GERING, Neb. -- The ibex head was jammed next to the moose, whose velvety antlers brushed against a rare red lechwe and an African bongo. Below them were several preserved bobcats, and at the far end of the storage container stood endangered leopards, frozen in lifelike mid-prowl.
In all, there were more than 800 big-game and exotic animals piled into an old railroad car behind the Wyobraska Wildlife Museum, a modest and lightly visited facility here, far from any population center. It was just one of four large containers packed with animal mounts and skins -- trophies shot on expedition or safari to places such as South Africa, Mongolia and game-hunting parks in Texas.
Most of the animals are destined for auction, often at bargain-basement prices, but they're in Gering largely because they remain surprisingly valuable to one group in particular -- the hunters who shot them and had them preserved.
Often appraised for many times their market value, the trophies can yield hefty income tax deductions if nonprofit organizations agree to accept them as charitable gifts. And the Wyobraska museum and others have been more than willing.
According to critics in Congress, top officials at natural history museums and animal rights advocates, this form of charitable giving allows wealthy hunters to go on big-game expeditions essentially at taxpayers' expense -- an arrangement so blatant that one animal trophy appraiser advertises his services under the headline: "Hunt for Free." The taxpayer subsidies also encourage hunters to track down and shoot the largest, fittest and rarest of the world's animals, the critics say.
Nobody knows how many trophy mounts are donated yearly to nonprofit collections, or how much tax revenue is being lost to the charitable deductions. But at the Wyobraska museum, the floodgates are open wide.
Records show that in 2000, Wyobraska took in mounts worth $1.4 million. In 2004, the museum's curator said, the value of donations grew to more than $5 million, even though display rooms and storage containers were already overflowing. The entire stuffed menagerie of 800 animals in the rail car out back arrived just last year.
Big-game hunters, whose interests are actively promoted in Washington by the politically powerful Safari Club International, have been quietly donating animal mounts to nonprofit groups for years. The public benefits, hunting advocates say, because visitors get to see animals they would otherwise never encounter. The Safari Club also says revenue from big-game hunting gives nations an incentive to encourage conservation.
Whether the public is being served or fleeced by donations such as these will be the subject of a Senate Finance Committee hearing Tuesday. Its chairman, Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), has been investigating possible abuses in how art and other "non-cash donations" are appraised and donated to nonprofits, and he sees trophy animals as a prime example.
"The phoniness of this kind of donation calls out for congressional action," said Grassley, after learning about the flow of mounts to Wyobraska and other museums, adding that the issue is "in the Finance Committee's cross hairs."
What makes charitable giving so popular with big-game hunters is that their trophies are being appraised at top dollar, often using a donor-friendly "cost of replacement" method that estimates how much a hunter would have to pay to track down the same quarry again.
But the Internal Revenue Service allows this approach only when no market exists to establish a fair market price, and the tax agency has taken the position that there is such a market in big-game trophies. Officials note, for instance, that the Lolli Brothers auction company in Macon, Mo., holds four large taxidermy auctions a year, selling thousands of big-game trophy mounts to businesses and sportsmen. Auctioneer Jim Lolli said the mounts have become something of a commodity, and winning bids are generally 10 to 20 percent of the appraised values.
"A hunter or a museum will tell me the value of an elk is appraised at $10,000, and I'll have to tell them they'll be lucky to get $1,000," Lolli said. "But they have that paper with the big appraisal, so it takes some convincing."
One of the more active appraisers is Robert Bruce Duncan, founder of the Chicago Appraisers Association. According to Wyobraska museum curator Mike Boone, almost all the animals given to his museum in 2004 came via Duncan, who both values the mounts and arranges the donation.