The bones of cu­rios­ity

Toronto od­dity shop fea­tures skulls, pre­served hu­man brain

Toronto Star - - LIFE - VA­LERIE HAUCH SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

There’s only one place in Toronto where you can buy a fully ar­tic­u­lated hu­man skele­ton ($2,950), a mastodon tooth ($245) and a pouch made from kan­ga­roo scro­tum ($22.50).

It’s the Pre­his­to­ria Nat­u­ral His­tory Cen­tre & Skull Store Od­dity Shop and its wares are as off the beaten track as its lo­ca­tion at 1193 We­ston Rd., near Jane St. and Eglin­ton Ave. W. The shop car­ries thou­sands of wild and do­mes­tic an­i­mal and hu­man bones for sale, an­tiq­ui­ties and oo­dles of odd­ball items, in­clud­ing a vial of Mount St. He­lens ash.

Of course, some of the store’s con­tent, while inar­guably in­ter­est­ing, may not be to ev­ery­one’s taste.

The sight of a two-faced cow — still­born in Al­berta and kept in formalde­hyde — seg­ments of pre­served hu­man brain and a dog tape­worm may be too much for the squea­mish. But while un­usual, they are part of na­ture and that’s what in­ter­ests Skull Store owner- op­er­a­tor Ben Lo­vatt. His “pas­sion for un­der­stand­ing the nat­u­ral world’’ goes back to child­hood vis­its to the Royal On­tario Mu­seum.

His store, which is open Fri­day through Sun­day, at­tracts a di­verse crowd. “While we do get quirky and strange folks wan­der­ing in to ex­pand their od­dity col­lec­tion, the ma­jor­ity of our visi­tors are sim­ply peo­ple cu­ri­ous about the nat­u­ral world,” Lo­vatt says. “Ev­ery week we see fam­i­lies on ed­u­ca­tional out­ings with their chil­dren, teach­ers and folks with a back­ground in the sciences and medicine.’’

Lo­vatt hopes to build on the ed­u­ca­tional as­pect of his col­lec­tion. On June 1, he’s mov­ing to the Bloor St. W. and Oss­ing­ton Ave. area, where he’ll have more space for big­ger bones, in­clud­ing a 4.9-me­tre pi­lot whale skele­ton. His ex­pan­sion plans in­clude propos­ing in-class pre­sen­ta­tions to school boards.

The 29-year-old en­tre­pre­neur started buy­ing and sell­ing fos­sils, and ac­quir­ing od­dity items as an in­ter­est. He opened the store about five years ago, after pur­chas­ing the col­lec­tion of the for­mer nat­u­ral his­tory Hob­ber­lin mu­seum. Hob­ber­lin was af­fil­i­ated with the North York Board of Ed­u­ca­tion be­fore it closed in 2002.

Items from this col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing en­dan­gered tur­tle shells, are on dis­play for ed­u­ca­tion pur­poses in the store’s Pre­his­to­ria Nat­u­ral His­tory Cen­tre and are not for sale. There are also taxi­dermy spec­i­mens, in­clud­ing a black bear, a still­born tiger cub from a Cana­dian an­i­mal sanc­tu­ary and a raven, which was rented to the pro­duc­ers of the tele­vi­sion se­ries Amer­i­can Gods, premiering on Ama­zon Prime on May 1.

Lo­vatt stresses that all of the bones he sells have been eth­i­cally sourced and he fol­lows all ex­ist­ing laws, rules and reg­u­la­tions, in­clud­ing the Con­ven­tion on In­ter­na­tional Trade in En­dan­gered Species (CITES), which is the body that reg­u­lates in­ter­na­tional an­i­mal trade. Canada is a sig­na­tory.

If he can’t de­ter­mine the source — of­ten the case — or if his gut tells him some­thing’s not quite right, he won’t take an item.

A few years ago, he ran into such a sit­u­a­tion that es­ca­lated into a death threat. A man from Cameroon sent him photos of man­drill skulls. He claimed the pri­mates had been legally hunted. Lo­vatt saw bul­let holes and, be­liev­ing the seller to be a poacher, said he wasn’t in­ter­ested.

