Words: Sam Hockley-Smith
Photography: Christel Robleto
Hot glue guns, pliers, tweezers, and bones are strewn about a table. A tattooed, commanding man stands at its head, inviting guests to take a seat. As guests make their way to the table, they rummage through the bones, picking up fully in-tact cat’s skulls, spindly vertebrae, and delicate rib cages.
Ryan Matthew Cohn is an osteologist dedicated to de-mystifying the study of bones by teaching classes that involve building actual cat skeletons from the ground up. His classes consistently sell out, and involve people from all walks of life — from regular people off the street to veterinarians — coming together to study how an animal’s skeleton functions, and as a result, better understand the inner workings of animals of all types.
When Ryan Matthew Cohn was a kid, he collected animal bones. “I grew up in upstate New York, so we had a lot of wildlife on our property,” he says. “We actually lived right next to a town called Bearsville, and it was called Bearsville because it was known for its bear population. Black bears specifically. During black bear season, the black bears would be everywhere and they would eat lots of different animals. What I’d often find was the aftermath.”
Cohn would take the bones home to make things with them, and as he progressed as a collector he became interested in putting them together to recreate the animals he was fining in the woods. “I found it difficult to obtain fully put together skeletons,” he says. “There was no internet yet or anything so I was left to my own resources. I went through a lot of trial and error procedures on how to do this properly. I mostly looked at pictures of animals and sometimes skeletons when I could find them in books.”
Though he started out with cobbled together skeletons that were, in his estimation, “pretty poor,” he progressively got better. “When I got really good at it, I said to myself, ‘if only I’d had a teacher to show me how to do this properly. I would have saved a lot of time and effort.”
From there, he came up with the concept of teaching a cat skeleton articulation class that hosts 15-30 students per class. “A lot of people have a love and passion for anatomy, but don’t really know how to show it,” he says.
The challenge can often be sourcing the bones for the class. “Cats die every single day,” he says. “I usually deal with shelters where animals have passed away. The people who do the processing for me are given the carcasses and then the skeletons are given to me. They’re all different sizes. I don’t know what I’m going to get. They tend to be readily available, but that’s not always the case. I have to [teach the class] on a when supplies are available basis.”
So why cats, instead of some other animal? “A cat is something most people can relate to,” Cohn replies. “A lot of people in the medical field come and do my class. It’s typically because they have an interest in gross anatomy, but they also have an interest in animals. I’ve had veterinarians take the class, which is cool because I think I have a lot to learn from them, and they can learn about the process of articulation, which you wouldn’t be taught in school, you would just learn about each bone. But to have the bones right there in front of you, is, I think, incredibly important and useful.”
But Cohn’s class is by no means exclusively a chance for medical professionals to interact with animal bones; plenty of people come who are simply curious about what it’s all about. “I think people have an interest in anatomy and want the experience of putting together a real skeleton rather than a plastic one that you could probably find online. There’s no real comparison to putting together a real skeleton,” he says. “To have the actual piece there…it’s a very rare opportunity.”
Besides being educational and informative, Cohn hopes that the class is fulfilling a need that he had when he was learning the trade of osteology. “I’m just trying to share my knowledge,” he says. “I wish I had people of like mind around me when I was growing up, and I didn’t really. I think the classes might bring together a group of people who might feel odd and need a community and I think the classes might provide some of that.”