Thanks to Stephen Christopher Quinn's wonderfully illustrated book, The Great Habitat Dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, I became interested in Carl Akeley, the person who was primarily responsible for the idea of representing wild animals in lifelike poses in a meticulously replicated habitat, one based on a specific place, seaon, and time of day.
I soon was happily immersed in Akeley's In Brightest Africa (Garden City, NY, 1920), an autobiographical account of his trips to Africa published four years before he died and dedicated to the memory of Theodore Roosevelt. Born in 1864 in western New York State, Akeley had only three years of formal education, but he knew when he was sixteen that he wanted to be a taxidermist.
At that time, taxidermy was a catch as catch can business. To learn how to mount animals, Akeley went to Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester, where he discovered that taxidermy consisted of treating the skin of an animal, wiring the bones of the legs so it could stand up, and then stuffing the skin with straw until it could hold no more. No attempt was made to replicate the musculature of the creature in question, let alone its bone structure. If the stuffing was too thick in one area, they simply took a long needle and sewed through it. "The profession I had chosen as the most satisfying and stimulating to a man's soul," Akeley laments, "turned out at that time to have very little science and no art at all."
So through a combination of self-study and getting tutored by others on his own time while he held down full-time jobs, Akeley learned anatomy and studied art, applying what he learned to taxidermy. He was one of the first to make manikins, noting as an aside that though it seemed simple, the process had been more difficult than learning how to cast in bronze, something he continued to do for his sculptures the rest of his life. He wanted to study animals in the field, the longer, the better. And he soon realized that particular care had to be taken when collecting a specimen: it wasn't enough just to skin the animal--careful measurements had to be taken, and then one had to correct those measurements to what they would be were the animal still alive with its muscles taut rather than limp.
While working at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, he made his first trip to Africa in 1896 and his second in 1905. In 1909, he went again for the American Museum of Natural History. By his return in 1911, he had resolved to create a great African Hall in the museum. He wanted it to memorialize Teddy Roosevelt, but it's now called the Akeley Hall of African Mammals.
Akeley met Roosevelt several times, and one of the amusing incidents in this book is his meeting the president for the first time at a White House dinner in 1906. Also present was a man from Alaska who had been describing the hunting there. As they entered the dining room, Roosevelt remarked, "As soon as I am through with this job, I am going to Alaska for a good hunt." But during the dinner, Roosevelt asked Akeley so many questions about Africa that Akeley never got to eat a bite. At the end of dinner, Akeley relates, "the President turned to me and said: 'As soon as I am through with this job, I am gong to Africa.'
"'But,' interposed the hunter from the north, 'what is to become of Alaska?'
"'Alaska will have to wait,' Roosevelt replied with finality." And thus came about Roosevelt's African expedition. Back in Africa, on safari, Akeley did encounter Roosevelt, who shot a cow elephant for the group Akeley was planning for the American Museum of Natural History. The two of them talked for three hours, and it was then, Akeley declares, that he learned to love Roosevelt because he'd come to realize "his sincerity, his integrity, and the bigness of the man."
In Brightest Africa contains much more than I can recount here: he went mano a mano with a leopard and survived; charged by an elephant, he saved his life by grabbing a tusk with each hand and swinging between them. He invented and manufactured a cement gun for spraying concrete as well as a "pancake" motion picture camera that proved useful for aerial photography in WW I. He would do anything to obtain a suitable specimen for an exhibit, but he also grieved for the deaths that he caused. Akeley led an expedition to collect mountain gorillas, and he was so impressed by their pacific nature--as opposed to the man-eating monsters of popular fiction--that he lobbied to establish a park to protect this species. His efforts were successful: in 1925, the year before Akeley died, King Albert I of Belgium established the first national park in Africa precisely for this reason. Today, it known as Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Akeley is buried there.
Widely acknowledged as the father of taxidermy, Carl Akeley was much more, an extraordinary man at an extraordinary time--and a writer well worth reading.