A Man for All Skulls

Kathleen M. Wong

Ray Bandar surveys a California beach looking for the bodies of dead pinnipeds washed ashore.
Photo: Dong Lin

The headhunter tramps across the beach in search of his latest specimen. His quarry, a dead harbor seal, lies up ahead past the surfline on Agate Beach in Northern California. It has been a long, stranding-free month, and Raymond “Bones” Bandar is eager to bag another cranium. Dressed for the occasion in ratty herringbone slacks and a blue parka rotting at the seams, at first glance Bandar resembles an eccentric homeless man who’s weathered too many winters outdoors. At 74, his powerful six-foot frame is slightly stooped, and decades of tromping Bay Area coastlines have left his skin a spotted, leathery red-brown. Yet his eyes still hold a roguish gleam, and his hair remains long and thick and unruly, the white curls foaming high over his forehead.

The animal has been dead for some time, and is covered with a dark cloud of buzzing flies. All business, Bandar identifies it as a male harbor seal, measures its body size, looks for signs of trauma, and then checks to see if its head is reasonably intact. Assured of a good skull, he extracts a rusted assortment of knives and scalpels from his pack. With the deftness of years of practice, he peels the hide from the face, finds the notch between skull and vertebra and gently saws his prize free.

Stripped of its skin, bereft of its body, the head looks strangely delicate in Bandar’s meaty hands. He flips it upside down and slides a slender, hooked dissection fork into the foramen magnum, the skull opening where spinal cord meets brain. He scrapes the instrument back and forth, scrambling anything left inside. With a few taps, it comes tumbling out in grayish pink lumps. “Brain is 85 percent water, the first to rot away,” says Bandar. “If it’s been here a long time, it becomes a purple liquid. It’s the smelliest part next to the guts.” He records the specimen data on a stray scrap of paper, wraps the head in two plastic produce bags, rolls it into his rucksack, and is off again up the beach for more.

After nearly 50 years of salvaging road kills and beheading beach strandings, Bandar has personally found, flensed, cleaned, and cataloged a vast collection of skulls and skeletons from more than 650 species. Its sheer size—roughly 6,000 specimens—and quality exceeds the caches of most museums. About 1,400 of these heads are from California sea lions, comprising the largest collection of Zalophus calfornianus skulls in the world.

Bandar is in love with every ossuarial masterpiece. “Bones are pieces of sculpture,” he says. “They’re so beautiful, and that’s what drives me.”

The only way to fully appreciate the Bandar aesthetic is to tour his California home. To cross the threshold of this modest mission stucco is to enter a parallel universe where tribal peoples, not fastidious Europeans, came to dominate America. In place of plant stands and bland watercolors brood dark statues from New Guinea, their long, strong features limned out in cowry shells, boar bristle, and ochre paint. African masks carved from ebony ward off evil from above burlwood couches upholstered in burnt velvet.

Scattered in-between are the bones. The opening gambit is a 110-pound elephant pelvis propped in quiet majesty against the fireplace. Above it, bones dance from the walls, rest on the floor, assume seats of honor on the tabletops. In the dining room, in glass display cases, rest the skeletons of a dozen snakes, their bare ribs and vertebrae coiled in the forms they once held in life. In the bathroom, a set of twelve-point caribou antlers doubles as a towel rack.

A naturalist by avocation, Bandar’s eye is that of a visual artist. After winning a drawing contest at the now-defunct San Francisco Call newspaper at age five, Bandar attended a number of local art schools on scholarships, culminating with the California College of Arts and Crafts. Bandar’s introduction to the world of contemporary art was perfectly timed. There, he encountered the weighty sculpted vertebrae of Henry Moore; the curlicued cattle skulls that float like spirits over Georgia O’Keefe’s canvas mountains; Andreas Feininger’s photographs of bones cut in cross section to expose their weblike trabecular interiors.

This place is clearly more a museum than a home. As in the pages of Architectural Digest, everything has been carefully placed for maximum visual impact. Convenience and utility come in a distant second.

If Bandar is head of exhibits here, he shares the museum’s directorship with Alkmene Bandar, herself an artist and Ray’s wife of 47 years. They spent their honeymoon driving her yellow Ford convertible on an 11-week, 11,000-mile camping tour of North America.

