Stuffed Animals With an Agenda

A diorama of penguins at the International Wildlife Museum in Tucson.

TUCSON — ON the outskirts of this city stands a fake-medieval castle with an elk statue atop its battlements. In the courtyard is a bronze relief of a man shouldering his rifle — one C. J. McElroy, a Texan who founded both this International Wildlife Museum in 1988 and, before that, in the early 1970s, Safari Club International, the trophy hunters’ group that’s headquartered here.

The wildlife museum contains, like its more pedigreed natural-history cousins in cities like New York and Washington, dioramas composed of the stuffed bodies of animals posed in sculpted woodlands or prairies with painted backdrops. These dioramas — as the scholar Donna Haraway has shown — have roots as colonial-era gardens of Eden in miniature. Some are very beautiful, too, with sublime and tragic qualities that captivate adults and children alike. And the dioramas have more to recommend them than the McElroy Hall, where hundreds of disembodied heads, many from animals shot by the museum’s founder, are lined up in long rows on knotty pine walls. The room is a monument to the scale of these kills. (Mr. McElroy reportedly took more than 100 safaris on six continents; his obituary says he claimed 425 trophies in the safari club’s record book.)

More than the dioramas, it’s this old-school trophy chamber — a victor’s hall of imperial conquest, plunder and braggadocio — that seems to lay bare the museum’s core. Giraffes soar toward the high ceiling while a polar bear and black bear stand on hind legs, paws raised, faces frozen in fearsome roars. In the middle, great cats are penned, one from each famous species in a phantom Ark. But most overwhelming are the heads, protruding from the walls all around. If I weren’t familiar with the bizarre conventions of taxidermy — if I were a child, for example — these gentle, doe-eyed faces on chopped necks would certainly haunt me.

Amateurishness is evident throughout the museum, where I spotted interpretive plaques with typos like “threateneing” and “achidna” (for echidna, an egg-laying mammal). An icy penguin scene claims that emperor and Adélie penguins are deemed species of “least concern” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature when in fact the organization has classified both as “near threatened” since 2012. And in the Conservation Room I saw no mention of climate change, likely to become the biggest threat to conservation in the coming century.

Whatever charms this place has, I realized as I ambled through the rooms — and it does have charms, half-hidden in the moth-eaten seams, the demure pathos of an extinct passenger pigeon — its amateurishness is crucial to them. The amateur is a form of American authenticity, and museums like this embody a deeply resonant utopianism that plays to our culture’s love of the homespun.

Here we can fulfill our craving for childlike wonder unfettered by the chains of reason or responsibility; the amateur institution reassures us, in a country increasingly hostile to scientific expertise and even to education, that expertise is not required. How comforting it is that when we gaze upon, say, the sleek and waddling forms of penguins, we don’t have to read below the glass case about their uncertain future. Even for me, a conservationist, there was something liberating about looking at those tubby, flightless birds and forgetting, just for a moment, the wrongs we did them yesterday and will repeat tomorrow.

Behind this surface of poor spelling, outdated information and missing science lies the power of big money and big politics. Safari Club International is no N.R.A. leviathan; it claims a mere 50,000 members and in 2014 reported revenues of about $24 million, more than half from its annual convention. (The museum draws some 70,000 visitors a year.) But its members have included prominent leaders like Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf and the first President Bush, whose son presented himself as down home and authentic, just as this minor cultural outpost in Tucson does.

Trophy hunters are not Everyman. These world-traveling endangered-species shooters are a far cry from the hunters who spend weekends in the American outback near their suburban or rural homes. In the 1970s, Safari Club International asked the federal government to approve its import of 1,125 not-yet-killed trophies of 40 endangered species, including gorillas, orangutans and tigers, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

The club still promotes the “Big Five” African safaris of the colonial great white hunters of yesteryear; even today the richest of the rich can kill the “big five” (leopard, Cape buffalo, elephant, lion and rhino). In Namibia, for instance, you can bag a rhino — but only if you find you have $350,000 burning a hole in your pocket. The Dallas Safari Club recently auctioned a permit to kill a black rhino and as recently as this January attempted to sell a permit to hunt an elephant.

The Safari Club International has worked the legal system hard to try to keep polar bears — threatened primarily by climate change, but also by hunting — on the list of creatures people can import as trophies after shooting. It sued the federal government because native Alaskans, who traditionally hunted to survive, were given preference for polar-bear hunting permits over out-of-state trophy seekers. The list is long, but the point is brief: None of the group’s expensive back-room campaigns are mentioned on the museum’s halls.

None of its actions are presented to this visiting public. Instead, we see only once-lovely animals made lovely anew with fiberglass forms and chemicals, glowing in their amber-lit pastoral scenes as though eternally on the brink of reanimation. They seem to wish for no higher honor than to be beheld by us — and surely their grace and nobility suggest our own.

Yet something is missing. As we wander among the skin-covered forms, something lurks in the alcoves: our hosts. They seem to be invisible. Who really dwells in this castle, moving at night among the dusty and the dead? Beneath these forests of antlers, beneath the hundreds of pairs of gleaming glass eyes, a dark fairy tale remains to be decoded if we wish to know what unseen hand has stilled these living beasts and made them ghosts.

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