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Carl Akeley: The Great White Hunter

The following article is from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader.

While researching an article on taxidermy recently, we discovered Carl Akeley, a man widely considered to be a pioneer in the field because of his artistic approach to the craft. But that’s not all Akeley did: he also changed the way museums are designed, innovated nature photography, and founded Africa’s first nature preserve. And it all started the day he killed a leopard with his bare hands.


Carl Akeley wasn’t planning to hunt big game in Africa barehanded— it just happened that way. The incident occurred during his first trip to Somaliland in 1896, when he was hunting and observing wildlife for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. Akeley and some companions were hunting ostriches at dusk when they heard a rustle in the bush. Akeley fired into it, heard a yowl, and before he could blink, 80 pounds of spotted fur, pointy teeth, and sharp claws was hurtling through the air at him. The leopard caught Akeley’s left hand in its powerful jaws and started shredding his right arm and body with its claws and feet. Unable to pull his hand out of the predator’s mouth, Akeley punched the leopard’s throat as hard as he could. The animal choked, and Akeley slammed it to the ground, crushing its trachea. Then he jumped onto its rib cage with both knees and suffocated the beast. The photo of the bearded he-man posed in front of his tent with the leopard’s body hanging from a rope has become the iconic image of the “great white hunter.”


Born in upstate New York in 1864, Akeley grew up on a farm but had a strong interest in sketching wildlife. At the age of 12, a visit to an exhibit of 50 small animals and birds by a local taxidermist named David Bruce changed Akeley’s life— he became obsessed with taxidermy. (His first try at preserving an animal: he stuffed a friend’s dead canary as a gift to her.) At 18, he apprenticed with Bruce, who was impressed by the young man’s artistic skill and advised him to apply for a job at Professor Henry Ward’s Natural Science Establishment in Rochester. Akeley hated the conventional “upholstery” method of taxidermy— taxidermy— stuffing the animals with sawdust, cotton, or straw and propping them up on legs that contained the bones. He thought it was crude and lacked artistic vision. Aiming for a more realistic presentation, Akeley worked late at night perfecting his own style.


Akeley’s technique started with making an armature of wood, wire, or the animal’s skeleton. Then he applied modeling clay or plaster to sculpt the animal’s muscles and tendons. Akeley took great care in attaching the fur and stitching it so the seams never showed. His artistry and attention to detail soon caught the attention of Professor Ward, who, in 1885, assigned Akeley to work with veteran taxidermist William Critchley on the mammoth task of preserving the much-loved Barnum and Bailey circus elephant, Jumbo. (Jumbo had died in a head-on collision with a train a few months earlier.) The elephant took five months to mount, but that job established Akeley’s reputation as an artist to be respected. He soon moved to the Milwaukee Public Museum in Wisconsin and designed and built the very first museum habitat diorama, displaying local birds and mammals in realistic surroundings. In 1896 Chicago’s prestigious Field Museum offered the young wizard a job and a chance to go to Africa. Thus began Akeley’s transformation from mild-mannered taxidermist to swashbuckling big game hunter.


Between 1896 and 1926, Akeley made five expeditions to British Somaliland, British East Africa, and the Belgian Congo. Each time, he returned with harrowing stories of his adventures. He contracted malaria and jungle fever. While resting on the Serengeti Plain, he was charged by three rhinos at once. In Uganda he shot a giant crocodile on the opposite bank of the Nile River. As he swam across to retrieve the body, he found that the river was infested with crocodiles; one grabbed and killed his porter. Finding himself stranded on the wrong side of the river, with no desire to swim back, Akeley used the dead croc as a raft and his rifle as a paddle to float back to safety.

He wasn’t always that lucky. On Mount Kenya, a 13-foot-tall bull elephant burst out of the trees and charged him. The enraged beast tried to impale him with its tusks, but Akeley wedged himself between the six-foot-long ivory daggers and held on for dear life. The elephant fought by doing a headstand on the explorer, burying him in the mud. Akeley passed out; the beast ran off, and so did Akeley’s native guides, leaving him for dead. He came to hours later and spent the next three months in the hospital. The elephant had broken over half of his ribs, piercing his lung in the process.


Like most naturalists of his day, Akeley considered killing, photographing, and stuffing wild animals to be the best way to preserve Africa’s quickly disappearing wildlife. His thinking changed in 1921 while leading an expedition to “collect” mountain gorillas in the Virunga Mountains of the Belgian Congo. He was the first to observe and film these rare gorillas, and he found them fascinating. Upon dubbing one silverback male “the Old Man of Mikeno,” he said, “I am fonder of him than I am of myself.” Still, he shot the gorilla and stuffed it for a museum exhibit. The animal’s death haunted Akeley, and he turned away from taxidermy to create sanctuaries for the fast-disappearing animals. He talked King Albert I of Belgium into founding the first African national park as a safe haven for the mountain gorilla. Today, solely because of Akeley’s efforts, Virunga National Park is home to approximately 400 gorillas.


During his lifetime, Akeley hunted with Teddy Roosevelt, served as president of the prestigious Explorers Club, and was a respected author and nature photographer, for which he invented the Akeley Motion Picture Camera— a Hollywood staple in the 1920s and 1930s. He also invented a “cement gun” that shot concrete into his taxidermy molds. Now called “shotcrete,” it was adapted for use in building the Panama Canal and is still used by construction workers to build pools, walls, and anything formed with cement.

(Image credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm)

While working for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City from 1909 to 1926, Akeley meticulously designed the Akeley Hall of African Mammals, considered one of the greatest museum exhibits in the world. It contains 28 habitat dioramas depicting life on the Serengeti Plain, the Upper Nile, and the mountains of the Belgian Congo, all in minute detail. In 1926 the 62-year-old Akeley died of a fever while visiting his beloved mountain gorillas. His burial place is pictured in the mountain gorillas diorama in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.


The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Factastic Bathroom Reader. The 28th volume of the series is chock-full of fascinating stories and facts, and comes in both the Kindle version and paper with a classy cloth cover.

Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!

Akeley personified our growing awareness of ecology and value of conservation. In hindsight, it was good that someone with talent preserved specimens from that period.
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