Carl Akeley was an artist, photographer, inventor, conservationist, and the pre-eminent taxidermist of his day. But after he killed a leopard by thrusting his right hand into the animal’s mouth and choking it to death with his left, he was forever to be remembered chiefly for that 1896 encounter.
In less lurid chronicles, Akeley is celebrated as the father of modern taxidermy, the man who first applied scientific rigor and a sculptor’s technique to the craft of stuffing animals for exposition. Akeley was among the first to place his specimens in realistic dioramas for the leading American museums of the day. He called these exhibitions “groups” and he populated them with scores of animals he killed personally, with great efficiency and occasional bouts of self-doubt.
“While I have found but little enjoyment in shooting any kind of animal, I confess that in hunting elephants and lions under certain conditions I have always felt that the animal had sufficient chance in the game to make it something like a sporting proposition.
“On the other hand, much of the shooting that I have had to do in order to obtain specimens for museum collections has had none of this aspect at all and has made me feel a great deal like a murderer,” he wrote in his 1923 autobiography In Brightest Africa
The book’s title is a rebuke to the prevailing view of Africa at the time. “Men have spoken of darkest Africa, but the dark chapters of African history are only now being written by the inroads of civilization,” he wrote after a 1905 train journey across half of the continent, from Cape Town to what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He spotted no game to speak of until reaching the Lualaba River in central Congo, where in five days he saw only a few antelope, half a dozen elephants and a handful of hippos.
The continent was being hunted out, its great species seemingly destined for extinction. This at a time when photography was a clumsy science and today’s high-resolution video was unimaginable, even to a visionary such as Akeley. In his view, the only way to preserve the memory of Africa’s noble beasts was to shoot and stuff as many as he could before they were gone, contradictory as that might sound.
Carl Akeley was born in 1864 on a farm in western New York. As a boy, he was obsessed with nature and developed a keen interest in taxidermy. At 16 he borrowed a book on the subject and stuffed enough birds to feel justified in having business cards printed stating that he practiced “artistic taxidermy in all its branches.”
When he was 19, after the crops were in, he took a train to Rochester and presented himself to the leading taxidermist of the day, Henry Ward of Ward’s Natural Science Establishment. The entrance to the place was made from the jaws of a sperm whale, and when Akeley arrived professor Ward looked up from his breakfast and barked, “What do you want?”
Akeley presented the card and Ward hired him on the spot—11 hours a day for $3.50 a week. “I discovered a boarding house where I could get a room and my meals for $4 a week,” Akeley later wrote, “and on this basis I began to learn the art of taxidermy and run through my slender resources.”
The young man was soon disillusioned by Ward’s crude methods. To stuff a deer, for example, Ward would wire its bones, hang it upside down and fill the body with straw until it would hold no more. Ward took little interest in Akeley’s higher ambitions. When Akeley asked to make a more realistic plaster mount for a zebra, Ward insisted he work on the project only at night. He did, but Ward stuffed the zebra in the old style anyway, then fired Akeley for sleeping on the job. Six months later Ward begged Akeley to come back, and he did. The taxidermist he’d been working with in New York was even more backward than the professor.
Akeley’s last job at Ward’s was to stuff the world-famous circus elephant, Jumbo, who had been struck and killed by a locomotive in 1885. Akeley and William Critchley built a reinforced frame so that Jumbo’s mounted remains could continue to travel by rail with P.T. Barnum’s circus. The project gained Akeley a certain amount of recognition in the field, and in 1886 he secured a position with the Milwaukee Public Museum. He worked there for six years refining his revolutionary approach to taxidermy.
He sculpted realistic clay models of the creatures he mounted, informed by his study of anatomy and observations in the field. He recreated the animals’ layers of muscle, bones and sinew, even their veins. And because animal skins could not be mounted on clay, he developed a process to use the sculpted model as a mold for lightweight manikins of papier-mâché, wire cloth, and shellac. He posed these figures as he’d seen the living animals in the field, taking care to make the arrangement pleasing to the eye. He was, after all, an artist. He complemented his dioramas with painted backgrounds and faux foliage.
As Akeley’s skill grew his career prospered. The Smithsonian hired him to mount three mustang ponies for the World Columbian Exposition in 1893, and in 1896, he joined the staff of the Field Museum in Chicago. Later that year he traveled to Africa for the first time to collect specimens for the museum’s collection. This was the start of Akeley’s career as a prolific and reluctant big-game hunter.
Between 1896 and 1926, Akeley made five expeditions to what are now Somalia, Kenya, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, staying for as long as two years at a time. His first wife Delia Akeley, herself a formidable hunter, conservationist and anthropologist, accompanied him on two of those expeditions.
