Carl Akeley


This 1273rd Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on August 16, 2015.


"Notable Person: Museum exhibitor and artist Carl Akeley was born in Clarendon in 1864," reads the Wikipedia entry for the Township of Clarendon in Orleans County.


I wonder how many readers know of this man today. He has been a hero of mine since I was a five-year-old visitor in the Field Museum in Chicago. Even as a little boy I was deeply impressed with Akeley's pair of bronze statues on opposite sides of the museum lobby. On one side stood a group of warriors with spears and opposite them a pair of lions, the female already charging, one spear having missed them.


But then I wandered off by myself and turning a corner came upon a menacing giant gorilla that frightened me so much it is a wonder I didn't cry out.


I hadn't thought about Akeley recently until I came across Dave Madden's The Authentic Animal: Inside the Odd and Obsessive World of Taxidermy. Much of the book is devoted to this man who remains so important to taxidermy that medals given at the biennial World Taxidermy Championships bear his image.


Carl Akeley was raised on a Clarendon farm where, after preparing a neighbor's dead canary to appear lifelike, he became obsessed with taxidermy. He apprenticed briefly under David Bruce in Brockport before joining Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester. There he did not fit in well and was fired. After a brief stint in New York City, however, Ward realized the quality of his work and he was hired back.


Akeley was assigned by Ward to help prepare a mount of the famous circus elephant Jumbo, who had died in a railroad accident. The elephant first went on display in Rochester, gaining Akeley renown as a taxidermist.


It was at the Milwaukee Natural History Museum that Akeley began a series of mounts displaying Wisconsin wildlife. The first, a grouping of five muskrats around their home remains famous as one of the first dioramas. Madden says of his use of glass: "The primary pane facing us, gives us a kind of omniscience, opening for us the den-burrow that normally would be hidden. The second pane, creating the water's surface, is extended right to the front of the case, and I can't help crouching down to see what he's hidden under there. Mud. Reeds. And feet! The little curled up feet of the muskrat ruddering him to shore." Akeley had split the muskrat mount lengthwise, securing the top above the glass, the bottom below.


Soon Akeley joined African safaris to collect specimens for mounting. I won't disturb modern readers with a litany of his kills there; rather I will quote him: "Much of the shooting to obtain specimens for museum collections has made me feel like a murderer."


In fact after killing several gorillas for display, Akeley became so worried about their extinction that through his efforts the first African national park was established. It is within that region that Dian Fossey and George Schaller later studied these animals.


Akeley did have two brushes with death, one with a leopard that got hold of him and, in Madden's words, "gnashed the length of Carl's arm like a corncob, until she held just his fist in her mouth. Rather than pull his fist out of the leopard's mouth, Carl pushed inward, driving it right down her throat, cutting off her windpipe." Finally, according to Akeley, "my strength outlasted hers," but he required massive doses of antiseptics to counteract the diseases harbored in leopards' mouths.


In the second, attacked by a bull elephant, Akeley managed to get between the animal's tusks. He was driven into the ground. His chest crushed and his lungs stabbed by his broken ribs, he lost consciousness, but something underground blocked the tusks. The elephant pulled back and rushed off. It was almost a full day before a Scottish medical missionary finally arrived to treat Akeley's wounds.


Although Akeley was at the top of his profession as a taxidermist, he was also recognized as a sculptor and inventor. Among his inventions is the process of spraying mortar and concrete on a surface at high velocity, a process widely used today.


Although attitudes have changed about collecting animals, I continue to honor this man who lived in very different times.-- Gerry Rising