To a lot of New York City schoolboys in the 1950s, like myself, the highlight of their school year was the trip to the American Museum of Natural History. Upon entering the Akeley Hall of African Mammals you were instantly transported to the Masai Mara and the majestic Virunga mountains of the Belgian Congo. My undisciplined mind became focused on the 28 dioramas and the eight charging elephants in the center of the darkened hall. I knew someday I had to go to Africa.
Carl Akeley put that hall together and put his life on the line to do it. His maniacal pursuit of the perfect specimen led to a realistic depiction of how the animals looked and lived in the bush. The animals in Akeley Hall seemed more alive to me than the lethargic caged creatures at the Bronx Zoo. How did Akeley do it and what drove him?
Akeley took five expeditions to Africa between 1893 and 1926. He would be run over by elephants, kill a leopard with his bare hands and contract black-water fever, dysentery and eventually Ebola. He believed that shooting the animals and putting them in museums would help save them from extinction. He didn’t give a second thought to risking everything to bring these animals to museum goers in New York and Chicago.
The hunting trips would cost him his first marriage and eventually his life, but he was driven by the cause of conservation and his enormous ego. He was many things – man of science, inventor, sculptor, filmmaker, hunter and taxidermist. He didn’t know his limitations and was so consumed by his work that it overrode the fear that any sane man would have in staring down elephants, crocodiles and silverback gorillas. The fevers that would have kept any lesser man in bed didn’t stop him from stalking mountain gorillas in today’s Virunga National Park. It was Akeley who discovered them, filmed them and convinced the King of Belgium to create the park that has kept the silverback from extinction until today.
Most of us would have tried to climb back into our mother’s womb if they had the childhood wall of depression Akeley had to climb growing up on an upstate New York farm. His mother lost three of his siblings at or near childbirth and bitched throughout his childhood at him and his father. She blamed Carl’s dad for everything that had gone wrong and young Carl was determined to be successful in his life to escape the wrath of a frustrated woman. It was the death of his siblings that eventually led to his success. Collecting dead animals he found around the family farm he escaped to his room to preserve them. He couldn’t bring his dead brothers back to life, but with a little arsenic and other toxic preservatives found he could re-energize dead skunks, birds and squirrels by giving them a form of afterlife.
His mother and aunt thought he should be put into a mental institution for this morbid hobby which kept him in his room nearly all the time. Taxidermy was a step below undertaker in the late 1800s until things changed in America. The frontier era was ending and wild animals were quickly being hunted out. If you wanted to see big game you either had to go to a museum or the zoo. People flocked to both and taxidermists became museum stars.
At 18 Akeley landed a taxidermy job at Rochester’s Natural Science Establishment that fed growing museums with specimens. Henry Ward ran the place and mentored Akeley who spent his nights experimenting with new taxidermy methods working on zebra carcasses. Until Akeley came along, taxidermy was pretty much stuffing sawdust into a deflated pelt, but Akeley wanted to take a more scientific and artistic approach.
His big chance to show the world what he could do came in 1891 when Jumbo the elephant was killed in a train crash in Canada. Jumbo was perhaps the most beloved and exploited creature on the planet as P.T. Barnum toured the seven ton animal throughout the U.S. When Barnum called Ward to recreate Jumbo, Ward sent 21 year old Akeley off to Canada to deal with the carcass. Akeley was confronted with the horrible stench, but quickly went to work reassembling 2,400 pounds of bone, 1,500 pounds of skin, and a 46 pound heart.
He built a huge pedestal of oak beams with massive internal trusses and Jumbo became the largest animal in history to be mounted. Half the city of Rochester turned out to see the finished Jumbo whose personality had been recaptured by Akeley. Barnum toured the mount and may have made more money on a dead Jumbo than a live one thanks to Akeley.
A Leopard in Somalia
The wholesale slaughter of African wildlife at the turn of the 20th century drove Akeley to join the hunting party. It wasn’t indigenous poachers but white guys with lots of money doing the killing. If you had lots of money and ego, bagging lions, rhinos and elephants was your status symbol and everybody from Teddy Roosevelt to Prince William of Sweden (he alone killed 14 silverback gorillas) went to Africa and banged away indiscriminately. Akeley sensed that all the game would be gone in his lifetime and wanted to memorialize it on film and with his mounted museum exhibits.
On his first African expedition in 1896, Akeley’s encounter with a leopard became legendary badass stuff. He traveled for Chicago’s Field Museum on an underfunded and badly planned expedition organized by his aging boss Professor Daniel Elliott. After nearly dying of thirst in the desert, Akeley was hunting in high grass when he thought he was firing at a warthog. Firing blindly, he unloaded his gun and heard a yowl from the grass. It was not warthog and before Akeley had a chance to reload a flash of black spots flew out of the grass knocking the rifle out of his hands. The wounded leopard went for his jugular and Akeley’s left arm intercepted the leopard’s jaw whose canines were now penetrating his arm.
Somehow Akeley had the presence to keep the cat’s paws spread and not clawing his face. Pinning the cat to the ground with his knees, Akeley’s only hope was to strangle the enraged cat. He took his free hand and squeezed the leopard’s throat. When the leopard’s bite lessened he extended his shredded arm down the cat’s throat. The pain must have been intolerable, but Akeley’s pain threshold was not human. He won, the leopard lost. He slung the dead cat over his shoulder walked back to camp in the dark and started working on skinning the beast. His companions were in awe.
“At the sight of his arm, his companions looked as if they might be sick. But Akeley was wide awake. He had quite possibly made the most intimate set of observations of a subject he would ever record,” writes Jay Kirk in his epic Akeley bio, “Kingdom Under Glass.”
Akeley came closer to death 13 years later on the slopes of Mount Kenya when the large elephant he was tracking surprised him. Its trunk nearly took off his head, breaking his nose. Dodging the pair of six foot ivory tusks Akeley sandwiched himself between the tusks only to get body slammed to the mud. His lungs were punctured, six ribs were shattered and his porters left him for dead in a persistent rain. He lay in the mud for five hours and spent three months in a Nairobi hospital recovering but was undeterred. His motto was, “to be good in this life never stop proving yourself, ever.”
Silverbacks in the Mist
It wasn’t leopards or bull elephants that led to Akeley’s demise, but the implosion of his marriage. He had met Mickie when she was a teenager and she was at his side before his career took off and instrumental in pushing him to become the world’s most recognized taxidermist. Mickie was an accomplished hunter too, but their marriage was stressed by Carl’s megalomaniacal pursuit of perfection. In the early 1920s their marriage imploded and Mickie threatened to divulge the details to the gossip columnists. She accused Akeley of trying to kill her. It got even more bizarre when they brought a vervet monkey back from Africa to their New York apartment. Mickie saw the monkey as the child they never had. It led to divorce and ultimately Akeley taking one too many risks in Rwanda filming and hunting silverback gorillas.
Akeley died in 1926 at 62 probably of Ebola. Ten years later his hall at the Museum of Natural History opened and to this day it inspires New York school children and adults. They marvel at its raw realism, but few realize the torturous, unflagging effort it took to kill those animals and then bring them back to life.