Behind Tuatara Ted, the Kahutara taxidermist
August 1, 2018
Off the beaten track, far from the bustle of Greytown where tourists sip flat whites as they peruse boutique shops, in a hand-built log cabin out Kahutara way, you’ll find an unusual museum. Gianina Schwanecke went off the beaten track to find out more about this Wairarapa wonder.
It’s not ancient artefacts or notable artworks (though some may argue otherwise), but rather a collection of rare and exotic animals carefully stuffed and curated by “Tuatara Ted” over the last 40 or so years.
New Zealand’s answer to Crocodile Dundee, Tuatara Ted is a skilled taxidermist, a keen adventurer, an intrepid kayaker, and good-humoured bushman. John McCosh is the man behind Tuatara Ted.
He and his wife Karen have lived here for more than 38 years. “Anywhere around here is pretty good. It’s great country – I like that rolling country.” But it was taxidermy, a love of “freedom paddling”, and his charismatic personality which saw the pair turn their Wairarapa farm into a local tourist trap.
A rural upbringing and a love of hunting helped peak McCosh’s interest in taxidermy. “I was born in Pahiatua and brought up on a farm. I was a hunting and shooting fellow – mostly deer and pigs. I never got into duck shooting though.”
McCosh was 19 when he first tried his hand at taxidermy. After shooting a couple of deer, he was disappointed to find hair falling out from the skins and realised he had gone awry. “Down the road was Harold Frazer, a really great taxidermist. He was about 81 years old and still doing skins, sometimes for the Wellington Zoo. First thing he told me I was doing wrong, ‘you didn’t bring them to me boy’.”
The secret, Frazer told him, was salting the skins so that the hair follicles would be locked in place. Frazer taught him the basics and took on young McCosh as a taxidermy apprentice. Learning to breathe life into dead animals took him many years as he learnt how to skin the beasts, dry and salt the skin, scrape the under-hide, soak it in tannin and mount it using plaster and plastic body moulds.
“Anyone who thinks they can do taxidermy just like that is kidding themselves. It’s a skill that you’ve got the knack for – it’s an artistic field.” It’s not just a hobby, but an increasingly rare craft. It’s not for everybody he says. “You’ve got to have a really good eye and be patient. Where it turns around is all of a sudden when you finish it and you think – gee, that bird looks alive.”
It’s this knack for the art of bringing to life spiritless animals that saw him get his big break. After doing a few skins for Frazer, McCosh got a surprise call from Wellington Zoo. A beloved bear had passed away and they wanted to mount his skin – would John be interested? “It was a bloody big bear,” he chuckles fondly.
McCosh’s collection has grown to some 600 mammals, reptiles, insects and birds. There’s a green-eyed leopard, a prickly porcupine, an Arctic Wolf, a vast array of antelope and other large game bucks, an infant chimpanzee and a small pride of lounging lions. He hasn’t felled any of the animals which line the walls of the log cabin – one of the country’s first he tells me. Instead, his collection comes from years of lasting friendships with staff at the Wellington Zoo, local hunters, and big game huntsman.
Shane Dougan has made a living as a game hunter, and his lasting friendship with McCosh has come in handy following many hunting trips. The two met at a Deerstalkers Association meeting in Masterton more than 46 years ago. “I met him before the zoo days,” says Dougan. “We went for a hunting trip to Nelson lakes. I gave him a good scare, shooting a deer that had snuck up behind us not five yards away.” “After that I got John to mount my trophies.”
McCosh recalls the night Dougan stayed out until the wee hours of the morning, arriving with five fresh deer skins on his back for McCosh to mount upon their return home. Their friendship lasted longer than the hunting trip and Dougan still calls in on McCosh every now and then. “He’s a good honest bloke and a good taxidermist.”
McCosh opened his taxidermy museum and started running his kayaking business in the late 1970s, offering guided tours down the Ruamahanga River which flows just passed his home. It was on one such trip that he earnt his nickname, Tuatara Ted. “I’d pull the billy out and put on a bit of an act,” he smiles. The job kept him fit and doing what he loved, but at 66 it was starting to tire him out.
Nearly 10 years on, he’s moved towards ‘freedom paddling’, supplying the equipment and knowledge, but letting tourists explore the scenic river for themselves. He keeps his work separate from his home and he won’t put animals in the home. “This is my home and I have a lot of grand kids around here,” – 16 in fact. “The last thing they want to see is a great big animal looking at them with glass eyes. That’s granddad’s work and this is granddad’s home,” he says admiring the 1930 farmhouse he calls home.
Nowadays they open the museum only upon request, a faded wooden sign on State Highway 2 the only indicator to one of the Wairarapa’s best-kept secrets.