Smithsonian Museum in Cross-Hairs of Debate


Is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History sanctioning the trophy hunting of endangered and threatened animals?

Is the museum entangling its public name with the private hobby of a multimillionaire contributor and trophy hunter who shot two endangered Asian wild sheep--one that walks on the brink of extinction?

Critics in the animal rights and environmental movements, and even some hunters, say yes, and they call it shameful.

The museum says no and describes its actions as motivated by science.

The hunter says he did nothing to compromise the museum or jeopardize the survival of the species.


At the center of the dispute is a permit to import pelts and skulls of two endangered and exotic argali sheep, famed among hunters for their massive curved horns.

One of the animals was a subspecies called the Kara-Tau argali. According to scientists, there are fewer than 100 in existence. The World Conservation Union has reported the Kara-Tau “in very real danger of extinction.”

Smithsonian records list the two argali as having been shot by Kenneth Behring, a California real estate developer, avid trophy hunter and former owner of the Seattle Seahawks football team, in September 1997 in Kazakhstan.

Two months later, Behring gave the Washington museum $20 million, its largest private donation ever. The money, which supplements a $300-million-plus federal budget, was to refurbish the rotunda and modernize the museum’s mammal hall. Both are to be named for the Behring family.

In early 1998, Behring also made a donation of the endangered-sheep trophies, along with several other specimens, to the Smithsonian.

The Endangered Species Act forbids hunters from bringing home the remains of endangered animals, even those taken with approval of governments abroad. But as a scientific institution, the Smithsonian has standing to seek an exemption. It filed for an import permit last September, saying it wanted the trophy sheep for its mammal collection.

“The Smithsonian has given an excuse to trophy hunters who kill these rare animals and then have a stamp of scientific approval placed on their conduct,” said Wayne Pacelle, vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. “This is an unholy alliance that gives hunters an incentive to kill some of the rarest animals in the world because the Smithsonian has the formula for bringing the trophies back into the country.”

In its application, the museum said study of the trophies would “make it possible to identify other specimens of these sheep that may be obtained in the future and support management of this endangered species.”

Critics say the museum just as easily could dart and anesthetize or trap the sheep to obtain necessary blood and tissue samples.

The World Wildlife Fund, which sometimes supports hunting for the good of conservation, wrote to protest the Smithsonian’s permit application. Ginette Hemley, vice president of species conservation, said the request lacked “reasonable argument that allowing the importation of these two sport-hunted specimens will operate to the advantage of the species.”

Further, she said, it would “encourage others to follow a similar course.”

In addition to the two endangered sheep, the Smithsonian is seeking import permits for two other argali sheep that Behring killed. Another subspecies, these are listed as threatened, a classification that carries fewer protections than endangered.

In the United States, the killing of an endangered species can, and does, land people in jail. Abroad, however, the U.S. law has no reach except to prohibit trophy hunters from importing endangered species taken from the wild. Other restrictions on these trophies are imposed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

These roadblocks long have galled trophy hunters, some of whom spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in quest of recognition and competitive records based on the variety and size of animals taken. At the elite level, hunters also compete to take the rarest of animals. Trophy hunters say they are abiding by the game management laws of the countries in which they hunt, so they should be able to bring their quarry back for display.

These hunters have mounted vigorous lobbying campaigns in Congress and with regulatory agencies to relax import restrictions. They also have sought relief in court. They argue, among other things, that killing trophy male animals is an overrated threat to the reproductive viability of game populations.

Behring said the endangered Kara-Tau sheep he shot was one of seven males in a group. “If you take one out of seven, you don’t do anything to harm the future of the population.”

He said the decisions on how to manage wild game should rest with the home country, and in this case, not only did he have the proper license and permits from the Kazakhstan government, but Russian scientists accompanied him to take biological samples from his kill.

Environmentalists and animal welfare organizations counter that many countries, including former republics of the Soviet Union, are unable to resist the ready dollars of American millionaire hunters, no matter what the long-term toll.

