SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — The city of Sioux Falls can’t sell the taxidermy specimens from the Delbridge Natural History Museum and if it gives them away, they need to stay in South Dakota, city officials said in a Tuesday news conference.
The city can’t sell the items at auction or sell them, city officials said. That is part of the federal regulations the city must follow.
Under state law, “once items are displayed, if (the city) attempts to give them away, they can only be given to a 5013c entity,” said city attorney Dave Pfeifle. The items would need to be stored or placed on display within the state, he said.
Even if the city had 5013c entity for the specimens, “it still doesn’t fix the legal issue,” TenHaken said. The city would still have legal exposure with a new owner. Also if the non-profit decided not to display the specimens in the future, the city would get them back, Pfeifle said.
Becky Dewitz, the chief executive officer and president of the zoo, said officials are working with three organizations now to get a cost analysis on placing specimens behind glass.
Based on information shared by city officials, a future display or even storage home for the roughly 150 mounts may be unlikely.
Blame arsenic levels, city officials said.
“There is no acceptable level of risk for arsenic,” Pfeifle said.
Pfeifle said there is no determination that exists for a safe level of arsenic.
Arsenic is one reason zoo and city officials decided to close the Delbridge Museum on Aug. 17.
Midwest Labs of Omaha, Nebraska, analyzed test swabs of the specimens. Dewitz said, “79% of the specimen tested positive for detectable levels of arsenic.”
Although she and officials said the zoo had been taking proper precautions and the public was not in danger, the museum was closed out of “abundance of caution,” Dewitz said.
TenHaken said the possibility of risk to the public and the potential for lawsuits was also considered in the closure and recommended decommission.
KELOLAND News requested the lab results; review the lab findings in the document below.
If the specimens remain on display the risk of exposure increases, city officials said.
Arsenic levels in taxidermy, at the zoo
Many of the specimen are from the 1950s through the mid-1970s when arsenic was used in taxidermy.
“Scientists have been able to find no safe level of exposure to arsenic. This is a major problem where old taxidermy is concerned,” a March 8 post from the Bruce Museum Science Department said. The Bruce Museum is in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Arsenic has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes. The risk is heightened with high levels of exposure and ingestion and long-term exposure.
The lab results on the specimens from the Delbridge museum vary widely. The test results for the emu is 32.6 mg/kg. On the opposite end, the hippopotamus tested at less than .50 mg/kg.
Arsenic naturally occurs in the soil with levels often ranging from .01 to 40 mg/kg, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) sets a standard for in organic arsenic in the workspace at 10 micrograms/m3. That converts to .01 mg/kg. OSHA said 10 micrograms/m3 is the highest permissible averaged over an eight-hour workday to which a worker may be exposed.
Multiple organizations including the Smithsonian have studies and researched arsenic levels in older taxidermy.
“Objects that are contaminated with arsenic should not be exhibited without appropriate conditions and/or decontamination to reduce the risk of exposure,” said a study called “Arsenic in Taxidermy Collections: History, detection and management,” Fernando Marte, Amandine Pe’Qignot and David W. Van Endt, the Smithsonian Center for Materials Research and Education.
“The danger comes from physical contact with the object. Arsenic and mercury pose little threat to people if they are not physically touched,” said the Western Development Museum of Saskatchewan, Canada.
“You can reduce the risk either by reducing the contaminant or by reducing the possibility of exposure. Eliminating the contaminant is preferable but rarely possible,” according to the U.S. Department of Interior.
The state historical society of North Dakota recommends that the public not touch taxidermy animals in museums because of the risk of arsenic.
Dewitz said the specimens of the age of those at the Delbridge Museum may also contain asbestos.
Displays, specimens showing their age
In addition to concerns about chemicals, Dewitz said the specimens are also showing their age. So are the displays.
The city also had a taxidermy expert assess the specimens.
The city also considered glass enclosures, but based on the assessment of the condition of the specimens, the test results and the costs for options, the best course of action was to pursue declaring them surplus and decommission, said Don Kearney, the city’s director of parks and recreation.
The city council must declare the property surplus and have the specimens decommissioned. The response to the closure and the possible decommissioning of the specimens has raised opinions and reactions from the public as from some city council members.
“And just something simple of allowing it to be called ‘surplus’ property and taken to the dump. I won’t stand for,” council member Pat Starr said in an Aug. 23 KELOLAND News story.
Comments such as disposing of the specimens in a landfill are part of the misinformation that is swirling by the public and even being spread by some council members, TenHaken said.
The specimens wouldn’t be disposed in a landfill, TenHaken said. They won’t be “treated like a Papa John’s pizza box,” TenHaken said. Information about using a landfill is not true, he said.
City officials said a presentation is planned for the city’s informational meeting on Sept. 5. The council is expected to consider surplus and decommission at Sept. 19 meeting.
Surplus or not?
If the city council declares the specimens as surplus the next step would be for Dewitz and others to start the decommission process, Kearney said.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would be involved in the process.
If the council does not declare a surplus, Kearney said officials would re-group and talk about the next possible step.