During his 1909 expedition, Akeley attempted to film a traditional African lion hunt. “Full in front of me the native hunters had drawn a lion’s charge and killed the lion with their spears,” he wrote, but the motion picture cameras of the day were too slow and he missed the shot. Vowing never to miss such an opportunity again, he designed a faster, lighter cinema camera. Akeley patented his revolutionary camera in 1916, and it quickly made possible a new type of filmmaking. The ‘Akeley shot’ became a Hollywood standard, mounted to chariots for the climactic scene of the 1926 film Ben Hur and to biplanes for the silent classic Wings the following year. Akeley later used it to film mountain gorillas for the first time, in 1921.
The leopard encounter came during Akeley’s first African expedition, in 1896 to what is now Somalia. It was late in the day and Akeley’s search for ostriches had gone poorly. Scavengers had dragged off the “fine warthog” he’d shot earlier that day, and the frustration got the better of him when he saw movement in the bush, wheeled and fired—without a clear view of what he was shooting at.
“The snarl of a leopard told me what kind of customer I was taking chances with. A leopard is a cat that has all the qualities that give gave rise to the ‘nine lives’ legend. To kill him you have got to kill him clear to the tip of his tail. Added to that a leopard, unlike a lion, is vindictive,” he wrote.
Akeley circled around the bush to get a better view and the cat came for him. He shot three times, and though the light was now too dim to see the sights of his rifle, he made out puffs of sand indicating at least two of the bullets had missed their mark. The third had struck only a glancing blow, further enraging the cat. Akeley hastily slipped his last round into the chamber and turned to meet the leopard as it leaped. He was too late.
“The rifle was knocked flying and in its place was 80 pounds of frantic cat,” he wrote. “Her intention was to sink her teeth into my throat and with this grip and her four paws hang to me while with her hind claws she dug out my stomach, for this pleasant practice is the way of leopards.”
The cat had missed its mark, however, closing its jaws not on Akeley’s throat, but on his right arm near the shoulder. The animal’s hind legs windmilled, but instead of clawing out Akeley’s entrails they could reach only air. Akeley now grabbed the leopard’s neck with his left hand, and each time the leopard reset its grip on his right arm, he pushed it farther away. “In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch. I was conscious of no pain, only the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking snarling grunts of the beast.”
After some minutes of this struggle Akeley’s right fist was in the leopard’s mouth and his left hand still on its throat, giving him room to hold the cat away from his body and drop to the ground, driving his knees into the animal’s chest. Akeley pinned the leopard to the ground and drove his fist into its mouth so hard that it couldn’t close its jaws.
“And then for the first time I began to think and hope I had a chance to win this curious fight. I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly and then it became a question as to which would give up first.” Akeley outlasted the leopard and staggered back to camp, where he posed for a photograph and saw that the specimen was properly measured and its skin preserved to be mounted later. It remains in the collection of the Field Museum.
The fight with the leopard is only one of the many exploits Akeley describes in Brightest Africa. (The book is in the public domain and can be read in full here.) On the Serengeti Plain he was charged by three rhinos at once, and in Uganda he reportedly crossed a river full of crocodiles on the back of a croc he’d just shot.
He was a keen observer of animals, particularly those species of which he was most fond, gorillas and elephants. Dioramas he made of both species for the American Museum of Natural History (ANMH) position the animals in family groups, and Akeley was keenly aware of their devotion to one another. He writes of the time he shot a large bull elephant as it stood among its herd. “My old bull was down on the ground on his side. Around him were ten or twelve other elephants trying desperately with their trunks and tusks to get him to his feet again…I don’t know of any other big animals that will do this,” wrote Akeley.
And yet he shot them by the dozen. He killed only animals he thought would make good mounts, but if on later inspection an elephant wasn’t fit for a museum he left it to rot. After shooting the largest elephant he’d ever measured—a bull 11 feet, four inches at the shoulder—Akeley was disappointed to find that only one of its tusks was fully developed. “I did not even skin him but contented myself with taking his tusks, which I sold for nearly $500 without even going down to Nairobi,” he wrote.
Another big bull nearly returned the favor on the slopes of Mt. Kenya in 1909. The animal was almost upon Akeley when he sensed it and turned to see a massive tusk stabbing at his chest. Instinctively, Akeley grabbed one tusk in each hand and went to the ground between its legs. “He drove his tusks into the ground on either side of me, his curled-up trunk against my chest. I had a realization that I was being crushed, and as I looked into one wicked little eye above me I knew I could expect no mercy from it. This thought was perfectly clear and definite in my mind. I heard a wheezy grunt as he plunged down and then—oblivion.”
