Ray Bandar, a retired biologist from San Francisco, has spent the last 50 years collecting thousands of animal bones. He estimates he has 7,000 skulls, 200 pelvises and countless other limbs from animals he mostly found and cleaned himself.
“I enjoy removing the flesh from the skull and disarticulating the jaws,” Bandar recently said in an interview for National Geographic’s Taboo series. “I see nothing gross about this, whether it’s a fresh animal or a badly decomposed animal, makes no difference to me.” The native San Franciscan grew up in the Richmond District and started collecting different animal specimens in junior high. That’s when he got the nickname “Reptile Ray”. As time passed, his passion for collecting and cleaning dead animals grew, and he is now the proud owner of a collection of over 7,000 skulls, including 2,600 from California marine mammals. Over the years, his own discoveries have been supplemented from local zoos, museums, taxidermists, roadkill, and trips to Australia, Africa and Mexico. His house is like no other on Earth – every room is virtually crammed with bones and skulls from animals Ray decapitated himself, but he still roams the beaches of Northern California looking for new and exciting additions to his museum home.
“I look at bones as pieces of sculpture,”, 84-year-old Bandar says, but the people who see him hacking away at dead animals on beaches don’t see him as an artist. Most of them think he’s either homeless or deranged, and the foul smell that surrounds him doesn’t help much either. But the smelly stuff doesn’t bother the collector, who loves nothing more than to use bacterial macerations, maggots and flesh-eating beetles to help him strip the flesh from the skulls. “I have a very weak sense of smell. It’s how the marriage has survived,” says Ray’s wife, Alkmere Bandar.
A longtime research associate with the California Academy of Sciences, Ray has used his collection of bones and the experience in cleaning them to provide valuable insights in various scientific research topics. He also likes t show guests his unusually decorated house, and see their reaction shift from disbelief to utter speechlessness. Thousands of skulls grinning at you from the ceiling and from every wall in the house will make it hard for any understandable words to come out. But “you have to be careful not to get impaled on something,” Alkmene describes the dangers of walking through her husband’s “bone palace”.