“The world’s weirdest recycling center” is what Ben Lovatt calls his Cabbagetown South shop and museum.
At SkullStore and Prehistory, a 12,000-square foot space at 397 Dundas St. E., Visitors can view and purchase Viking ax heads, medieval archer rings, meteorites, dinosaur fossils and the articulated skeletons and skulls of a variety of animals, including polar bears, penguins, dogs, giraffes and humans.
SkullStore is an ethical, sustainable provider of skulls, specimens and fossils, meaning it sources artifacts with authorities (including Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s former minister of state for antiquities affairs). It also works with zoos, farms and Indigenous communities to recycle the remains of animals that die from natural causes or traditional hunting.
At SkullStore, Torontonians can buy a piece of history, starting at under $20 for a fossilized Tyrannosaurs rex tooth fragment or some prehistoric poop, to over $100,000 for a rare, museum-quality Chisternon Fossil Turtle Plate from Oregon’s Fossil Lake. School boards and museums all over the world — including the ROM — buy from Lovatt, as well as celebrities like deadmau5 and Drake, who, Lovatt says, “bought an ancient Greek coin that has an owl on it, which is the owl that inspired his (OVO company) logo.”
The revenue from oddities like zebra-skin rugs, tiger claws, taxidermy bats, shrunken heads and human brains, helps to fund Prehistory, an on-site, donate-what-you-can nature and archeological museum, which opens to the public for educational tours and presentations over the March break. “Everything we do is based around building Prehistory,” Lovatt says. “We don’t believe in forced admission, because we want to make sure education is accessible.”
As an entrepreneurial and environmentally conscious teenager, Lovatt got his start in the live-animal business breeding reptiles, after learning that most sold as pets are caught in the wild. “It’s not very sustainable to go plunder a jungle or a desert, ship a bunch of animals over and then throw them in enclosures,” he says.
After befriending a fossil vendor at a reptile expo, Lovatt started selling fossils out of his backpack along Yonge and Bloor. “I did a lot of ‘travelling salesman with dinosaurs,’” he says with a laugh, and when he was invited to the vendor’s warehouse, Lovatt posted a picture to his Instagram feed (@natural_selections) of one of the curiosities: a 40,000-year-old fossilized bison skull. “Some guy messaged me and said, ‘I’ll buy that right now,’” Lovatt says.
Borrowing money from friends to purchase it, Lovatt took the bus to London to hand-deliver the skull. The buyer, a tattoo artist, told him, “You want to make a living? Find skulls and find tattoo artists, and you’re set.”
Because skulls are frequently requested designs, buying a real one that can be positioned at different angles and with varied lighting is a sound investment.
As the market for skulls grew, Lovatt realized he could transfer the principles of sustainability and environmental ethics he used in reptile breeding to fight poaching. “Because everything dies,” Lovatt says, “why not just save the parts of animals that are (already) dead, and destroy the market for killing an animal?” He works closely with international and Canadian wildlife authorities and provides on his online store detailed descriptions of his specimens’ origins. “If you don’t ask the question, ‘Where’s this from?’ a poacher makes his living.”
Lovatt now has a team of eight working with him, including Dan Malette of Stained Remains, a company that preserves specimens through a process called diaphonization, which uses colorful dye to highlight the skeleton through translucent skin; Toby Boch, who Lovatt says, “builds custom stands for everything from woolly mammoth tusks to a leaping tiger skeleton”; as well as others who specialize in framing butterflies and dinosaur teeth.
Soon, Lovatt expects to make some new additions to his collection. “I am planning an expedition out to Morocco… to try to find Spinosaurus bones and collect meteorites in the Sahara,” he says. “I’m also helping dig up an Allosaurus in Montana in a few months.” He is also building infrastructure so a Northern community that legally harvests narwhals can save him the unused remains.
“Basically, I haven’t taken a paycheck in 10 years,” he says with a laugh. “But I’ve got 10 cabinets full of amazing stuff to teach you.”
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