If you’ve ever been to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, you’re familiar with the work of Delia Akeley. She was responsible for shooting one of the elephants in the African Hall exhibit, one of the largest bull elephants ever hunted for a museum habitat display.
Hunters were some of the first proponents for habitat and wildlife conservation in the American conservation movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Theirs was typically a two-pronged approach of land preservation and wildlife population management. To be clear, there was (and still is) a definitive line between “sport” hunting and subsistence hunting. Delia Akeley was neither a sport hunter nor a subsistence hunter. While she was a good shot, she was a bit of an accidental hunter for conservation. She stepped into that world as the wife of a museum curator, who designed African habitat exhibits. She embodied that world when the need arose. And she left that world as she developed her own interests in conservation and anthropology.
Though it’s hard to stomach in today’s world of rampant poaching and endangered populations, museums in the early 1900s were gathering and cataloging entire habitats in the name of promoting conservation. In order to encourage someone to care about a species or a landscape, that person needed to have a connection with it – visual, physical, or emotional. In order for most people to see the natural world (pre-internet, television, radio, etc.), the natural world had to be brought to the people.
Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, summed up being a naturalist in the early 20th century as succinctly anyone. In one cartoon, his protagonist pontificates on the glory and the beauty of the rare butterfly, just as he reaches for his jar of ether. In another, a wizened grandfather cuts down an ancient tree so he can show his wide-eyed grandson the life story told in the tree’s rings. If you love something, kill it and show it to other people who may learn to love it too.
A debate today about the ethics of the museum/hunting conservation practices of the 1900s is moot. We now have the virtue of hindsight, a worldwide internet, and an understanding of the population pressures of a globe with over 7 billion people. Today, it’s legitimate to feel outrage at witnessing an elephant hunt. Perhaps it was legitimate in 1905, as well. But what we cannot measure objectively is the effectiveness of the original goal. Did the museum exhibits encourage people to feel? Did they spur a sense of urgency for protection? As distasteful as they seem today, there were steps in the process of discovery and curiosity that paved the way for early efforts at conservation.
As for Delia Akeley (1875-1970), her life arc took her from Wisconsin to the African savannas and from a role as a supportive wife to an active naturalist and to an expedition leader.
Akeley was born in Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, in 1875. She was the last of nine children in a poor family, and her form of teenage rebellion was to run off at 14 years old and marry an older man. That marriage lasted a solid 13 years, though not much is written about those formative years. She divorced her first husband in 1902, at the age of 27, and was remarried by December of that year to the man who would introduce her to Africa.
Her second husband, Carl Akeley, is considered by many to be the “father of modern taxidermy.” He was an artist and a foremost expert in creating full-habitat museum dioramas. With a pitch for an African wing (now known as the “Akeley African Hall of Mammals”) accepted by the American Museum of Natural History, the Akeleys headed to Africa in 1905 to hunt and collect the specimen that would be used in the new exhibit.
A primary goal of the first expedition (1905-1907) was focused on hunting elephant for the exhibit. When Carl was attacked by a bull elephant on the hunt, Delia proved her mettle in saving his life. Everyone ran off during the attack and left Carl for dead. Delia persuaded porters to return with her to the scene, undertake a dangerous mountain crossing, and deliver Carl to a hospital to recover. Delia found her independence, plus a passion for Africa, that would last her the rest of her life.
Carl and Delia shared another African expedition from 1909-1911. On this trip they temporarily joined Theodore Roosevelt’s famed expedition, in which Roosevelt’s team was collecting specimen for the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. To put the scope of Roosevelt’s expedition in perspective, it took the Smithsonian naturalists eight years to catalog the 11,400 animal specimen that were brought to the museum.
Once back in New York, Carl remained focused on his work with the American Natural History Museum and Delia developed an autonomous relationship with the Brooklyn Museum. She also became increasingly dedicated to studying a pet monkey the couple had brought back from Africa. Years later, she would write a book – inspired by her monkey – about the psychology of primates. It was celebrated for its non-anthropomorphic approach to analyzing the animals’ emotions and instincts.
Delia and Carl’s marriage ended in 1923, but Delia’s commitment to the natural world of Africa continued. On behalf of the Brooklyn Museum, Delia led her own expedition to traverse Africa from east to west (1924-1925). During this trip, she encountered several forest pygmy tribes and her naturalist tendencies took a decidedly anthropological turn. Akeley was one of the first Westerners to interact with the pygmies, whose existence had only been confirmed a few decades prior.
She returned in 1929 to live among the pygmies in the Ituri Forest, in Zaire. Her writings on the pygmy tribes and her anthropological observations East Africa were certainly told through her conflicted personal lens – one that was vociferously supportive of indigenous rights, while arguably racist at the same time. She was known to berate and slap her black porters, but condemn Europe’s colonization of Africa. She criticized white colonial behaviors on the continent, but allowed the press to celebrate her “solo” expeditions. She never traveled alone, but her trips were considered “solo” because the rest of her team was black. She was able to observe the pygmy tribes with a practiced anthropological detachment, yet she lacked the self-awareness to put her own behaviors and biases under a spotlight.
Through her travels, Akeley was one of the first Westerners to explore the desert landscapes of eastern Africa. She led a somewhat impromptu expedition up the Tana River, which is Kenya’s longest river and one of the country’s most important water sources.
Delia Akeley became a naturalist at a time when naturalists were killing the very subjects they hoped to study and protect. By all accounts, she didn’t shy away from the graphic nature of the job. But neither did she allow the existing mores of the pursuit blind her to other ways of making a difference. She used her friendliness and her curiosity to gain access to places where Westerners had not been previously welcome. Akeley published books and articles about her travels. Historically they may not hold up, but at the time, they were crucial to encouraging a sense of adventure and conservation-minded duty. Her adventures resonated particularly strongly with women, considering that Akeley credited her gender with allowing her to move more freely through communities than a man would have been allowed.
She presented public lectures on her African experiences for the rest of her life. What started as a wifely duty became a personal passion to explore, to learn, and to share an exquisite, wild world with those who may never have the chance to see it for themselves.