Are These Euthanized Mules Even Educational?

A new display at the American Museum of Agriculture in Lubbock, Texas has brought the subject of taxidermy morality to the public eye — a question that natural history museums regularly face. The AMA found two mules to euthanize and stuff for a 19th century farming display featuring a McCormick reaper.

A number of Care2 Members vocally disapprove of using the mules as taxidermy models now that the original call to action failed to save the mules’ lives. Now, an animal rights activist is suing the museum for violating state law by killing livestock for “nefarious purposes.” If he wins his case, the mules will belong to the state.

Allegedly, if the mules hadn’t been euthanized for the exhibit, their trader would have sent them to a slaughterhouse in Mexico. They explained that at the ages of 28 and 32, the pair of mules could no longer serve any practical use. We know these were not the only options.

The AMA justifies their decision: “With the assistance of Museum Arts, we have installed a very realistic exhibit showing the reaper and its operation. To complete this exhibit, Museum Arts strongly recommended that we obtain professionally preserved mules in full harness to allow our visitors to understand how essential animal power was to this stage of American agriculture.”

So essential that even present day mules should die to convey the message, apparently.

Fiberglass or taxidermy — what’s the difference?

Phil Paramore of Museum Arts, an exhibit arts company, believes that the only way to truly depict Lubbock mules’ role in 19th century farms is by transporting visitors back to the original scene — fur, fake eyes and all.

It’s true that taxidermy has sparked controversy even in the case of famous or now extinct animals who have died of natural causes, regardless of their potential educational contributions. But even with the decrease in taxidermist positions in most major museums, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s award winning Hall of Mammals opened as recently as 2003. Its conception involved accruing 274 taxidermy specimens from research facilities and zoos.

Visitors react to the tangibility of these displays, which spurns the argument for their existence in the first place. Taxidermy seems to convey a certain legitimacy that, for better or worse, either awes or alarms. Displays so lifelike they can only exist in a certain setting definitely leave an impression.

But how “natural” is taxidermy in the case of the Lubbock mules, at least compared to manufactured replicas?

The reality of authenticity

More often now than in past years, museums opt for fiberglass replicas precisely because an animal has distinctive features — like skin, fur, or mouth — that would be difficult to preserve or do justice to in taxidermy form.

Texas’s American Museum of Agriculture aims “to build a first-class museum facility that will teach visitors where their food and fiber comes from through artifacts, interpretive displays and interactive exhibits,” according to their website. Taxidermy mules are not artifacts, nor are they interactive. As far as I can tell, interpretive displays are up to interpretation — fiberglass replicas don’t seem to technically interfere with the museum’s mission.

Traditionally, animals used for museum displays allowed for a greater understanding of animal bodies in true scale. I know that seeing SUE, the world’s best-preserved Tyrannousaurus Rex skeleton housed at Chicago’s Field Museum, definitely shifted my perspective as a kid. But there are clearly thin lines between bone, fossil and fur.

So I have to wonder — since the display intends to depict mules in a 19th century farming scene, how accurate would a 21st century mule’s body even be? Remember, these mules did not spend any time pulling the vintage reaper used in the display.

Do you think the use of animal replicas in place of taxidermy originals is equally effective to a museum’s educational aim? Since the mules have already been euthanized, what is there to gain or lose by not using them for an exhibit?

I’d love to hear what sort of dialogue surrounding taxidermy you’d like to see opened up — or shut down — in museums!


Related Stories:

Museum Kills Two Mules for Realistic Display

Should Lonesome George the Tortoise Be Stuffed?

Should Knut the Polar Bear by Stuffed and Displayed in a Museum?


Sheila Stevens
Sheila S5 years ago

Signed in hopes that when other display animals "no longer serve any practical purpose" there will be laws in place to protectthese beautiful creatures

Sheri D.
Sheri D5 years ago

Disgusting and heartbreaking!!!

