdom occupying a whole slew of niches in numerous ecosystems. They account for seventy percent of described insects and twenty five percent of all known animal life forms. Yet, only one, the dermisted beetle is distinct in its preference for a food that facilitates a decisive kosher ruling on crested birds.

Rabbi Chaim Loike is an OU Kosher rabbinic coordinator involved in the certification of chemicals, eggs, spices, teas and jams. Known as OU Kosher’s bird specialist, he also serves as the director of the Biblical Ornithological Society.