Ben Lovatt’s home is bursting with life and death. There is Merlin, the free-roaming yellow canary, perched on top of the tortoise tank, moving his little feet back and forth. Near the window, a relaxed iguana closes her eyes in apparent glee as Lovatt pats her leathery exterior. In the back of the room, things get a little more historical. These animals aren’t animated at all — they are skulls.
For the last four months, the 25-year-old animal lover has been selling skullsof deceased creatures from his home near Victoria Park Ave. He says the skulls are sustainably and legally sourced, with proper paperwork, from all over the world and Canada.
Lovatt is an entrepreneur of the natural order. He started a captive-bred animal network eight years ago because he believes it’s a better alternative to plucking a wild lizard from a jungle. A few years ago, he started selling fossils — everything from prehistoric dinosaur turd to a 465 million-year-old crustacean. He eventually acquired a 15,000-year-old bison skull.
“I had people saying, ‘What If I wanted a modern bison skull?’”
Lovatt didn’t know how to answer the question. He had “major qualms” about the world of skulls. He didn’t want to be involved in something that would harm animals. But through his connections in the fossil world, he was assured he had met “the right people to take it a step further.”
So began Lovatt’s transition into more contemporary remains, and a life where it’s not unusual to pop into the Shoppers Drug Mart to pick up a polar bear skull at the postal counter. He set up a website and a Craigslist ad: “I have a wide range of strange artifacts available this holiday season! From woolly mammoth fossils, to amethyst crystals, to animal skulls from around the world.”
The coyote skull is your entry-level osteological ornamentation, sourced from the Arctic, costing about $ 50. He also has monkey, polar bear and an articulated raccoon a local artist reassembled from roadkill.
“Our main concern is that the purchase of a preserved skull might benefit businesses or individuals who kill animals needlessly, say for ‘trophies,’ as they inflict needless and gratuitous suffering on animals,” a spokesperson wrote in an email. “Would-be collectors might wish to consider whether displaying the skull of a dead animal in their home might be viewed as insensitive to the animal or to their guests who care about animals and might wish not to be seen as having a morbid interest in animals who were gunned down.”
Lovatt says he has a handful of trusted suppliers in Canada’s north, Africa, and in captive breeding programs — many of whom are affiliated with large museums. The animals have been hunted for meat by indigenous tribes, found dead, or, in the case of captive breeding programs, have died of natural causes. He never makes specific requests or commissions the hunting of an animal.
“We try to make the most out of any organism,” he says. “In Canada we slaughter millions of cattle — if I were to have the (skulls) cleaned and sold, what would be wrong with that, as opposed to letting them rot?”
Lovatt sees the skulls as a guerrilla education tool. The goal is to have respect for the creature, “not to set up a freak show in your living room,” he says.
Matthew Brower, a lecturer at the University of Toronto who researches animal studies and curation, says there is a zoological history of collecting skulls, in addition to private collections. He noted the skulls can serve as a reminder of the fleetingness of life.
“And some people are just morbid,” he added.
Brower says skull collecting differs from trophy animal collecting, which demonstrates prowess.
The main issue, of course, is sourcing.
“There are always people who are going to be concerned about any animal representation that involves the death of the animal, and if there’s a market for this, even if he tries to ethically source it, someone will always try to, perhaps, be less ethical,” he said.
The trade of animal specimens is strictly regulated. Canada is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), “an international agreement between governments with the aim to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival in the wild.” Environment Canada, by way of the Canadian Wildlife Service, enforces the convention in Canada. (Other government departments are also involved, depending on the species.)
The most endangered animals, such as the Iberian lynx, Asiatic black bear and lion-tailed macaque, fall under Appendix I. They’re allowed to cross borders only under stringent conditions and permits from countries of import and export. They are not allowed to be sold.
Canada also has the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act. The act forbids import, export and interprovincial transport of certain animals, including those on the CITES list, without proper permits.
Lovatt says his suppliers handle the necessary permits from local governments as well as Canadian officials.
“Assuming everything goes well, it still takes a couple months to get things through,” he notes. And then the skulls find a temporary home in a house near the Danforth, a long way from the jungles and arctic landscapes of their lives.