Bill headed to South Dakota governor would allow museum's taxidermy animals to find new homes

South Dakota’s Legislature has made it easier for the city of Sioux Falls to find new homes for more than 150 taxidermy animals of its arsenic-contaminated menagerie.

The mounted lion, tiger, polar bear and gorilla were part of display that filled a natural history museum at the state’s largest zoo. But when testing in August showed detectable levels of arsenic in nearly 80% of the specimens, the city closed the Delbridge Museum.

That set off a heated debate in the community and among museum taxidermy experts, who say the arsenic risk is overblown.

Older taxidermy specimens are frequently displayed, experts say, with museums taking precautions like using special vacuums to clean them — or encasing them in glass. But Sioux Falls officials have expressed concerns about the cost. And the display occupies prime real estate near the Great Plains Zoo’s entrance, which officials are eyeing as they look for a spot to build an aquarium and butterfly conservatory.

The situation is complicated by a morass of state and federal laws that limit what can be done with the mounts.

One issue is that the Endangered Species Act protects animals even in death, so the collection can’t be sold. Under federal law, they could be given to another museum. But state law stipulates that exhibits like this must remain within the state.

And that stipulation is what the new legislation aims to address. The bill, passed Thursday by the Senate and headed to Gov. Kristi Noem, would allow the city to donate the collection to an out-of-state nonprofit. The bill would take effect July 1.

“Rather than losing it to history, we could donate it to a reputable museum out of state,” Sioux Falls City Council Member Greg Neitzert said in an interview. Such a donation would still have to navigate federal laws, he added.

No decision has yet been made as to the collection’s future. Great Plains Zoo spokesperson Denise DePaolo said a city working group “will take this new possibility and weigh it against other options before making a recommendation to the city council and mayor in the coming months.”

Virtually no nonprofit in the state could accept the collection, as large as it is, Neitzert said.

The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections told the city that museums outside of South Dakota have expressed interest in accepting the collection in whole or in part, he said. Neitzert declined to identify what entities have reached out with interest.

The law change comes as the city awaits the results of an evaluation of the condition of the mounts and how much it would cost to restore them. The city decided in December to pay $55,000 for the evaluation, which the consultant recently finished.

“Basically, everybody’s on hold waiting for that report and for the task force to continue its work,” he said.

The shift away from ditching the collection entirely began in September when Mayor Paul TenHaken announced a “strategic pause” and created the working group. That group has discussed several possibilities for the taxidermy, including keeping a scaled-back portion of the collection and relocating it.

To destroy the collection, particularly specimens of endangered species at risk of extinction, would be a moral tragedy, Neitzert said.

“I mean, these are irreplaceable. They’re works of art,” he said.

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