Wrestling Leopards, Felling Apes: A Life In Taxidermy It might sound like a topic for dusty academic journals, but taxidermy — at least the way Carl Akeley practiced it — was full of exotic safaris, brutal killing and bloody encounters with the very creatures he was trying to preserve. Akeley is the subject of Jay Kirk's new book, Kingdom Under Glass.
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Wrestling Leopards, Felling Apes: A Life In Taxidermy

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Wrestling Leopards, Felling Apes: A Life In Taxidermy

Wrestling Leopards, Felling Apes: A Life In Taxidermy

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Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

If P.T. Barnum's favorite elephant Jumbo hadn't died, Carl Akeley might have ended up skinning hummingbirds for ladies' hats for the rest of his life. It was 1883 and Akeley was a taxidermist. He stuffed and mounted animals for display in museums, or in this case, hats for the ladies on 5th Avenue.

It wasn't the most exciting task. He actually got fired for napping on the job. But his boss at the American Museum of Natural History called him back in for one last gig: the job of, one way or another, bringing Jumbo the elephant back to life.

This story of Akeley's rise from the backrooms of that museum to having an entire wing named in his honor is told by Jay Kirk. He's the author of "Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Greatest Animals."

Jay Kirk, welcome to the show.

Mr. JAY KIRK (Author, "Kingdom Under Glass"): Thanks, Audie. I'm happy to be here.

CORNISH: So give us a sense, what did a taxidermist do back then? What was involved in the job?

Mr. KIRK: Initially, they would take the bones and the skull, and they would attach it to a board and it would be - just the rough dimensions of the animal.

CORNISH: Because you essentially have to take the animal - once a live animal has been killed, you are kind of taking it apart, right, and then putting it back together with, for lack of a better word, stuffing.

Mr. KIRK: Well, when Akeley started out, he was actually pretty frustrated with the level or lack of artistry that was used in taxidermy. Basically in the workshops, the skins of the animals were just kind of crudely stuffed with sawdust or rags, or whatever happened to be around, honestly.


Mr. KIRK: And, you know, they only bore a kind of crude resemblance to the actual animals in real life. And Akeley was frustrated with that and he felt that it could be much more than it was. And so he started systematically studying anatomy textbooks. And then when he had the chance, he was going on these expeditions to Africa where he could actually observe the wildlife in their own natural habitat and kind of, you know, see what the animal really looked like. He wanted to resurrect these animals with a greater felicity of what the animal might look like in real life.

CORNISH: And he got very, very up close and personal with these animals. I mean, there's one story you recount about his - one of his most famous encounters, which I think it was with a leopard?

Mr. KIRK: Yes. Yes. In Somaliland in 1896 on his first expedition with the Field Museum in Chicago. He was hunting one day. I think he was actually hunting ostriches. And he shot wildly off into the grass. He heard a shriek or a yowl, and quickly realized, oh, that's not a warthog. And soon enough, a leopard pounced out of the grass and on to him and they ended up fighting it out to the death.

CORNISH: So he was like - he wrestling - I mean, he was grappling with a leopard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KIRK: Literally. Yes. He - hand-to-hand combat with a leopard.

CORNISH: I mean, he's coming back with like leopard skins and stuffed elephants.

Mr. KIRK: Yes.

CORNISH: And it just seems like such a fantastical thing. And is it something that...

Mr. KIRK: Yes.

CORNISH: ...was sort of heralded at the time?

Mr. KIRK: Yeah, absolutely. They were definitely well-known. I mean, by the teens - you know, his expedition to Africa in 1909 to 1911 just being the expedition where he was hit - run over by an elephant and almost killed.

He actually met up with Theodore Roosevelt over there and they went elephant hunting together. And Akeley had persuaded Roosevelt to come over to Africa in the first place.

CORNISH: Jay Kirk, tell us a little bit about the motivations of people at the time around his work? Because this is sort of in the beginnings of the period where people are talking about conservation and things like that, so how was this work viewed? How did Akeley view his work?

Mr. KIRK: Well, I mean, as barbaric as it was - and there was obviously an excessive killing - the thing is - you know, Akeley and his bosses at the American Museum of Natural History were convinced that most of these species in Africa were on the brink of extinction.

I mean, because of the colonization and the settlement and the habitat loss in Africa, just the enormous amount of killing that was taking place, these scientists, you know, even that these silver institutions, like the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian and the Field Museum, basically felt like there was nothing else they could do other than go to shoot a few more animals to put them in a museum, and that is so paradoxical and strange. But the fact of the matter is they felt like that was the only thing they could do until, you know, better motion picture photography came along.

Akeley himself started to really question this in 1921 when he was in the Congo, collecting mountain gorillas. And it was then that he really had what I think of as his epiphany. And he started to feel like a murderer. And after that, he spent a great amount of time trying to persuade the Belgian government to establish a wildlife sanctuary in the Congo, which succeeded, and which ended up being Africa's first wildlife sanctuary. And without a shadow of a doubt, without this, the mountain gorilla would have gone extinct.

You know, Diane Fossey would not have had anything left to protect if it weren't for Akeley. And she has given Akeley credit for that, you know? You know, Sigourney Weaver would never have been nominated for an Academy award for "Gorillas in the Mist" because there would only be mist.

CORNISH: So Jay, is taxidermy - the way Akeley did it - as common today - I mean, in museums the way it was?

Mr. KIRK: Not so much. I think there's a lot of ambivalence about it in natural history museums. You know, there's really no need to go kill these animals anymore to put them on display for entertainment or edu-tainment.

Of course, a number of these national history museums are incredibly proud, and perhaps as they should be, of the exhibits that they have. And I know that that's the case in New York and Chicago, the - you know, the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum respectively. On the other hand, I know the Smithsonian Museum has gotten rid of a good deal of the old taxidermy that they had.

CORNISH: What are some of the reasons they've backed away from it, you think?

Mr. KIRK: I think they're slightly embarrassed by it. I mean, they feel like it's not PC. It's kind of bridle. And it's hard to justify why do you have dead animals on display in a science museum?

On the other hand, you know, going to see the dioramas can be a deeply affecting moment. I mean, for me, when I go there and I look at the dioramas, I just get a sense of what it must have been like for Akeley to be there. And these dioramas do accomplish what art is supposed to accomplish, and that is enable us to see more clearly and hopefully with compassion.

CORNISH: That's author Jay Kirk talking to us about his new book, "Kingdom Under Glass."

Jay Kirk, thanks so much.

Mr. KIRK: Thank you.

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