Most of us will never see a polar bear, bison, cheetah or crocodile. Seven Sharp’s Carolyn Robinson saw all of those creatures – and so much more – when she paid a visit to the Manutahi Museum in Lepperton.
John Ward is the very enthusiastic custodian of what might be one of the biggest private taxidermy collections in the world.
“Welcome to my museum, Carolyn,” said Ward, ushering me through the shed door. “I’ll let you go first. It’ll take a couple of seconds for your eyes to adjust.”
What greets visitors is nothing short of astonishing.
A massive polar bear stands near the entrance. A lion in mid-roar sits on a shelf above, a tiger skin with its head attached — the walls are packed with mounted heads.
The floor is covered with antlers, stuffed foxes, rabbits, bears, shellfish and more. Then there are the hundreds of birds – chickens, pheasants, peacocks, parrots; many arranged as though in flight, behind glass cases.
How many specimens do you think you have in your collection?” I asked him.
“That is a very difficult question, Carolyn. I’ve lost count”, he replied.
His best guess is around two thousand.
“Maybe even more. I would say I haven’t seen a bigger collection than this in New Zealand, or anywhere else.”
‘I’m quite normal’
Ward’s fascination with still life started young.
“I grew up in the shed chopping up bits and pieces that I could get off the road or people would give me,“ he said.
“My father’s friends would be duck shooting on the farm and I’d end up climbing up on the trailer and looking at the birds while they were in having a beer. When they come out [’d say], Mister can I have the head off your bird?’
“So they’d chop it off for me and I’d pull the skin off and fill it up with cotton wool and I had all these heads at one stage along my window. Everything fascinated me,” he shared.
“My uncles never really had a lot to do with me — I think they thought I was strange. ‘Oh, John’s strange because he’s in the shed cutting up things, he’s going to turn into a psychopath.’ But I’m quite normal.”
His uncles may have felt uneasy, but this taxidermist had one unexpected ally.
“My grandmother used to encourage me from a little child. Whenever I had something half-pie looking good I’d take it down to granny’s.
“We’d sit it on the floor, she’d make me a cup of Milo and bring out her bikkie tin. I’d proceed to eat all her biscuits and she’d be praising me about how good I was. ‘You’re doing well, Johnny,’ she’d say.”
Ward’s entirely self-taught, learning the craft of taxidermy from books. Many of them were bought by his grandmother, who, he says, never wavered in her support.
‘Bringing stuff back to life’
Asked if he was ever repulsed by the job, Ward gave a categoric answer.
“No, I was never repulsed by anything. As you go through life you’ve got this thing that you’re bringing stuff back to life again.”
He’s keen to point out that nothing in his shed has died by his hand.
“None of this stuff that’s in my museum I have hunted myself. I’m a collector. I want to preserve stuff for the future so people can see what real specimens are like.”
“The rhinos, the black and white rhinos, are all original skin mounts, but the horns are replicas. But even a skin mount rhino in New Zealand, in your whole lifetime you might get one opportunity to pick up a rhino head and if you don’t take it it’ll never come around again,” he said.
“There’s a markhor up there from Pakistan. They’re six thousand strong now, but they used to be almost extinct until they had the game wardens looking after them.
“Every year they let 12 bulls go. At one stage the bidding started at US$120,000 for one bull. All the money goes back into the preservation of the herd. Those were bulls that were getting old or they thought they would lose or were stopping the younger ones from coming up and breeding. I was lucky. I picked up one for $500 around 34 years ago.
“I couldn’t give the guy the money fast enough.”
His largest tenant is the polar bear.
“It’s 9 foot I’d say. The world record is 11-and-a-half feet.”
“I bought that skin into the country from the Eskimos probably thirty years ago now. The Eskimos are allowed to harvest so many bears a year, and that bear landed on my doorstep from Canada for a reasonable price way back then – five thousand with all the permits.”
On its way to him, it briefly appeared in the Timaru Christmas Parade.
“People say ‘That’s the same bear!’”
‘A museum from the past, for the present’
Despite being surrounded by so much death, including many examples of threatened species, it might surprise you to hear Ward considers himself a conservationist.
“Our planet is in trouble. So, we’ve got to preserve those that are here. We say don’t shoot rare animals just to put them on the wall, but if they die naturally let’s preserve them for eternity so next generations have specimens they can look at and say wow, our earth is a beautiful place, or used to be.”
The shed that houses his collection is sizeable at 23m by 14m and packed solid. But it’s nowhere near big enough for John’s plans.
“I could do with one 8-10 times the size of this. Then I could bring all my other stuff out and lay it out.”
Currently, he only opens by appointment but would like to turn it into a proper attraction.
“I’d like to see it up on a big scale, running as a museum, all cased in, looking good. People can come through at a reasonable price.”
“It could be a museum from the past, for the present. People can see what the animals that were running around were, things they’d never get to see in real life.”
“It could in the future become a national treasure.”
Ward’s children are ready to help keep his dream alive.
“They want to carry it on and it’ll hopefully get down to the grandies. “
“My kids say when I kick the bucket they’re going to stuff me and put me by the door. You can get a high five when you go past,” he laughed.
There’s no time for any more questions. Ward has things to defrost.
“I’ve got an ostrich skin, wet-tanned in the freezer, that I’ve got to put together shortly off a 350-pound bird.”
“Holy smoke!” he exclaimed, looking around. “John, this is your life!”