In New York, they marveled at the size of the city, the sweep of its world-class art museums. But it was the halls of the American Museum of Natural History that most inspired Ray Bandar. “What grabbed me was that they had rooms filled with the fully articulated skeletons of animals. They had full-grown giraffes, a 20-foot-long python,” he says. “I was more excited to see the architecture under the fur and muscles.”

On the trip home, Bandar plucked an entire horse skeleton from a Colorado pasture, adding in Utah the bones of winter-killed sheep and cows. By the time the pair returned, bones were piled high on the back seat.

“I actually encouraged it. I thought it was beautiful, very aesthetically pleasing,” Alkmene Bandar says. “I just didn’t think it was going to take over.”

The skulls of peccaries, wart hogs, eland, moose, Dall sheep, camels, elk, hippos and are just a few of the species in Ray Bandar's bone collection.
photo: Dong Lin

A door in the kitchen leads to a narrow utility room. Bandar fumbles for a switch, and opens another door. A naked bulb distorts the shadows of deer and moose antlers, pelvises soaring on outstretched iliac crests. “Welcome to the Bone Palace,” he smiles, waving a visitor down a steep wooden stairway.

At the bottom lies an osteophile’s fantasy. Skulls line every shelf, hang from all the walls, are stacked in layers on every table. The capuchins and spider monkeys are piled like fruit in flat trays on a counter. The bone of their braincases is as fragile as eggshell, as translucent as fine china. The empty eye sockets of Steller sea lion bulls stare back from across the aisle, curving canines and burly brows reinforced with the strength of stone. Racks of skulls repose on Plexiglas shelves, stacked in orderly rows three high and four deep. Seal and sea lion skulls overflow into the rafters. The walls are thick with the branching glory of horned and antlered animals from musk oxen to deer. Whale ribs lean against the corners like structural supports, tall as the room itself.

And Ray Bandar knows the story behind every one.

“These are my dog skulls,” Bandar is saying about a set of skulls ranging in size from a lemon to a football. “One Saturday I went down to the tallow works in search of a zoo animal, and they said to rummage around in these big barrels for it. They had already rendered the zoo animals, but they had dead dogs and cats from the city pound, jumping with fleas and crawling with maggots.” It became a regular stop on his rounds. He now has the skulls of 34 breeds, a stunning example of artificial evolution in action.

He points to a bison skull with a hole in its forehead. “This one got beat up in a fight in Golden Gate Park, and their keeper came and killed it,” Bandar says. “I wrapped it in mesh, took it out to Lake Merced at night and lowered it into the water where the aquatic insects could take care of cleaning it.”

“He has a story about everything he’s collected,” says Douglas Long, collections manager of the Academy’s Department of Ornithology and Mammalogy. “I’ll test him sometimes. I’ll pick one out and say, ‘Hey Ray, what about this one?’ And he’ll tell you the whole history. And he has the skull of its mate that died over there, and how he prepared it.”

Then there’s the first skull, the one that started it all. In the spring of 1953, while bodysurfing in Kelly’s Cove at San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, Bandar found a dead harbor seal lying on the sand. “I don’t know what got into me, but I went out and cut off its head with the knife I carried,” Bandar says. He carried it to his parents’ house off Sloat Boulevard, and boiled the decomposing head in a pot to remove the flesh. “Man, did it stink up the whole house.” Today it’s stained with layers of cooking grease from years of sitting atop his kitchen stove.

Every bone represents exhausting hours of work to retrieve and process. Bandar might spend three hours slicing 50 pounds of meat off the skull of an elephant seal, tossing the scraps to the gulls, and as many more hiking back to his van. At the California Academy of Sciences, a beetle colony kept just for cleaning bones will nibble away the last scraps of meat. If all goes well, Bandar can reduce a California sea lion head hung with muscle and sinew to bare bone in about a week.

The entire collection will eventually go to the Academy, one of two official repositories for all marine mammal strandings from Point Reyes to Point Año Nuevo (the other is the University of California at Berkeley). Already technically part of museum holdings, Bandar’s collection makes up one-sixth of the Academy’s skulls.