A blow from the elephant’s trunk broke his nose and cut open his cheek to the teeth. But when the animal bore down for the coup de grâce, its tusk struck something hard, perhaps a stone or a root, that prevented Akeley’s body from taking the elephant’s full weight. His ribs cracked like so many twigs and he was knocked cold, but he wasn’t dead.
The other members of the hunting party scattered, and rather than grinding Akeley further into the dirt as elephants are wont to do, the big bull gave chase. When the porters and gun-bearers regrouped some time later, they all agreed the white man was dead. They sent word to Delia, who was camped some 20 miles down valley, and settled in to wait.
Akeley came to hours later, and the surprised porters carried him to a tent where he gradually collected his thoughts. “My coldness and numbness brought to my mind a bottle of cocktails, and I ordered one of the boys to bring it to me,” he wrote. Next he asked after “Mrs. Akeley” and was told she was on her way to him. In fact, Delia had got word of the goring at midnight and rousted a reluctant team of porters to march through the night. Akeley ordered his men to fire his rifle every fifteen minutes, and Delia’s party followed the sound to his camp, arriving a couple of hours after dawn the day after the attack.
“I don’t suppose I would have pulled through even with Mrs. Akeley’s care if it hadn’t been for a Scottish medical missionary who nearly ran himself to death coming to my rescue,” he wrote. “He had been in the country only a little while and perhaps this explains his coming so fast when news reached him of a man who had been mauled by an elephant,” wrote Akely, who had broken more than half his ribs and punctured a lung.
The district’s chief medical officer came too, but didn’t rush. “Usually when an elephant gets a man there’s nothing a doctor can do for him,” Akeley wrote drily. The same logic explains the porters’ reluctance to lose a night’s sleep on Akeley’s behalf.
Akeley was bedridden for three months, and was hunting again almost as soon as he could walk. But it was Delia who shot the largest of the eight elephants that form the centerpiece of the NMNH’s Akeley Hall of African Mammals. Still considered one of the world’s great museum exhibits in the world, the wing includes 28 dioramas depicting life on the Serengeti Plain, the Upper Nile, and the Virunga mountains of eastern Congo.
The wing opened in 1936, ten years after Akeley’s death. He committed the last 17 years of his life to it and thought of it as his legacy. From the distance of a century, though, his lasting contribution was his advocacy for the gorillas of Virunga which were the focus of his last two expeditions.
He came first in 1921, seeking specimens for his groups. It was a difficult business, even for a man who made his career killing and stuffing the continet’s most majestic creatures. “As soon as you have anything to do with the gorilla the fascination of studying him begins to grow and you instinctively begin to speak of the gorilla as “he” in a human sense, for he is obviously as well as scientifically akin to man,” he wrote.
Akeley was particularly taken by an old silverback he filmed and studied in the shadow of Mt. Mikeno. “I am fonder of him than I am of myself,” he reportedly said of the gorilla, the first of four he killed for his exhibit. “It took all one’s scientific ardor to keep from feeling like a murderer,” he said after his hunting companion shot a fifth. “He was a magnificent creature with the face of an amiable giant who would do no harm except perhaps in self-defense or in defense of his friends.” Still, as he lamented the animal’s death he exalted in the beauty of the scene. Mt. Mikeno “had thrown aside her veil of cloud; her whole summit was sharply outlined against the blue of the tropical sky.” The warm greens and browns of the mossy hills suggesting a tapestry, and lesser volcanoes smoldering lazily in the distance. Akeley decided on the spot that this would be the background for the gorilla group in his Africa wing, and so it is, with the big male that lay at his feet in the center of it.
In his last years Akeley regretted the killing he’d done, but never questioned the need for it. He returned to New York to work on his exhibitions—his pride of lions, herd of elephants, family of gorillas and all the other creatures that fill his hall—convinced of their value to science and human culture. But after that 1921 trip he advocated forcefully for conservation, and in large part because of his work, the king of Belgium created one of Africa’s first national parks in 1925, now known as Virunga National Park.
It is now home to most of the mountain gorillas in the world, more than 1,000 individuals according to the latest estimate. Akeley returned to the Virunga mountains in the fall of 1926 with his second wife, the mountaineer and photographer Mary Jobe Akeley. He fell sick soon after arriving, and died of dysentery on November 18, 1926. He’s buried at the foot of Mt. Mikena, just two miles from the scene he recreated in his gorilla group.