This article was originally published June 4, 2017.

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Like a kidney donation from a car accident victim or the brain of a football player given for concussion research, death sometimes has a silver lining.

The same is true at the zoo.

When animals die at the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium, some begin a legacy after life. Animal remains can help paleontologists confirm the bones of a newly discovered species and they can help scientists battle diseases in wild populations.

Zoo veterinarians and zookeepers can learn how to provide better care to a breed’s surviving zoo family. And educators can use skeletons and hides to inspire a love and understanding of animals.

“It’s one thing for people to see a tiger and talk about tigers, but if they can touch a pelt, that’s going to add to their emotional response and hopefully their connection to that species,” said Dr. Doug Armstrong, the zoo’s director of animal health.

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When an animal dies, zoos have several options.

Burial: Usually, this happens only when there’s no scientific or educational demand for the animal or when, logistically, it’s too big to move. Those animals are buried on zoo grounds.

Feeding: Zoos are legally allowed to use their animals as food. However, Omaha’s zoo has a policy to not do so.

Educational use at the zoo: Docents carry around tiger pelts and other animal skins to give zoo visitors a hands-on experience learning about the animals.

Scientific study: In many cases, high-demand deceased animals are shipped to labs investigating diseases in particular species.

Donation: Often institutions will ask for particular specimens to display at museums or for other uses, like teaching students anatomy.

Nearly every animal that dies at the zoo is given an animal autopsy — a necropsy. It can show cause of death, what health conditions it had, how the zoo’s treatments were working and a slew of other details that can translate to real change.

Take elephants, for example.

For years elephant exhibits had concrete floors, which were easier to disinfect. Over the years, zoo necropsies revealed that the concrete surfaces were contributing to degenerative joint problems in heavy animals.

“We took that information and applied it in designing our facilities to improve welfare for the animals,” Armstrong said.

Today, instead of concrete, elephants and rhinos walk on pits of sand several feet deep. Likewise, giraffes tread on thick piles of mulch.

Armstrong said necropsies have helped lead to all kinds of discoveries, such as West Nile virus in wild birds, canine distemper in wild tigers and fibrosing cardiomyopathy in gorillas.

Because of this, necropsies are performed on 99 percent of the Omaha zoo’s dead animals. Right now the zoo’s veterinary staff performs necropsies, but the zoo plans to hire a pathologist to focus primarily on collecting new information from dead animals.

When the zoo fills that position it will be one of only a handful of American zoos to have that kind of specialist, Armstrong said. The pathologist will monitor living animals receiving medical care and conduct thorough necropsies after death to better understand what diseases ail the zoo’s population and what Omaha and zoos around the world can do to help.

“If there’s crisis somewhere, we would make them available to provide their expertise to go solve that problem,” Armstrong said.

Hiring a pathologist allows the zoo to do more on-site research, but that scientist will be far from the only one benefiting from the zoo’s animal collection.

Omaha’s zoo has a long-standing relationship with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln to donate in-demand animals for research or display.

Trish Freeman, professor and curator emeritus with UNL’s School of Natural Resources and the University of Nebraska State Museum, said the animals have been extraordinarily helpful in the university’s research.

“It’s essentially like adding rare books to a library,” she said.

One recent addition to the collection: a rare Japanese giant salamander that died at the zoo in January.

Paleontologists have discovered bones from 13 and 18 million years ago in Nebraska that they believe belonged to a North American giant salamander. By comparing the skeleton of the zoo’s Japanese salamander with the recently discovered bone fragments, scientists can better determine if the two are related.

“It most likely is not the same species,” Freeman said, “but in fossils, the genus is the next best thing.”

Freeman said the museum has hundreds of specimens from zoos in Omaha and Lincoln. They’ve helped lead to discoveries in all sorts of vertebrates, including tapirs and fossas.

As wild populations continue to shrink, specimens of endangered species that zoos share with the scientific community become increasingly vital.

“It won’t be long before all the big cats or elephants in the wild are gone,” Freeman said. “You can still get DNA from this material.

“I just hate to see some of this stuff thrown out.”