A skeleton, a groundhog, and a weird West Philly missed connection

Alexis Buss, at left, Rachael “Ru” Upton, at center, and Joy Taney, at right, pose with the dog skeleton that brought them together and the groundhog skeleton they dug up.

“Just to be clear: This is a platonic request for help to reassemble the skeleton of a dead groundhog,” read the Craigslist posting for a missed connection.

Through Craigslist and Facebook, strangers who met and bonded over their love of skeletons on the streets of West Philadelphia this spring found each other online and together dug up the skeleton of a dead groundhog in the Chester Avenue Community garden last weekend.

Camera icon Craiglist
Alexis Buss’ Craigslist posting.

Joy Taney, 30, of West Philadelphia, was walking with her girlfriend, Rachael “Ru” Upton, 34, who was visiting from Baton Rouge, La., this spring, when the couple passed a house near Clark Park with a dog skeleton in the porch window. Everybody knew the skeleton, Taney said. She’d even taken pictures of it and sent them to Upton, an osteology enthusiast.

The owner, Alexis Buss, 44, was outside on her steps drinking wine. The couple struck up a conversation with Buss about the skeleton, a plastic reproduction the size of a whippet that Upton believes was a veterinary model.

Buss said she found the skeleton in the garbage a few years ago and took it home.

“Someone had penciled a third eye on its skull. It clearly had other journeys,” Buss said.

Buss put the skeleton in her porch window last Halloween, and so many people stopped to admire it and take pictures that she decided to leave it there.

Upton told Buss that the skeleton’s shoulder blades were on backward. The three tried to fix it, to no avail.

Camera icon Joy Taney
Alexis Buss (left) and Rachael Upton try to fix the shoulder blades of a plastic skeleton of a dog.

A writer, Upton has no formal osteology training, but collects bones and enjoys studying skeletons.

“I’ve striven to have a lot of really interesting but useless knowledge, and osteology is just an extension of that,” she said.

Buss, who doesn’t consider herself a collector but admits that she wouldn’t pass up a bone if she saw one, pulled out another skeleton she found on a beach. Upton identified it as the head of a black drum fish.

Then, Buss’ mind turned to the groundhog she had buried in the Chester Avenue Community Garden. The garden had a groundhog problem last year. While the members trapped and released most of them, one died in the plot and Buss, a member, gave it a proper burial there.

She asked Upton how long she thought she should wait before digging up the groundhog for its skeleton. About a year or so was the answer.

After about 45 minutes, the newfound “skelebuddies,” as Taney dubbed them, said their goodbyes and went on their way.

Camera icon Facebook via West Willy
The West Willy Facebook post of the Craiglist ad.

When October rolled around, it marked about a year since Buss had buried the groundhog. Her mind turned to Taney and Upton. That’s when she penned the missed connections posting.

“When I posted it, I was 100 percent sure that at some point somebody would be like, ‘I know exactly who that is.’ There is no way the internets would let me down,” Buss said.

But Taney doesn’t regularly check Craigslist missed connections. She only saw the post when an eagle-eyed member of the West Willy Facebook group, of which Taney is a member, reposted the Craigslist ad to the group.

“OH MY GOD THIS IS FOR ME AND MY GIRLFRIEND,” Taney wrote.

As luck would have it, Upton was in town visiting Taney last weekend. Taney reconnected with Buss through the Craigslist ad. And on Saturday, Upton met up with Buss.

It took them and another friend of Buss’ 2½ hours to find the skeleton.

“It was very Indiana Jones,” Buss said. “It was hours of defeat and finally, victory.”

Camera icon Rachael Upton
Buss and Upton with groundhog bones they found during their Saturday dig.

The dig team couldn’t find the entire skeleton, but recovered a “good chunk,” Upton said. They hauled the pieces back to Buss’ house, laid the bones out on red velvet cloth, and named the skeleton Craig, after Craigslist.

Buss isn’t certain what she’ll do with the bones. Upton’s sister suggested a shadow box, since groundhogs and shadows share a holiday.

Camera icon Rachael Upton
All of the bones of Craig the groundhog the team recovered.

For Buss, who grew up in Olney, nothing about the tale seems particularly strange.

“People in South Philly make pools out of dumpsters. That seems very un-West Philly to me,” she said. “I think every neighborhood has things they do.”

Taney, who has told Upton for some time that “West Philly is full of your people,” said one just has to be open to the “unique magic” of Philadelphia’s many neighborhoods.

“Particularly, it feels like my kind of people, our kind of people, in West Philly,” Taney said. “West Philly certainly has a kind of flavor.”