When Peter May is asked what he does for a living, he usually responds by saying, “I’m the local dinosaur builder.”
People tend greet his response with a puzzled smile.
“They wonder what the heck you’re talking about,” he says.
Not many people know that May’s business, Research Casting International, is renowned around the world for its work with prehistoric fossils.
“We build dinosaurs for museums throughout the world. We work with the skeletons and the bones. We mould and cast them out.”
May’s company is the one paleontologists call when they make a discovery in the field. Research Casting staff extract the specimen, and then bring it to the company’s 50,000-square-foot workshop in Trenton, Ont.
While there, the specimen is chiseled away from rock, cleaned and strengthened. After months of this tedious work, it’s then mounted and shipped to museums around the world, such as The Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., the Beijing Museum of Natural History and the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto.
“He’s the go-to guy if you want to make a dinosaur exhibit (anywhere) in the world,” says David Evans, the curator in vertebrate paleontology at the Royal Ontario Museum.
“If you’ve been through a museum in Canada, or any major dinosaur museum in the world, chances are you’ve seen a skeletal mount that was produced by Peter May’s company.”
The dinosaur fossils May’s company works with can be up to 70 million years old and are extremely delicate to work with. “You can have the hardest rock in the world with a fossil stuck into it. You’re chiseling away a very hard sandstone from around a very delicate fossil. It takes a very good touch to do that. You have to be patient,” May says.
The process takes months, if not years, to complete. Intense attention to detail is needed to mount hundreds of individual bones together to make one complete fossil display. The process is “very similar to how a jeweler sets a diamond into a diamond ring,” Evans says. “But take a skeleton that has 400 bones and produce that setting for a diamond ring 400 times on a scale of a tyrannosaurus rex.”
A sculptor by trade, May started with the Royal Ontario Museum in 1977. He saw an ad in the paper one day for a paleontological technician. “And I had no idea what that meant,” May laughs.
“I didn’t really have any knowledge of dinosaurs. I probably knew what a T-Rex was, but at the time it was the band more so than the animal,” he laughs again. “My first introduction was when I first started working at the Royal Ontario Museum.”
He spent five years working for the ROM and then was asked to help build the Royal Tyrrell Museum in Drumheller, Alta.
“I was hired there as the senior technician doing the mounting, the molding and the casting,” May says. “We had met a lot of paleontologists who came by and the exhibits were just fantastic and at that time the world hadn’t seen anything like that.”
After completing the project, May returned to the ROM In 1986. “Then I was getting calls, would I mount a dinosaur in my spare time? That was probably from my reputation from building Tyrrell. So in the evenings, I’d mount dinosaur skeletons.”
He and a couple of others worked with molds and casts. They had a drill press and a welding machine. They’d mount the skeleton for the customer, then shut things down and put the tools away.
Yet more calls would come in, so they’d set things up and work on the next project. Eventually they had so much business they didn’t need to shut down.
Now 31 years later, May and his 35 employees have completed hundreds of dinosaur fossil exhibits on almost every continent — except for one. “We don’t have a museum in Antarctica, although they do have fossils coming out of there.”
But perhaps his most famous work isn’t in a museum at all. “I think a really good example of Peter’s influence on the world is his work for the movie Jurassic Park — the most famous dinosaur movie, and one of the most famous movies in history,” Evans says.
“That last scene in Jurassic Park, where the raptors are battling with T-Tex around a T-Rex skeleton, Peter May actually built those skeletons for the movie. Of course, that’s an iconic scene in film. And Peter had his hand in that,” Evans says.
To protect the fossils he works with — some of them are considered priceless — security in May’s facility is taken very seriously. For instance, one client has had cameras installed just so it can observe its fossils 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
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May showed us some of those projects that are behind closed doors, though we weren’t allowed to bring in our cameras — and we aren’t allowed to say what we saw.
His clients want their fossils under a veil of secrecy for a very good reason.
“When we have an original fossil here, it’s priceless. To find a fossil is hard to begin with. To find a fossil that’s one of a kind, is even harder,” May says.
“A lot of museums like to keep it quiet. We’ll do the work. The museum holds everything for the opening.”
One fossil in May’s warehouse that isn’t under wraps is a Blue Whale. It’s the largest mammal on earth at up to 100 feet long (30 m) and weighing 170 tonnes. The whale is currently listed as an endangered animal by The International Union for Conservation of Nature.
“They’re having a tough time,” May says. “One thing that we’re finding, which isn’t very good, is that we’re doing more and more whale skeletons for museums. Is it a sign that these animals are going extinct and they’re giving it to a company that specializes working on dinosaurs and now we’re working on modern mammals?”
And this is where May feels his work in museums has the greatest impact.
“You see the kids come walking in, just in awe. They’ll look at the Blue Whale,” May says. “Hopefully we’re inspiring children to learn more to be a part of the world and the history of the world and it becomes a part of their lives. It’s up to us to appreciate what they are and hopefully help them survive.”