The skull is the most complex segment of the mammal skeleton. It houses the brain, holds the jaws and teeth, and its highly contoured surface bears foramina, or holes, for the most concentrated grouping of sensory nerves in the entire body. It is the foundation of features that help attract a mate: sexy crests, macho jawlines, demurely dimpled chins. A skull is made up of many bones, 22 in humans. Most are fixed in place, seamed together by joints called sutures. The lower jaw, or mandible, consists of two bones that meet at the chin but easily separate in the process of decay. The mandible, the tiny inner ear bones, and sometimes the hyoid (which supports the tongue) form the only movable parts of most mammal skulls. Atop this basic template, nature has wrought complex combinations of ridges and crests, protruding processes and corkscrew tusks to fashion the framework of different species. In general, the easiest way to see the changes in an animal as it ages from pup to bitch, or calf to bull, is in its skull.

The nocturnal owl monkey has large eyes that are focused forward because it needs to be aware of distances in its three-dimensional environment, and acute depth perception is essential.

photo: david liitschwager

The inherited idiosyncrasies of genes and the response of living bone to the stresses of the environment add individual variation to the theme of a single species. Line up 20 skulls of the same sex and species, and the differences between them pop out. The sea lions are a mess of overbites and underbites, their crests twisting to the left or the right, the bony protrusions extra large or entirely missing. The more skulls there are for scientists to measure, and the wider the range of features they can view, the more representative a population study will be.

Researchers may spend days in Bandar’s bone palace painstakingly measuring the widths of foreheads, the lengths of jaws, the fractures in parietal bones and the wear marks on teeth. Just last year, a dental student came to examine the California sea lions’ tooth wear patterns and detected traces of temporo-mandibular joint disorder, or TMJ, the unconscious grinding and clenching disorder that erodes the teeth and causes joint pain in humans. Another research team looked for the effects of environmental toxins by measuring asymmetries in Bandar’s elephant seal skulls. In weaker animals, such poisons can affect the growth of the skull.

Written into the structure of every bone are clues to each animal’s life story. On one of Bandar’s sea lion skulls, the bone grew right over the nylon fishing line that eventually bisected the animal’s brain. Other skulls show teeth worn down to the gumline, probably starving its owner to death; and broken bones and bleeding abscesses healed over by a rough patch of calcium on a harbor seal. A deer wears cauliflower stems for antlers, the legacy of a severe hormonal imbalance, while another’s antlers are locked forever with his rival’s in a fatal clash over a doe.

Bandar’s connections to the Academy and San Francisco go way, way back. While still in junior high school, he donated many living reptiles and amphibians to Steinhart Aquarium. “I liked to see the labels that said ‘donated by Raymond Bandar,’” he says.

At what was then San Francisco State College, Bandar immersed himself in classes, building collections of reptiles and insects for the sheer joy of discovery. His over-the-top enthusiasm caused at least two campus sensations. A rattler he was raising in a biology laboratory gave birth to 17 snakelets. Another time, he skinned out a seven-foot alligator on campus.

In 1956, a professor recommended Bandar for a job in what is now the Academy’s Education Department. For teaching after-school classes, night courses, and multiday field trips, he was paid the princely sum of $2 an hour. The fieldwork whetted his appetite for collecting. He began driving the countryside on weekends looking for roadkill, taking the bodies back to prepare in the Academy’s lab.

Bandar joined Fremont High School in Oakland as a biology teacher in 1958. His courses soon became a vet student’s dream. Bandar’s classes dissected fresh 15-foot pythons, lion heads, giraffe necks, and once, a chimp the size of a full-grown man, all gleaned from local zoos. These novelties fed Bandar’s flair for the dramatic. “Once as the students were leaving for Thanksgiving, I said, ‘when you get back, I will have a drumstick bigger than any of you will have in your life.’ After vacation, they said OK, Bandar, where’s this big drumstick? And I took out the ostrich leg I had defrosted and had them dissect it right then and there.”

Long school vacations gave him time to take extraordinary collecting trips. Academy connections gained Bandar a berth on several expeditions to Mexico, including the 1964 and 1966 expedition to the Sea of Cortez. These introductions to the deserts of Baja California led to a decade of hot, idyllic summers spent collecting and sunbathing with Alkmene on Mexican beaches. Back then, Bandar was the only one who bothered to pick up the skeletons scattered on almost every Mexican beach. On one trip, he brought back more than 40 dolphin skulls snapped from mummified carcases lying high and dry on the sand.

