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John Ward next to a polar bear legally hunted by Inuits more than 20 years ago, and acquired as a skin.

If the walls could roar inside this Taranaki man's farm shed

Inside John Ward’s ordinary-looking farm shed in the North Taranaki village of Lepperton is the startling culmination of a lifetime’s passion.

Despite his enthusiasm, which borders on obsession, John Ward knows visitors to his Manutahi Museum can be shocked by what they see.

As their eyes adjust to the subdued lighting, they realise they’re surrounded – walls, floor, ceiling – by thousands of dead creatures, from a polar bear to a tarantula. “I haven’t shot any of these animals,” Ward repeats several times. “Not one. I’m a collector.”

Growing up near Stratford, Ward was fascinated by the mounted pheasants on display in the local sports shop. “Gee, that’s so beautiful, I want one of those,” he’d think to himself. “And it just started from there.”

Ward has thousands of pieces in his collection, including an albino hedgehog (on shelf, at left), but he especially enjoys mounting birds: “It’s like bringing them back to life again.”

Bagging the heads of ducks shot by his father’s mates on the family farm was the beginning of a zeal for taxidermy that’s been a major part of his life ever since. A former dairy farmer who later worked in the oil industry, he now focuses on his specialty: mounting the corpses of exotic species passed on to him by breeders, as well as roosters and chickens.

Ward opened the museum in 2017, naming it after the road where it resides in the north Taranaki township of Lepperton. Most of the pieces on display were acquired from other collections after their owners died. “These were hunted legitimately, back in the day,” he says. “Now it’s very uncool to be doing anything like that – but it’s imperative that we don’t lose them. The idea of all this is to show people what’s out there. A lot of the animals in the world are losing out now. We’ve got to preserve them.”

He’s lost count of how many items are in the collection. “Easily a couple of thousand – there are 280 mounted parrots, alone.” But despite its size, Ward can talk about each piece eagerly and in detail. That’s understandable when it’s a three-metre-high polar bear standing on its hind legs, or an elegant cheetah in a glass case, but even a more familiar paradise shelduck sparks his wonder: “Did you know they can live to 80 years old?” He’s just as enthusiastic about his spiders, fossils and rocks.

One wall bristles with antlers from all over the world, some rare, some record-breakers, and Ward reels off the statistics; then he points out a hermaphrodite peahen, an albino mole, a two-headed lamb, a silver pheasant-chicken hybrid. He has five species of wallaby on show, and a kookaburra – from Kawau Island: “There’s a breeding colony there! Who knew?”

There are fish (including a 158kg striped marlin), snails, insects, embryos in jars, a lion, a zebra, a jackal, a penguin, an emu, squirrels, a mink, and a golden possum from Tasmania. Some are familiar, but many are not: a giant Asian cloud rat, a painted wild dog, a rock hyrax.

Ward is full of plans for the future and would love to expand the museum, which opens at weekends for a small entry free and has a page on Facebook. “I want to mount a flock of black swans flying down the middle of the shed,” he says. “I’ve still got space up there.”

This article was first published in the January 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.