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.”
It‘s 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, property that we can eat, exploit or stick in captivity.
Photo Credit: Nell Turner