The Humane Society of the United States sent BYU, owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a letter demanding it block the specimen from being mounted at the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum, as well as future museum acquisitions through trophy hunting.
"If we maltreat our animals, or each other, the spirit within us, our traditions, and the Bible, all agree in declaring it is wrong," wrote Humane Society president Wayne Pacelle, quoting an 1853 address by Brigham Young titled "Comprehensive of True Religion - The Saints but Stewards."
"Killing animals for museum exhibition is not acceptable in our day, especially when the target is one of the rarest large mammals in the world," continued Pacelle in his letter to BYU President Cecil Samuelson. "The founders of The Church of Latter-day Saints taught that animals should be treated with kindness and respect, and this action is at odds with the principles of compassionate care of animals."
Last year, Bean museum benefactor Fred Morris, a prolific trophy hunter who lives in Draper, hunted a rhino at South Africa's Mkuze National Park. The park sells permits to hunt excess rhinos to finance its conservation efforts, Bean officials said. Last week they said they hope to acquire a black rhino, a hippopotamus and a giraffe for future exhibits. The museum's plans since have drawn criticism from those who find hunting rare wildlife for display morally repugnant.
"It's the seeming collusion between the museum and the trophy hunter, the masquerade of conservation behind the selfish act of the killing of this relatively rare and certainly remarkable animal, that looked like it came out of the Pleistocene. It's not very sporting to shoot a rhino. It's like shooting a bus," Pacelle said in an interview. "A lot of people who [donate trophy-hunted animals to museums] attempt to put some social value to this exercise to rationalize their conduct. It's a psychological salve to people who do a lot of damage to wildlife around the world."
Trophy-hunted wildlife once poured into the nation's natural history museums, but that was during an era when the public had yet to appreciate the gravity of wildlife extinction, especially in faraway lands.
"Museums can obtain specimens through other means - such as through specimen exchange with other museums - rather than asking hunters to kill wild animals solely for the purpose of public display," Pacelle wrote.
But Bean museum director Larry St. Clair said the museum's controversial acquisitions are in line with sound wildlife management and the Bean's educational mission.
"We conform to federal and international law, as well as permitting regulations. We could not have brought any part of the rhino into the country, much less the museum, if we had not met all the legal requirements," St. Clair said. The rhino also cleared the museum's acquisition policy, which requires proof of need and unavailability from other sources.
"Our only intent has been to use it as an educational mechanism for promoting public appreciation of the conservation of these magnificent animals," he said. The Bean plans to mount the rhino skin on an artificial form as part of an ongoing taxidermy exhibit at the museum through January and later add the mount to a waterhole diorama. In that exhibit, the rhino would join an elephant that was also obtained by a modern hunter.
Though once on the verge of extinction, white rhinos are now the least endangered of the world's five surviving rhino species. Its South African populations have rebounded to the point that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species has downlisted the white rhino to Appendix II status.
"This means [white rhinos] can be harvested to maintain sustainable levels," St. Clair said. "The preserve Fred worked with is practicing good wildlife management and policy. The money Fred paid [to hunt the rhino] helps enhance habitat to preserve this magnificent animal.
"The South African government commissioned Fred, not us, in strict compliance with their wildlife management plan," St. Clair continued. "We are here to promote the conservation of the species. No university funds were given to Fred. To his credit, Fred did not receive any tax deduction for his donation."
BYU's is not the first academic natural history museum to find itself in a public relations nightmare as a result of accepting hunter-donated African specimens. In September, a California university was pilloried for requesting permission from the Tanzanian government to let two hunters kill 86 animals for display in a proposed museum in Sacramento.
A decade ago, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History accepted a dozen specimens killed by a major benefactor and trophy hunter, Kenneth Behring. The Humane Society publicly castigated both institutions, which responded by re-evaluating their acquisitions policies.
* BRIAN MAFFLY can be reached at 801-257-8605 or firstname.lastname@example.org.