Back in the mid-1990s, I was a teenager planning my future at university to study zoology. I didn’t know then that I would end up working on dinosaurs for my day job, let alone that this would include the tyrannosaurs – some of the most famous and iconic animals ever to have walked the Earth. Even so, it was hard to miss the major story that was playing out in the U.S. which made headlines around the world – a specimen of Tyrannosaurus rex nicknamed ‘Sue’, the largest and most complete ever found, had been impounded by the FBI, with several different groups claiming ownership and charges being levelled at the original discoverers.
DINOSAUR 13 is a new documentary that gives an account of the discovery of Sue and the complex legal battle that ensued over her ownership. Sue was first found in 1990 in the Badlands of South Dakota by a member of the field crew of the Black Hills Institute, a group of fossil collectors and dealers based in the same state. The ultimate outcome is already well known – the Field Museum of Chicago ended up paying over eight million dollars for Sue – but the story from discovery to eventual public display is at the centre of the film.
Sue was excavated and taken to the Institute for preparation with the intent to display it in their planned museum. Then, two years into the work to separate the bone from the encasing rock, things got ugly. Black Hills said they had paid the owner of the land from which the specimen had been taken for the fossil but he claimed otherwise and demanded the return of the rex. To complicate matters, although he owned the land, as a Native American, he had placed it in trust with the U.S. government who had to authorise any business transactions. The feds step in taking crates of dinosaur bones and documents and impounding them, despite years of work by the Institute. Accusations of illegal fossil collecting, dodgy deals, and heavy-handed government intervention then fly. This somewhat inevitably leads to a courtroom drama to determine the fate of the bones, and those at the Institute are charged with various crimes.
This a story that has nearly everything – dinosaurs, science, courtrooms, intrigue, and even a love story (both between humans, and the obvious affection of much of the cast for the dinosaur). I’ve heard various fables behind Sue and her journey from South Dakota to Chicago. Watch DINOSAUR 13 and discover the story of the world’s most famous dinosaur for yourself.