Lions at the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko

Lions in the Wanamaker Wildlife Wing at the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko

No, that isn’t Cecil in the photo above. But there is a connection to the late, now internet- famous lion who was lured out of a national park in Zimbabwe to be shot and killed for sport by a Minnesota dentist, Walter Palmer.

The lions above are among hundreds of  wild animals shot and killed by the late southern California businessman and big game hunter Virgin H. “Jack” Wanamaker. Wanamaker, who lived in Burbank, made his money renting out equipment to Hollywood. When he died in 2003 at the age of 87, his obituary ran in Variety.

His real love was hunting. Wanamaker was a member of the Safari Club International — the same group that Palmer belonged to until he was suspended last week amid worldwide revulsion over the killing of Cecil.

Wanamaker donated his collection of wildlife trophies — along with enough money to build an entire wing to display them — to the Northeastern Nevada Museum in Elko, where we happened to see them on a visit earlier this month.


The enormous Wanamaker Wildlife Wing is stunningly weird, creepy and wonderful, all at the same time. Having dropped by the museum to check out the handful of Ansel Adams prints on display there, I wasn’t prepared to walk into a room quite so garishly over the top and compelling.

Scores of wild animals — all well taxidermied — are crammed into exhibits right in front of you. No glass separates you from the African dioramas, and you have to resist the urge to pet the tiger that greets you as you enter the room.

BK3_4478As a kid, I loved museums, which tended to be much weirder — and, as a result, much more engaging — in those days than they are allowed to be now. When our family lived in Charleston, South Carolina, I used to walk down to the Charleston Museum, a few blocks from our apartment, to see the giant whale skeleton that hung in the lobby and the Egyptian mummy, its toe bones visible where the wrappings were worn away, lying in a glass case. (When the Charleston Museum moved to new quarters a few years back, a new generation of curators tried to do away with the whale and the mummy. Fortunately, the public revolted, and they were put back on display.)

So the Wanamaker Wing was like a return to childhood. I loved the animals and I loved the kitsch factor. And the children I saw wandering through the exhibit were as mesmerized as I was. Yes, indeed, it’s sad that all those animals were killed — and, who knows? — maybe their deaths were as pathetic, up close, as the dentist’s killing of Cecil. But that’s past history now. Who knows how the Charleston mummy died? In the greater scheme, I think a big, gaudy profusion of stuffed animals like this might be less offensive than a lot of zoos I’ve seen.

BK3_4466There’s a larger factor at work, too, and that is money — money for wildlife conservation. Palmer is said to have paid $50,000 for the right to go kill Cecil. Big game hunting is a big business, and while the death of Cecil was stupid, depressing and probably illegal, the money generated from aspiring big game hunters seems to be doing some overall good in Africa. (For an interesting explanation of the role of big-game-hunting money in conservation, see this article in Salon.)

The other thing that big money can support is art. Virgin Wanamaker (gee, I wonder why he went by the name “Jack”?) poured a lot of bucks into the Northeastern Nevada Museum when he decided to house his wildlife collection there. That meant more gallery space for the museum, giving it the opportunity to start collecting western art as well as dead animals.