|"I felt no pain, but I certainly never thought for a moment that I would come out alive. I was rather calm, as a matter of fact, except for a tremendous and wildly pleasant thrill I felt, knowing that I was battling for my life."|
That, my friends, is Carl Akeley. To say this bearded badass is the world's greatest taxidermist is kind of like saying Wayne Gretzky was pretty good at hockey or that bacon is sometimes edible if you cook it right. He's a man who not only excelled at the art (craft? sport?) of taxidermizing animal carcasses, he basically invented it. He also, you know, killed a fucking leopard with his bare hands as it was in the process of devouring him, drank beers with Teddy Roosevelt, survived having his chest cavity stomped inside out by an elephant, passed through a crocodile-infested river by riding a dead animal as a raft, had a pet monkey named J.T. Junior, and survived being charged straight-on by three rhinos at the same time, and he did it all in the name of science and education and being totally fucking awesome whenever possible. Perhaps most interestingly of all, despite the fact that this dude mowed down dozens of wild animals from the Olympic Peninsula to the Horn of Africa with a bitchin' as hell nickel-plated double-barreled elephant gun capable of firing a .577 caliber bullet that was roughly the size of a George Foreman grill and would have made Charlton Heston prematurely ejaculate, today he's also fondly remembered by tree-humping granola types everywhere as one of the greatest early voices the wildlife conservation movement, and he was personally responsible for setting up one of the most important wildlife preserves on the planet. So, see? Bipartisanship FTW.
And even the most bitter rivals have to agree that this was a guy who really put himself out there for his work:
Carl Akeley was born in 1864, a quiet, soft-spoken, pale skinny farm boy from upstate New York who loved animals and nature like almost to an unhealthy degree that bordered on obsession. While all of his friends and other assorted jackasses were out studying and frolicking and throwing rocks at girls this kid was out in the woods drawing realistic pictures of animals and plants in his own blood and teaching himself to paint so that he could create more lifelike renderings of the shit he was observing the fuck out of in nature. In 1883 he told college to get bent, ran off to Rochester, and took a job making shit money apprenticing with a dude named Henry Ward who was basically the only semi-competent taxidermist in world at this point in time. Akeley played Tesla to Ward's Edison, working his ass off for eleven hours a day, six days a week, with no breaks or sick days, and raking in about $3.50 a week for his efforts.
While giving slave labor to Ward, Akeley kind of got the idea about how this stuffed animals shit was supposed to work, but taxidermy in the 1880s basically meant you took an animal skin, stuffed it with straw, sewed it up and call it a day. As you can imagine, the end result generally looked like a vaguely-animal-shaped pile of shit. Akeley thought this was a rampagingly idiotic was of going about things, so he decided if he going to spend all day covered in animal guts the end result better fucking look real – because if these exhibits can't be used to give museum-goers an accurate look at wildlife, what the hell is the point? He dedicated his life to Chuck Testa-ing together the most lifelike dead animals around, a process that, among other things, involved creating a lifelike sculpture of the creature out of plaster and modeling clay, paying special attention to the musculature, behavior, and skeletal structure of the creature, and going out of his way to make it look like it was still alive. To take it a step further he then put the animals in lifelike environments, devising new ways to create lifelike trees and plants out of wax, wire, thread, and other bullshit, and took painstaking care to ensure that any museum exhibit he designed was as lifelike and realistic as possible.
Taxidermy museum exhibits, circa 1883.
After bouncing around at museums in Chicago and Milwaukee, Akeley ended up at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, where he agreed to work for free as long as the museum would finance him on a bunch of trips to Africa to collect specimens (i.e. shoot things). Now, sure, it might offend some folks' delicate ASPCA sensibilities to think about a guy being funded to travel to Africa in the 1910s, cap wild animals, and bring their hides back to be displayed in museums, but for Akeley this was a mission of conservation rather than one of pretentious personal glory. Akeley lived at a time when essentially every asshole with a few extra bucks and a functional trigger finger was going to Africa and machine-gunning gigantic bullets in every direction on Oregon Trail-style hunting trips, and Akeley was concerned that this wanton, senseless destruction of wildlife would end up completely depopulating entire swaths of the African countryside. So he went on a simple mission – observe these wild animals, get between two and five various breeds of African wildlife, preserve their hides, and memorialize them in lifelike sculpture so they'd look exactly like they did in the wild. Essentially Akeley wanted his great-grandchildren to know what a hippopotamus looked like running free in the African brush even if hippos had been extinct for decades. Feel free to debate the merits of this all you want, but this whole taxidermy aspect of the story is basically ancillary to what I want to talk about, which is all the crazy fucking badass shit that went down while he was on these expeditions.
The first – and probably awesomest – story comes one evening after a long day of hunting and observing wildlife in Somalia. Akeley was headed back to the spot where he'd bagged a hyena and a bigass warthog earlier in the day, but when he got there all he saw was a couple of big bloody streaks leading off into a thick brush. Akeley froze, realizing what was happening, and when a noise came from the brush, he raised his rifle and fired to try and scare it off. Suddenly, out of the thicket came this gigantic fucking leopard screaming towards him teeth-first like a psychotic killer cat being launched out of a horrible predator-launching cannon. Unable to get his weapon back around quickly enough, Akeley dropped his gun and threw his arm up just in time to prevent the vicious beast from ripping out his throat. The leopard latched on to Akeley's left hand, chomping down with all its might, and kicking at him with its back legs like a rabid 80-pound feral housecat intent on brutally mutilating him beyond recognition and burying his body in the back yard. When his attempts to pull his hand out of the leopards' jaws only made the creature bite down harder, Akeley, locked in a life or death fistfight with one of the most perfect predators nature ever created, did one of the most insane things ever – he punched his fist further into the leopard's mouth.
