Is it Ethical for Museums to Collect Dead Animals?

Growing up, most of us have seen diorama displays with dead, but alive-looking, animals at museums with some type of narrative posted in front — e.g. “This lion is a breath away from making the gazelle dinner.” I know that I did, and I know that I never grew up thinking anything was wrong with it. As I’m a little older, wiser and awake now, a recent trip to a natural history museum with dead animal bodies on display was unsettling.

Captive living animals in zoos and “abusement parks” have been getting a lot of attention. We’ve already had to reexamine our harrowing history of putting people in human zoos, where racism, entertainment and colonialism all intersected; maybe, museums collecting dead animals isn’t so different.

Here’s the thing: museums collect dead animals. Sometimes the carcasses are collected for private scientific research, and sometimes the carcasses go through a process called taxidermy where they are put on display. But is it ethical for museums to collect dead bodies?

Museums Collecting Dead Animals

In 2014, the Science journal released an article questioning the ethics of the practice. As NPR reports, the article warned that collecting animals in small, vulnerable and isolated populations can hurt the species.

The journal article also explained that collecting the dead specimens can be an unnecessary practice thanks to technology that can document things like species rediscovery. Collecting DNA samples and taking photographs are simple alternatives.

While the authors of the controversial article weren’t saying that scientists collecting species will lead to species extinction, they do stress that scientists should really think twice before grabbing an animal.

Scientists and researchers were not fans of the article. Over 100 scientists signed a letter defending the practice of collecting dead animals. Scientists bemoan that it’s already becoming more difficult to obtain permits to collect animals, and that they don’t want the public to get the wrong idea.

A Very Brief History of Taxidermy

Many museums function thanks to public monetary support, so our opinion matters. Here’s what museums let us see with their collection.

The essence of taxidermy isn’t anything new. The ancient Egyptians embalmed and preserved humans after death.

In the 19th century, the beginnings of taxidermy really took form. According to Ward Museum, hunters would bring their trophy kills to upholsterers so that the carcasses could be stuffed. Upholsterers stuffed the dead animals with cotton and rags and sewed up the skin as good as new.

According to REACT Hub, like human ethnographic zoos, the practice really took off after the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886. Museums wanted to become more engaging, venture into creating art and becoming public showcases.

Is Taxidermy Ethical?

Taxidermied animals continue to be a public showcase to this day. Even though there are taxidermy alternatives (even vegan taxidermy ones, believe it or not), many museums cling to dead animal flesh. The tongue, nails, hooves and eyes can be plastic, wax or glass, but the skin has to come from a once living and breathing animal for authenticity.

While some believe that the practice can be ethical by not killing or wasting any part of the animal, others disagree. As this Run Riot author put it: “If you care about social justice and respect for life, you should also care about the crime that is taxidermy. There is no ethical taxidermy. Finding a dead animal and stuffing it for the titillation of passing trade or (worse) for your own entertainment is an insult to that creature.”

Its Not Just Museums

I know that not everyone shares my love of museums. You might think that anyone who doesn’t want to see or support the collection of dead animals can just avoid the institutions. It’s not that easy. As The Australian reports, a corner coffee shop or restaurant near you may soon accessorize their decor by putting a tiara and earrings on a taxidermied deer next. The hipster trend is making dead animals fashionable and funny.

I blame a lot of this on museums. As institutions, they’ve conditioned us to seeing pristine dead animals as normal, and it shouldn’t be. It only promotes animals as objects and, by extension, propertythat we can eat, exploit or stick in captivity.

Photo Credit: Nell Turner

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Logain Bergström
Logain Bergström4 months ago

Justine E. and Angela A. need to educate themselves before making stupid comments. Most animals you see in museums today are very old, especially if they are 'exotic' animals, and therefore have very strict regulations on them today. And yes, Justine, I would really like to see that but I haven't been able to. Bet you didn't know there actually is one?

Jim Ven
Jim Ven4 months ago

thanks for the article.

Warren Biggs
Warren Biggsabout a year ago

I would assume that you are against The Real Human exhibit. As long as the animal wasn't killed for exhibition-only reasons, there is no ethics involved. No, it is MUCH better to let the carcass go to waste instead of using it to teach children who might only get to see the animal in a museum.

Clara Hamill
Clara Hamillabout a year ago

I'm fine with museums having dead animals. How else are you going to know what extinct animals look like. I felt more moved looking at a stuffed dodo then a picture of one.

Else G.
Else G.about a year ago

I don't think it is unethical for museums to have these displays. I find them very educational. It's not as if they were changed out every year. A well done animal will be able to be on display for a very long time. Decades in fact.
If they are already dead I see no harm. Going out to kill one just for display would not be OK with me.

Kara C.
Kara C.about a year ago

Here is a great video on the topic

Most specimens are bodies donated to museums by citizens with deliberately collected ones mostly being insects. The bodies are kept to map populations in loads of different ways.

Angev GERIDONIabout a year ago

I would like to thank all Care2 members who already signed my petition.
if no, please help give an happy end to that sad story :
1) Care 2

But unfortunately this is still not the end of the sufferings for those animals. This Monday 28th july a stray horse was hit by a car and was euthanized due to an open fracture. link : Tribuna de Petropolis
As some people of the city and from the neighborhoods are rescuing them, the hope is rising, it's up to you to make it grow by still sharing the petitions.

Thank you for caring

J.T. SMITHabout a year ago

There's something that no one who writes articles ever seems to take into account: There's a big difference between seeing something right in front of you and just seeing pictures and/or videos. There's an impact to it being directly in front of you. Should animals be hunted and killed just so they can be stuffed into a museum diorama? No. But think about seeing pictures in history books of things like wooly mammoth and sabre-tooth tigers. Now think about seeing those same too animals in a Natural History Museum. The latter had far more impact because you could actually see their size. They became so much more REAL to you after going to the museum. Even things like zoos and aquariums will have that same effect on you. Are zoos/aquariums without flaw? Don't be daft, of course they're flawed. Also keep in mind that some species have actually been saved from long-ago extinction by having living creatures in captivity. Those trips to the zoo and the aquarium are what inspired so many biologists and zoologists (both land and marine) to go into their respective fields. It'd be fantastic if we could all afford to go on safari (NOT referring to the hunting variety) or go diving in the depths of the ocean and we could all personally see everything first-hand. Let's be realistic: while fantastic it's simply not realistically feasible. And pictures and videos will never drive reality home to us.

Justine E.
Justine E.about a year ago

do this with human bodies see if people want to see that!
it is sick to show of dead animals for human entertainment

Angela K.
Angela K.about a year ago

the human race is very sick .... the living animals are killed, the dead stuffed!???

what's wrong with us??