In the U.S., museums can seek an exemption from the import prohibition on endangered species for purposes of research or if they can demonstrate benefit for the survival of the animals. The issue has become highly charged because the Smithsonian is a world leader in natural history and can set the tone for other museums in its approach to endangered animals.

At least once already, a cozy relationship with a trophy hunter has brought discredit to the Smithsonian. In 1990, the Washington Post reported that a scientist working for the museum led hunters into once-forbidden reaches of China to take rare animals and then assisted them in obtaining permits to bring the trophies home. When federal prosecutors investigated, the Smithsonian paid more than $280,000 in legal fees and offered testimony that natural historians and hunters worked together by “tradition.” The scientist was convicted of smuggling trophies into the country.

Subsequently, the museum altered its policy, said Director Robert W. Fri. Museum staff cannot commission trophy hunters or lend the institution’s name to justify hunting expeditions. However, private individuals “who come into possession of such specimens” may still donate them to the museum.

“We have a firm policy against encouraging them to think that they’re hunting stuff for us,” Fri said. But he added, “There is scientific value to maintaining a record of the diversity of life on our planet.”

The new rules have been variously applied. In 1997, the museum’s chief mammal scientist signed a letter to import three endangered sheep taken by a trophy hunter who was “an acquaintance.” The scientist disclosed that he asked the hunter in advance to collect tissue samples for the museum “from sheep he might kill.”

The museum said the scientist wanted to confirm whether these animals actually belonged to an endangered species. The Fish and Wildlife Service, however, recognized the animals as endangered all along.

Humane Society scientists said that any needed tissue samples could have been collected by darting the sheep.

While insisting that the museum means no encouragement to hunters, Fri has acknowledged that hunters may believe otherwise after one of their own became the institution’s financial angel. Three months ago, Fri wrote a memo warning his staff that Behring’s $20-million donation “may invite increased interest on the part of the sports hunting community in offering assistance to the museum in adding to our collections.”

Museum officials said Behring’s $20 million “came with no strings attached” and no promise to display the trophy sheep in the new Behring family mammal exhibit. Further, to “ensure the integrity” of the Smithsonian’s image, Behring was advised that the museum would not accept future animal trophies.

“I’m sorry now that I offered them,” Behring remarked of his argalis. He said the museum had no advance notice of his sheep hunt and had not encouraged him. He said museums in other countries would be pleased to have the specimens.

The Smithsonian’s applications are now pending before the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Not just animal rights and environmental activists but some hunters are also critical and fear a black eye for hunting in general.

“An awful lot of people see the Smithsonian as a national shrine, and they will be horribly disappointed and disillusioned by this,” said David Petersen, a hunter, hunting ethicist and author of the book “A Hunter’s Heart.”

Petersen has been outspokenly critical of hunters who seek to pile up trophy records.

“I call them headhunters. And I find hunting for those reasons abhorrent. I’m against anything that lumps all hunters together and makes them look bad.”

Behring is the holder of at least 24 hunting awards from Safari Club International as the result of his globe-circling expeditions. The group is one of three in the U.S. that grants recognition to hunters for their trophies.

Behring’s awards include those for shooting Africa’s “Big Five"--lion, leopard, elephant, rhinoceros and buffalo--plus “Cats of the World,” “North American Wild Sheep,” “European Deer,” “Spiral Horned Animals of Africa,” “Pigmy Antelopes of Africa,” “Wild Goats,” “Wild Sheep,” “Wild Oxen” and the “Pinnacle of Achievement Award,” among many others. In some categories, according to the Safari Club International journal, the award signifies the killing of 20 or more individual species.

With his business headquarters in Danville, Calif., Behring also is a philanthropist, car collector and is listed by Forbes magazine as among the 400 wealthiest Americans, with an estimated worth of $495 million.

His $20-million contribution was eagerly received by the Smithsonian, which, like other public museums, is feeling the pinch of the federal budget. Officials expressed no qualms about enshrining the name of a man who has killed endangered species in a museum committed to conservation.

“He was a very generous man,” said Smithsonian provost Dennis O’Connor.

Times researcher Anna M. Virtue assisted with this story.