Yes, you are reading that correctly. Carl Akeley, noted philanthropist and respected wildlife conservationist, punched a fucking leopard in the esophagus from the inside. The leopard gagged, Akeley pulled his hand out, and then he took the thing, bodyslammed it to the ground, and jumped on it with both knees, crushing it to death. Akeley, bleeding profusely from horrific wounds on both hands, clawed to shit, still recovering from a recent battle with malaria, and barely able to stand, then picked up the leopard (despite a shattered hand), threw it over his shoulder, walked back to camp with it, and taxidermized it for a museum exhibit.
Another life-or-death duel with nature took place on the slopes of Mount Kenya a few years later. Akeley and his crew of African porters had just seen the biggest goddamned elephant Akeley had ever seen in his entire life (and this guy saw a lot of fucking elephants, FYI), so they decided to track it for a while and maybe bust some caps in its ass. Despite an intense, driving rainstorm Akeley followed the behemoth pachyderm into a thick wooded area, where he and his porters suddenly lost the trail. Then, just when they were ready to say fuck it and turn back, all of a sudden this HUGE FUCKING INSANE ELEPHANT comes busting in out of nowhere and bitch-slaps Akeley in the face with its dong-like trunk, cutting the shit out of Akeley from ear to ear (leaving a badass scar), breaking his nose and knocking him into the mud. With no time to go for his double-barreled elephant gun, Akeley popped up to his feet, wiping the blood out of his eyes just in time to see the 13-foot tall, two-ton rampaging creature lunge straight at his chest with a gleaming ivory tusk. Akeley grabbed the tusk with one hand and slipped himself between the two tusks – a move he figured might keep him safe from being impaled to death by six-foot ivory spikes – but the elephant responded by smashing its entire head down into the mud, slamming Akeley hard to the ground and crushing him with a 24,000-pound battering ram made out of elephant meat and pure unadulterated hatred. Akeley broke a half-dozen ribs, one of which punctured a lung, and blacked out from the concussive force of being headbutted by a fucking elephant. The psycho pachyderm then chased the natives around for a while before running off unharmed into the woods to kill again. The natives, seeing Akeley's crushed, motionless body, believed him to be dead, and since it was against their religion to touch a corpse they just built a fire and left him flat on his back in the rain in three inches of wet mud like assholes. Akeley woke up five hours later, got help, spent three months in the hospital, and as soon as he could walk again the 46 year-old explorer was right back at it again.
And this shit is just for starters. One time in Uganda he shot a gigantic crocodile as it was basking on the far side of a large river, but when he and his porter swam across to get the body suddenly the porter was grabbed by a croc from below and dragged down to his death. Akeley made it across, and, hesitant to swim through crocodile death-infested waters, went back across riding the dead crocodile like a raft and paddling with his rifle. Another time he was in the Congo when suddenly a herd of elephants stampeded right through the area – giant elephants were popping out of nowhere, completely oblivious to his presence, and with the noise of all the trees falling down it was impossible to tell where they were coming from. Akeley barely made it out, and only after a few close calls and commando roll Tarzan shit. He also claimed to be charged over 20 times by various breeds of rhinoceros, including one time when he was sitting on the ground minding his own business when suddenly three rhinos charged him at the same time from three different directions. When asked how he got out of that one, Akeley just brushed it off, basically saying something along the lines of, "Eh, it's no big deal, their eyesight is terrible and for them it's all about the charging and less about achieving the kill anyways."
Traveling throughout Somalia, East Africa, and the Congo between 1896 and 1926, Akeley worked his ass off, sleeping less than 4 hours a night, working day and night despite horrific conditions and continual bouts with malaria and dysentery, all to collect and preserve animal and plant specimens that had never been seen before in the United States. To help with his work he invented a portable video camera, a device that would be used by Hollywood studios to film World War I battlefront newsreels, and he used it to become the first man to film gorillas in the wild or to record the African tribal lion hunt ritual in Uganda. He wrote articles for National Geographic, went hunting with Teddy Roosevelt, trained a pet monkey, married a woman 20 years younger than him (she was such a badass mountain climber that she has a peak named after her in the Canadian Rockies), and invented a gas-powered cannon that sprays concrete around like a blowtorch. He'd developed that system, known as shotcrete, to quickly build plaster molds, but Roosevelt adapted it and used it to built the Panama Canal. So there's that.
When he was on the top of a mountain 10,000 feet above the Congo Carl Akeley also discovered a new species of mountain gorilla that had never been observed in the wilderness before. He taxidermized a couple of them, turning them into perhaps the most impressive museum exhibit ever created, but then he felt bad about shooting them so he convinced the King of Belgium to set up a massive wildlife preserve to keep them safe. Since that worked out so well, Akeley then went on to convince Roosevelt to set up the American National Parks Association and establish a shitload of national parks and wildlife preserves in the States, including some pretty key parks designed to protect the California redwoods – an interesting detail that makes him both an avid hunter and one of the world's first environmental conservationists.
In 1926, while on expedition in the Congo to observe (not shoot) gorillas, Carl Akeley caught a fever and died at the age of 62. He's buried where he fell, near the top of a mountain, between two peaks measuring 11,000 feet in elevation. 86 years after his death, his life's work is still immaculately preserved in the Akeley Hall of African Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan's Upper West Side.
The Field Museum Bio
The Akeley Hall of African Mammals
Some great photos of Akeley's work
Daniel, Hawthorne. "He Killed a Savage Leopard with His Bare Hands!" Popular Science Monthly December, 1925.
Madden, Dave. The Authentic Animal. Macmillan, 2011.
Martin, Paul. Secret Heroes. HarperCollins, 2012.
Merrit, Jim. "Carl Akeley: The Man Who Loved Africa." Field & Stream, January 1991.
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