I recently visited a major natural history museum in a U.S. city and again wondered at the tradition of displaying dead animals as so-called “live mounts.” I say “so-called” because the animals do not look alive. They just look dead, and are often displayed in unnatural poses or scenes. I will not judge the wisdom of taxidermy mounts in the past, but I sure question their use now or in the future. Much has changed since they became a major part of any natural history exhibit. I think there are many good reasons to phase them out everywhere, but here are six to think about.
- Videography is widely available and shows any animal in its natural habitat, behaving normally. You learn little from a still scene with stuffed animals other than how the taxidermist feels the animal might have looked at one particular second in time.
- Some young people see taxidermy animals and want their own trophy. Encouraging trophy hunting in a world with declining wildlife populations is a dubious choice. A camera captures a trophy shot or video of a living creature that is far more easily shared with others than a mounted specimen. Why would we not choose that option over killing an animal for anything less than our own survival?
Many older live mounts were preserved with arsenic to discourage insect damage. Placing these specimens where the public can touch them to feel the fur is a bad idea. It transfers the arsenic to anyone who touches it and hastens the loss of fur on the specimen.
- People who see a taxidermy mount often ask, “How did you obtain that?” You are faced with the opportunity to say it was found dead or tell the unflattering truth that it was shot or trapped to become a display. In either case the person asking will likely be wondering if your organization’s ethical position is one they want to support.
- Even expertly mounted specimens do not always look like the live animal. It is not easy to precisely recreate its look when building a body from artificial materials. In some cases, specimens are placed out of context or in juxtaposition with other animals in a scenario that would be highly unlikely in nature, misrepresenting reality and negating any educational value that might be gained from the display.
Taxidermy mounts often show only a single example of a species and sometimes that example is the largest, the most unusual, or some other hyperbolic example instead of the average. The diversity of colors and shapes among that species may be bypassed. The man-eating lions of Tsavo National Park in Kenya were anomalies in lion behavior but display of them at a Chicago museum keeps this unique and frightening story alive instead of celebrating the important role that lions play in African savannahs, usually with very little danger to humans if we behave appropriately.
My views on this grew from observing people viewing taxidermy mounts at a state park visitor center in Illinois in 1972. I watched and listened as children approached them and asked questions of us. A few weeks into that job, I pulled all of them off display and moved toward photography and works of art to show examples of animals. I enjoyed not explaining how we came to be displaying dead animals at a place where we were charged with protecting living animals. I had inherited the exhibit from a previous manager, but could not ethically keep it in front of the public.
The media we choose to interpret natural history also tells people quite a lot about our ethics. Isn’t it time to take dead animals off display and share the amazing experiences of seeing them in nature?
– Tim Merriman