Wrestling Leopards, Felling Apes: A Life In Taxidermy

Famed Taxidermist Carl Akeley and the leopard he killed with his bare hands.

Famed Taxidermist Carl Akeley and the leopard he killed with his bare hands.

Field Museum of Natural History hide caption

itoggle caption Field Museum of Natural History

"Taxidermy" might sound like a topic for dusty academic journals and strange little back-street shops.

But the way Carl Akeley practiced it at the turn of the 20th century, taxidermy was a thrill ride of a job, full of exotic safaris, brutal killing and bloody encounters with the very creatures he was trying to preserve.

Author Jay Kirk recounts Akeley's life in his new book, Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Greatest Animals.

And Kirk tells NPR's Audie Cornish that Akeley was far from the international adventurer/artist he would become — until he met P.T. Barnum.

Immortality For Jumbo The Elephant

In the mid-1880s, Akeley was in a bit of a dead-end job: stuffing and mounting animals for display in museums, and for the hats of ladies on 5th avenue.

It wasn't the most exciting task. In fact, he got fired for napping on the job. But his boss at the American Museum of Natural History in New York called him back in for one last gig: to preserve Barnum's recently deceased elephant, Jumbo.

Kingdom Under Glass
Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession,
Adventure, and One Man's Quest
to Preserve the World's Great Animals

By Jay Kirk
Hardcover, 400 pages
Henry Holt & Co.
List price: $27.50

That propelled the young taxidermist to fame. And today, Akeley has an entire wing named in his honor at the museum.

Kirk says Akeley had the heart of an artist, and was frustrated with the state of the art at the time.

"The skins of the animals were just kind of crudely stuffed with sawdust or rags, or whatever happened to be around," the author says.

So Akeley began to study anatomy textbooks, and even went on expeditions to Africa to observe exotic animals in their natural habitats.

"He wanted to resurrect these animals with a greater felicity of what the animal might look like in real life," Kirk says.

Hand-To-Hand Combat

It was a brutal, bloody job. And Akeley got very close to some of those animals. One of his most famous encounters took place in Somaliland in 1896.

It was his first expedition for the Field Museum in Chicago. As Kirk tells the story, Akeley and a group decided to go hunting for ostriches near dusk.

"He shot wildly off into the grass, he heard a shriek or a yowl, and quickly realized, 'Oh, that's not a wart hog.'

"Soon enough, a leopard pounced out of the grass and on to him and they ended up fighting it out to the death...literally, hand to hand combat with a leopard," Kirk says.

A Taxidermist's Dilemma

Akeley was hunting, skinning, and mounting exotic animals just as the conservation movement was gaining ground. The paradox is obvious today, but in the early 1900s, the scientists Akeley worked with were desperate. They knew many of these animals were on the brink of extinction because of colonization, settlement and habitat loss in Africa. But Kirk says they felt they had no choice "other than go to shoot a few more animals to put in a museum."

During an expedition in 1921, Akeley started to question his actions. While collecting mountain gorillas in the Congo, he had an epiphany. Kirk says, "He started to feel like a murderer."

Jay Kirk

Jay Kirk teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Pennsylvania. His nonfiction has been published in Harpers's, GQ, The New York Times Magazine and The Nation. Rene Micheli hide caption

itoggle caption Rene Micheli

After over a decade of hunting and killing wildlife, Akeley switched gears and began spending his time trying to persuade the Belgian government to establish a wildlife sanctuary in the Congo. His efforts eventually paid off. Africa's first wildlife sanctuary was established there in 1925 — and a year later, Akeley died of fever in the Congo, just miles from where he encountered his first gorilla.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, without [Akeley] the mountain gorilla would have gone extinct," Kirk says.

The Death Of Taxidermy?

Today, stuffing animals — even if they aren't packed full of sawdust and other scraps anymore — is seen as brutal, even barbaric.

"I think there is a lot of ambivalence about it in natural history museums. I mean there is really no need to go kill these animals anymore to put them on display for entertainment or edu-tainment," Kirk says, because of the high-tech video tools available.

Nonetheless, a number of natural history museums are proud of the exotic animal dioramas they have and don't plan on getting rid of them any time soon.

If you want to get up close with some of the mountain gorillas Akeley killed, skinned, and stuffed, you can check them out at New York's Museum of Natural History — and if an exhibit of "fighting elephants" is more your thing, head to the Field Museum in Chicago.

Excerpt: 'Kingdom Under Glass'

Kingdom Under Glass
Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals
By Jay Kirk
Hardcover, 400 pages
Henry Holt and Co.
List Price: $27.50

Prologue

BELGIAN CONGO. NOVEMBER 5, 1921

He felt heartsick when he saw the gorilla start its death tumble. It was coming right for him. Three or four hundred pounds of silver-backed ape slumping down the bright green jumble of vegetation in joyless somersaults. Rolling like a rain barrel, long arms flopping, ass over applecart, a furry black hogshead headed straight for the chasm below. Nothing was going to stop it now from hurtling into the void. Even if it ran him over first. Even if it took him with it. A skinny sapling was the only thing between him — between Carl Akeley, the world's greatest taxidermist — and the three-hundred-foot plummet. He leaned into it, rifle still pressed to his shoulder. The recoil alone would have knocked him off the mountain without the little tree wedged into his spine.