Adela Pisarevsky
Adela Pisarevsky5 years ago

These 2 mules were murdered for some stupid exhibit they call "art"!!! They could very well have asked one of many shelters where the poor souls could've spent their last years in comfort and even happiness.
Many "art" people are simply walking horrors. I remember the news about some artists who used even LIVE animals and insects for their idiotic, unsightly "sculptures" thereby giving this idea to more and more jerks who think themselves as "artists"!!! Two instances come to mind: one, mutilating cats and using their body parts, and another one using LIVE insects, both cases to make their "art sculptures. Pray, what are these jerks teaching??? Each work of art, science, etc. MUST also teach something wholesome besides giving a pleasure to the eyes and soul... :o(

Dallas F.
Dallas Fairbanks5 years ago

Aside from the need to use taxidermy--which I personally disagree with--I'm horrified by the statement that the mules no longer served a useful purpose and therefore were going to be slaughtered. What if our society did that to humans when they were no longer "productive" or "useful"? What a shameful double standard. The mules had presumably worked to benefit humans most of their 28 and 32 years. Rather than arrange for a peaceful retirement as thanks for their many years of labor, they were instead to be killed--as if they were no different than any other "tool", like a tractor or a saw, existing simply to serve man and then be discarded--not living beings with thoughts and feelings, with just as much entitlement to life for its own sake as humans. This is disgraceful, as is the museum's subsequent destruction of them instead--when a sanctuary had in fact been offered for them to enjoy their final years in peace.

Barbara D.
Past Member 5 years ago

Taxidermy really is creepy, but at the rate we're going the day is coming when that's all that's left of our animal brothers and sisters. And tell me - what's educational about a dead mule??

Christina B.
Christina B5 years ago

Taxidermy is creepy. I'm still debating on whether it might be of any use when it comes to now extinct animals (it could give us an idea of what those animals looked like), but I'm absolutely against it for any and all not endangered animals, especially if the poor beasts are killed for that specific purpose.

Judith K.
Judith Tourlouki5 years ago

Oh my!! These animals were old - so kill them. What has happened to the human race. These animals have probably worked for us all their lives couldn't we have given them their last years in peace at a sanctury.

Harshiita Sharma
Harshita Sharma5 years ago

Taxidermy is cruel, brutal and creepy and there's nothing educational about it! I think the same "educational effects" can be easily achieved by artificial replicas.
As for these too mules. Poor souls , even if they were saved from the museum, they would have gone to a slaughterhouse in Mexico! :( There has to be some radical changes in the way we treat animals. The problem is huge.Cruelty and apathy towards animals can end only when we start from the grass root level. By teaching our kids to respect and care for them, to respect their rights to a healthy, happy life. Only then will the situation improve. Otherwise you can do nothing but send 2 senior," good for nothing" mules either to museum to be stuffed and displayed, or to a slaughter-house, both options are equally wrong!

Paula G.
Paula G5 years ago

While I find this treatment of animals to be stomach churning we have to remeber that this was not just 2 decades but 2 centuries ago when this was the norm. However, I feel that the people in charge of the displays should show a sign of humanity and remove the animals from public sight.

We know things now that people did not know then. And yes chances are they would have ended up as some sort of meat. That is how things were. We need to focus on today and move on from here. We cannot change the past; or the way that life was lived at that time.

Mary Beth M.
MaryBeth M5 years ago

Get real! I love all animals, and if I had my way, we would all live in paradise where no animals would suffer, be neglected, be without homes or be killed needlessly except when suffering.
That said, these poor old mules were slated for death in a Mexican slaughterhouse, a particularly gruesome transport and fate. Since NO ONE stepped up to offer them a home or sanctuary, at least they were killed humanely by a vet; a fate far better than most of their counterparts. To prevent their exhibit is naive and foolish-they are already dead! At least, in their death, they will provide some educational purpose. What is the alternative? Throw them in a landfill? Most Nature/wildlife museums do not wait for animals to die of old age on their doorsteps. Put your outrage and petitions to good use and focus on the other mules/horses being sent off to slaughterhouses.