The skulls ar­rived any­way, some­how mak­ing it through Canada Cus­toms and land­ing at Lo­vatt’s door. Soon, Lo­vatt be­gan re­ceiv­ing threat­en­ing emails to pay up or else.

Lo­vatt con­tacted of­fi­cials with CITES as well as the po­lice, who ad­vised him to let the man know he was un­der the pro­tec­tion of au­thor­i­ties.

Even­tu­ally the emails stopped, but not be­fore Lo­vatt was warned, “if I ever travel to Cameroon, I’m a dead man.”

Many of the an­i­mal skulls and bones at the Skull Shop were bought from First Na­tions sources (beavers,

“When you hold a skull, you’re look­ing at your­self.” BEN LO­VATT SKULL STORE OWNER

bears, wolves, wal­rus), or they came from farms, zoos or are the dis­cards of law­ful hunt­ing.

Lo­vatt abides by the CITES reg­u­la­tions and gets the re­quired per­mits when it comes to the in­ter­na­tional an­i­mal trade. There are no Cana­dian laws pre­vent­ing the sale of legally ac­quired hu­man bones.

Two hu­man skulls dec­o­rated by mem­bers of the New Guinea As­mat tribe are dis­played behind glass in his shop. They are priced at $1,800 and $2,450. The skulls, es­ti­mated to be up to 100 years old, were traded to Amer­i­can sol­diers after the Sec­ond World War and brought to the Unit- ed States, Lo­vatt says. The skulls are of tribal an­ces­tors that were ex­humed “to call for spir­i­tual guid­ance and pro­tec­tion,’’ he ex­plained. After a pe­riod of time, the spirit is deemed to have left.

But most of the hu­man bones on view were bought from re­tired doc­tors, or es­tates of de­ceased doc­tors. Some hu­man brain seg­ments came from the spec­i­men col­lec­tion of a re­tired U.S. doctor.

To Lo­vatt, these are all a source of won­der and ed­u­ca­tion. Look­ing at hu­man bones “helps to give us our con­text in the world,” he says. “When you hold a skull, you’re look­ing at your­self.”

But not ev­ery­one is con­vinced that hu­man bones should be sold. Paul Racher, pres­i­dent of the On­tario Arche­ol­ogy So­ci­ety, says that in gen­eral — and he hasn’t been to Lo­vatt’s store — he has con­cerns about cul­tural prop­er­ties that cross bor­ders, the traf­fick­ing of hu­man re­mains and the com­modi­ti­za­tion of nat­u­ral and cul­tural his­tory items. He be­lieves al­low­ing the sale en­cour­ages loot­ing.

“Hu­man re­mains are dif­fer­ent than reg­u­lar ‘things,’ ” he said. “There have been times in our his­tory when such spec­i­mens were ob­tained with­out con­sent (looted from grave­yards, kept as war tro­phies, taken from in­sti­tu­tions). Many such items are still cir­cu­lat­ing in the mar­ket­place.”

He ques­tions whether ac­quir­ing hu­man re­mains can be eth­i­cal.

“If a per­son do­nated their body to sci­ence some decades ago, for in­stance, would it be eth­i­cal if it ended up as a cu­rios­ity in some­one’s col­lec­tion? The ini­tial trans­ac­tion may have been eth­i­cal, but those ethics were left behind the mo­ment the re­mains were di­verted into a use not in­ten­tioned by the donor.’’

CARLOS OSO­RIO/TORONTO STAR

Ben Lo­vatt holds a horse skull. Lo­vatt is the owner of the Pre­his­to­ria Nat­u­ral His­tory Cen­tre & Skull Store Od­dity Shop, which fea­tures hu­man and an­i­mal skulls as well as other odd­i­ties.

Lo­vatt says the New Guinea As­mat tribe would ex­hume skulls for "guid­ance.’’

CARLOS OSO­RIO/TORONTO STAR

Ben Lo­vatt’s Pre­his­to­ria Nat­u­ral His­tory Cen­tre & Skull Store Od­dity Shop houses two hu­man skulls dec­o­rated by mem­bers of New Guinea’s As­mat tribe and priced at $1,800 and $2,450. They could be up to 100 years old.

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