Technically, it wasn't a straight three-hundred-foot drop. Directly behind Akeley, crumbling just under the heel of his Silver & Edgington hobnail boot, was a sheer twenty-foot drop, and below that a sharp fifty-foot slide — and then the big straight two-hundred-foot plummet. Chances were if the gorilla kept its momentum and made it over the first drop, it was going all the way, leaving Akeley with nothing to show for the thousands of miles he'd traveled to collect it for his greatest work-in-progress.

That is, if the gorilla didn't collect him first.

His Watusi guides and gun bearer were still clinging to the steep bank, where they had frozen at varying angles after spotting the black shaggy head thirty feet or so above them. They'd first seen it from across the canyon, a black speck minding its own business, and they had spent the better part of the morning getting from the one ridge, down the canyon, and back up the other side to the crest of this one just to see if it was indeed what they'd hoped. For hours, nothing but the sound of machete. The climb alternated between strictly vertical and almost vertical, and he had to repeatedly beg the guides to stop so he could catch his breath. It was grilling work, and quite honestly he wondered if he would survive it at all. To look at him was to wonder the same thing. Here was a white man clearly done in. He was gaunt and rattle-eyed. Feverish shadows cast by the brim of his pith helmet burrowed into the crags of a face that looked as if it were literally aging by the hour. He had felt the onset of the fever before he'd even penetrated gorilla country. Despite the cool moist climate he was a man on fire. By the time they'd got to the other side of the canyon, hauling themselves up by the mutinous nettles and thistle stalk — and then out along the crest of this narrow ridge, the terrible drop just beneath — he had had almost no strength left at all. Barely enough to stop for a smoke.

Leaning against the solitary sapling, he had got an upward bead on the gorilla rustling about in the vivid welter of greenery. His gun bearer clung to the slope with his right hand, like a whaler hanging off the mizzen shrouds, holding out the second rifle if Carl needed backup. The guide who'd spotted the ape had then lain down on the ground before him, naked but for his goatskin, and waited patiently for bwana to take the shot. The explosion was only a residue now. All dead quiet except the crumpling whoosh of vegetation as it parted in the wake of the gorilla's fall.

Carl Akeley nearly sank with relief when the gorilla passed cleanly between him and the terrified guide. But then dread immediately filled in the relief when the gorilla catapulted over the first ledge.

Before his mood had given way to dread that he would lose this most rare and dear prize, the taxidermist had been filled with an almost childlike sense of awe and glee. That he was actually seeing a gorilla in the first place! That this most unknown and mythical creature was actually just up there, looking down at him, with an expression of passive curiosity. Its face was ugly and mild. It looked as if it were rethinking through some small but persistent self-doubt. Part of Akeley's sense of disbelief, certainly, was caused by the great heat boiling his flesh, the fever that cauterized everything passing before his eyes. He should have started taking the quinine earlier. Now, along with an evil headache, everything was distorted with an aura of unreality. It was an eerie beauty of volcanoes and misty ravines, of crooked trees dripping with moss and silvery lichen. He half expected to see fairies springing out of the lacy chest-high ferns.

Really, like a boy, he had had to pinch himself when he had seen the first knuckle print in the mud. He'd held his hand over the four impressions, curling the back of his trembling fingers above the larger mold. Then, after scrambling farther along on all fours in the ruck and jumble of vine and bamboo, they'd come to several footprints in a slick of mud. They were enormous. All but human. It was then he felt his faith slipping, and he switched from the Springfield to the double-barreled elephant gun.

Theoretically, he told himself, he did not fear the gorillas. He had even composed a sort of creed against this fear: how he had spent too much time around wild animals to believe in monsters. He knew they weren't looking for trouble. But now he felt almost excited to a painful degree. That was how the first white man to encounter a gorilla, Paul du Chaillu, had put it right before he'd blown the "hellish" creature straight to kingdom come. Akeley had gorged himself on these early sensational narratives before coming here. Du Chaillu believed the gorillas were so powerful they had driven out the lions and elephants from this region where they lived. Excited to a painful degree, though, was exactly how Akeley felt, even if he had tried to convince himself ahead of time that the brutes could not possibly be half as ferocious as their popular image: that of a demonic beast capable of snapping a rifle in its teeth, or ripping the head off a man with one hand, and with a penchant for abducting human females for purposes of unchaste cavorting. But when he saw the print in the mud, he'd been all too eager to hold the rifle. Then when he had finally come upon this one sunning itself on the upper slope of the canyon, it seemed a benign and gentle beast. Crouched on a mezzanine of dense vegetation, doing nothing more than regarding the day. Akeley had waited for it to charge, or to beat on its chest, as he had read in accounts, but it did nothing of the sort. It merely barked at him, like a seal. And on the fourth bark Akeley had pulled the trigger.

The truth would still bring people to the museum in droves. If only it didn't vanish into the chasm first.

Excerpted from Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals by Jay Kirk Copyright 2010 by Jay Kirk. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.