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updated 4/14/2005 6:24:50 PM ET 2005-04-14T22:24:50

Out on the plains of western Nebraska in the town of Gering, the Wyobraska Natural History Museum displays what's left of rhinos, leopards, lions, even elephants — all killed during safaris overseas or on big game hunts in the United States.

What isn't obvious is what the museum's curator recently told undercover investigators for The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

"The people that donate this, they got a tax write-off," says the curator as he points to animal trophies on a hidden-camera video shot by the HSUS.

That's right. Virtually every one of the exotic and endangered animals, as well as 1,200 more out back in large containers, were someone's tax write-off, taken as a charitable donation to a museum.

"And see, something like this is probably $10-12,000," says the curator as he shows off another animal trophy on the video.

The Humane Society calls it a disgrace.

"This tax break subsidizes the wholesale slaughter of animals," says Rick Swain with the Humane Society. "That's what it does, under the guise of doing something for charity."

It's all legal. But there are concerns that trophies are being appraised at many times their market value, producing an inflated tax break.

The Wyobraska Museum says 99 percent of its appraisals for donations were done by Bruce Duncan, who was sentenced to ten months in prison in 1991 for helping place illegally hunted animals in another museum.

One of Duncan's brochures, "Hunt for Free," says for future hunts, he'll advise on "what extra animals" to kill "and donate" to help pay for the trip. His list of estimated actual tax savings: $14,000 for a bighorn sheep, $6,000 for a lion.

Duncan told NBC News the brochure was "overly aggressive," but his appraisals are "very accurate."

Yet, the museum says it eventually sells many trophies for only pennies on the dollar.

Supporters argue this tax break is no different than donating art to a museum. A museum official says this helps educate families about animals they'd never otherwise see.

"In many instances, the animals have benefited from the process," says Jim Merrigan, the chairman of the Wyobraska Natural History Museum.

Really?

"For that individual animal, it probably wasn't the way he wanted to finish the day. But the reality is that when you look at the overall species, the overall spectrum, species need to be managed," says Merrigan.

Critics say what's really managed here are the tax bills of wealthy hunters.

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