Lions, tigers, taxidermy, arsenic, political squabbling and the Endangered Species Act. Oh my.

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The fate of the mounted lion, tiger, polar bear and gorilla that have long greeted visitors entering South Dakota’s largest zoo is grim after arsenic was found to be widespread in the taxidermy collection, creating a raging debate about whether the more than 150 animals should be destroyed.

Some locals who grew up around the menagerie, which used to fill a hardware store, are fighting the mayor and zoo officials to keep the collection, marshaling activism online and in the Sioux Falls City Council. They are buoyed by experts who say the arsenic risk is overblown, the mounts nothing short of art.

“They’re not stuffed animals. These were sculptures,” said John Janelli, a former president of the National Taxidermists Association, likening destroying them to scraping off the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

The arsenic, he adds, is a heavy metal, not something that wafts through the air.

“Just don’t lick the taxidermy,” says Fran Ritchie, the chair of the conservation committee of the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections. “You’ll be fine.”

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