Every find honed Bandar’s bone-processing techniques further. By the time he arrived in Alaska for the summer of 1967, he possessed the game-dressing skills of a seasoned hunter. When an Indian village offered him the skull of a juvenile black bear freshly killed by tribal hunters, “I took out my knives, sharpened them, and started slitting around the mouth. I was able to pull out the whole skull without damaging the skin,” Bandar says. He drove back down the Alcan Highway with the roof of his VW van piled high with the heads of lynx and moose, wolf and wolverine, beaver and caribou.

It was during the Alaska trip that he started the baculum collection that sits innocently in a cup on his dining table. A trapper introduced them as “the swizzle stick from a grizzly.” He began collecting penis bones from as many of his subjects as he could as a definitive means of identifying a partially-rotted animal’s species and sex. Today he’ll tunnel under a car-sized mountain of rotting elephant seal to get one. “I’ll reach in with a knife and slit open the underbelly. The rancid blood just pours out,” Bandar says. After waiting for the sand to absorb the liquid, he’ll reach an arm into the abdominal cavity to dig around for a bone roughly the shape and size of a taper candle.

“Ray’s drive to collect bones is somewhere between a passion and an obsession,” the Academy’s Long says. “If there aren’t any reports of strandings for awhile, Ray gets agitated, like somebody who hasn’t had their smoke. He’ll say ‘Douglas, what’s happened? I haven’t gotten any calls.’”

After retiring from teaching in 1990, Bandar has spent even more time collecting. He is the reason the Academy’s California sea lion collection far surpasses those in Southern California museums, even though more wash up in warmer waters. The difference lies in Bandar’s willingness to go out and collect every single specimen that comes ashore. “If Ray ever retires, our body of information about stranded marine mammals is going to drop precipitously,” Long says.

By constantly monitoring the beaches, Bandar has kept an eye on less savory interactions between humans and local wildlife. His court testimony on the hundreds of drowned murres and rash of porpoises he’s found with their fins sliced off and their bellies slit open to help the corpses sink helped impose further restrictions on gill net fishing off the central California coast.

Headhunting is lonely work, hours spent walking on empty beaches with shorebirds and surf the only company. The solitude, and excuse to be outside, suits Bandar just fine. “I’ve always been sort of a loner, always doing what I wanted to do. I’m just an overgrown kid.”

A part of him surely yearns for the romance of a previous generation, a time when explorers courted glory by gambling with nature. But not everyone sees it that way. He’s decapitated a bull elephant seal at night in the surf, been threatened by drunks with broken beer bottles irate over sea turtles entrails left on “their” beach, and hassled by joggers who call his ministrations barbaric and unnatural. Absorbed with salvaging the skull of a rare beaked whale one day, he failed to notice that the incoming tide had pinned him hard against the cliffs. The water caught him as he dashed across a beach to safety, tumbling him into a sea cave.

Bandar’s closest call to date came in January 2001, when he made the mistake of cutting a carcass near a skulls sexually frustrated elephant seal bull. “All of a sudden, he rears up and starts coming for me. I drop my stuff and make a dash to get away...and I trip, I fall down into the soft sand,” Bandar says. Turning to face his two-ton adversary on his knees, Bandar had the presence of mind to roll down the dune to safety. He returned through a seal minefield in the dark to finish work on the seal. “I was determined to get that head.”

Bandar’s collection stands as a singular achievement. It is no longer possible to build the kind of personal ossuary that Bandar has created. As more people are after bones as jewelry and decor, seeking in this technological world a connection with the untamed will and wildness of nature, the days when beachcombers could collect anything they found have been superannuated by a web of laws regulating the possession and traffic of wild creatures. Since the 1960s, Bandar has been collecting under the permits of the California Academy of Sciences.

Back on the beach, Bandar carries the tools of his trade slung over one shoulder. Once a cheery yellow, the daypack is now stained a sorry, greasy orange-brown. Every zipper is busted, the ripstop nylon ripped, and the weave of the fabric hidden beneath waxy globs of congealed fat and dried blood. A distinctive aroma issues from its core, the distilled essence of putrefaction, the miasmal remains of the thousands of dead animals that Bandar has preserved in his fantastic collection of skulls.

Kathleen M. Wong is Senior Editor of California Wild.