The reconstructed skeleton of Sue at the Field Museum.
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Photo by Connie Ma, distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
The reconstructed skeleton of Sue at the Field Museum.

Dinosaur 13 and the Ghost of Tyrannosaurus Sue

Of all the dinosaurs to have ever lived, none has been as embattled as “Sue” the Tyrannosaurus rex. One of the largest apex predators to have ever stalked the Earth, Sue undoubtedly scuffled with and fed upon other dinosaurs in the waning days of the Cretaceous. But even such gory Mesozoic fights look tame compared to the legal clash that Sue’s discovery would kick off some 66 million years after the tyrant’s death. The dinosaur’s modern day trials are at the heart of the new film Dinosaur 13.

How Sue went from a private ranch to the Field Museum is a tangled, painful tale. During a 1990 expedition with commercial fossil outfit the Black Hills Institute, Sue Hendrickson happened across chunks of T. rex crumbling out of a hillside. As BHI founders Peter and Neal Larson and their team dug in, they found that most of the dinosaur seemed to be present. They nicknamed the fossil after its discoverer, and, with dreams of opening a museum at their Hill City base, the fossil dealers paid landowner Maurice Williams $5,000 for the dinosaur.

The tyrannosaur didn’t stay in Hill City long. As the BHI crew prepared the specimen, FBI agents assisted by the National Guard descended on the business to seize Sue and all records relating to the dinosaur. Sue seemed to be a hot fossil. While the BHI was used to handshake deals with ranchers, Sue was found on land bound up in arcane regulations that eventually had the fossil hunters, Maurice Williams, the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe, and the federal government all laying claim to the dinosaur.

Williams was eventually awarded ownership of Sue, and the controversy raised concerns over other BHI dealings. In a separate case, explicitly not including Sue the T. rex, the BHI’s commercial collectors were grilled over shady business practices. Peter Larson faced the worst of it, ultimately sentenced to two years in prison for failing to declare checks during international travel. By the time Larson was out, Sue was going up for auction at Sotheby’s in New York City and finally sold to the Field Museum for the astonishing price of $8,362,500.

Dinosaur 13 follows Sue’s route from the ground to Chicago, tripping through the courtroom snags along the way. But I wouldn’t call the film a documentary.

Based on the book Rex Appeal by Peter Larson and his now ex-wife Kristin Donnan, Dinosaur 13 is a dramatic retelling of Sue’s story that is so enamored with the BHI underdogs that the film doesn’t even blink at its own moment of irony. Relatively early in the film, soon after talking heads and camcorder footage replay the government raid on BHI, Donnan recounts how Larson urged her to come back to Hill City to tell the heartbreaking story of what was happening. As Donnan sheepishly says on screen, she broke one of the rules of journalism by falling in love with and soon marrying Larson. In a similar way, Miller became so entranced by Larson’s charm that anyone and everyone who stood against Dinosaur 13‘s protagonists is cast as greedy and incompetent.

From title slate to the end credits, Dinosaur 13 never questions the motives or honesty of its protagonists. The film never acknowledges whether or not Maurice Williams really knew what the BHI crew took from his ranch, for example, particularly since a check flashed on screen during the film notes that the sale was of a “theropod.” There’s a big difference between telling someone you’ve found a big theropod on their land and that you’ve discovered a T. rex on the property. Nor does the film ponder what should have been done about Sue. In a style that will undoubtedly make frothing FOX News pundits go into further fits, Miller makes much of the FBI and National Guard taking a dinosaur away from a small town, but the film never asks what should have been done about a massive dinosaur that might have been stolen from federal land. Through Miller’s lens, Larson and his BHI associates were always right and always just.

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Sue’s skull, displayed at the Field Museum. Photo by Brian Switek.

Dinosaur 13 is being hailed as an underdog story of little guys against big government. That’ll play well in the west and more conservative states, and clearly did when Larson walked into Salt Lake City’s Tower Theater to a standing ovation from the audience this past Saturday. But even though Larson received an unfair, extended punishment in the court case following the Sue battle and the government’s seizure of Sue was bungled in execution, it’s hard to watch Dinosaur 13 for Miller’s unbroken admiration of the BHI and his simplistic damnation of everyone else.

Along with the federal government and Maurice Williams (whose onscreen appearance at the finale drew hisses from the audience), professional paleontologists are on Miller’s hit list. Echoing sentiments Larson has spouted elsewhere, such as Steve Fiffer’s Tyrannosaurus Sue, Dinosaur 13 casts paleontologists incompetent academics who almost never go out into the field and have not even a scrap of expertise possessed by commercial fossil hunters. In the Q&A after the film, as well, Larson added that it’s better and cheaper for museums to buy fossils from him rather than run their own expeditions.

I am not a professional paleontologist, but I spend weeks out of every summer prospecting and excavating fossils with professional paleontologists from around the country. The notion that curators, professors, and other professional paleontologists are nothing more than armchair experts is entirely false and is little more than name-calling by fossil dealers. And since paleo fieldwork is relatively cheap by scientific standards, Larson’s claim that museums are better off buying from the BHI  and other suppliers also rings false. A failed fossil sale underscores the flaw in Larson’s argument.

Conspicuously absent from any discussion of Dinosaur 13 so far is that Larson has recently been involved in bringing a pair of controversial dinosaur skeletons to auction. These “Dueling Dinosaurs” were promoted by the BHI, shopped to museums for $15 million, and were expected to get at least $9 million at public auction. (They did not meet their reserve and have yet to be sold.) Paleontology departments do not have anywhere near that amount of money on hand, not to mention that such astronomical amounts – fueled, in part, by Sue’s sale setting the bar high – can fund staff, collections, and fieldwork for years, if not decades.

A museum would be foolish to drop upwards of $9 million for two dinosaurs when the same amount of money could underwrite responsible collecting and good science, long term. And while the BHI and some other fossil businesses such as Triebold Paleontology specialize in excellent excavation and prep work, science benefits from scores of committed volunteers who donate their time to uncover and preserve dinosaur fossils. Understanding the past relies on people willing to give their time and their sweat to advance science. Acting as if museums can simply buy all the fossils they need is a snub towards committed volunteers and amateurs who allow paleontology to keep uncovering the past.

Dinosaur 13 favors righteous posturing over examining such arguments. The reality is that Sue still casts a long shadow.

The tension between commercial fossil hunters, paleontologists, and those that straddle that divide asks us to examine the costs of selling fossils – from depleting entire sites to valuable specimens going off to private collections where no one can see them. Despite what happened to Sue, commercial fossil hunters are still digging away, often pushing scientists out as paleontologists aren’t able to compete with the promises of cash that dinosaur dealers offer. And that’s not to mention that these dinosaurs sometimes go to collections or institutions far from home, such as a Diplodocus from Wyoming recently sold to an unfinished museum in Denmark, and how high-priced fossil sales inadvertently inspire black market interest in illicit and illegal fossils. In creating his ode to commercial collectors, Todd Miller missed the big picture.