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Wrestling Leopards, Felling Apes: A Life In Taxidermy

"Taxidermy" might sound like a topic for dusty academic journals and strange little back-street shops.

But the way Carl Akeley practiced it at the turn of the 20th century, taxidermy was a thrill ride of a job, full of exotic safaris, brutal killing and bloody encounters with the very creatures he was trying to preserve.

Author Jay Kirk recounts Akeley's life in his new book, Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Greatest Animals.

And Kirk tells NPR's Audie Cornish that Akeley was far from the international adventurer/artist he would become — until he met P.T. Barnum.

Immortality For Jumbo The Elephant

In the mid-1880s, Akeley was in a bit of a dead-end job: stuffing and mounting animals for display in museums, and for the hats of ladies on 5th avenue.

It wasn't the most exciting task. In fact, he got fired for napping on the job. But his boss at the American Museum of Natural History in New York called him back in for one last gig: to preserve Barnum's recently deceased elephant, Jumbo.

That propelled the young taxidermist to fame. And today, Akeley has an entire wing named in his honor at the museum.

Kirk says Akeley had the heart of an artist, and was frustrated with the state of the art at the time.

"The skins of the animals were just kind of crudely stuffed with sawdust or rags, or whatever happened to be around," the author says.

So Akeley began to study anatomy textbooks, and even went on expeditions to Africa to observe exotic animals in their natural habitats.

"He wanted to resurrect these animals with a greater felicity of what the animal might look like in real life," Kirk says.

Hand-To-Hand Combat

It was a brutal, bloody job. And Akeley got very close to some of those animals. One of his most famous encounters took place in Somaliland in 1896.

It was his first expedition for the Field Museum in Chicago. As Kirk tells the story, Akeley and a group decided to go hunting for ostriches near dusk.

"He shot wildly off into the grass, he heard a shriek or a yowl, and quickly realized, 'Oh, that's not a wart hog.'

"Soon enough, a leopard pounced out of the grass and on to him and they ended up fighting it out to the death...literally, hand to hand combat with a leopard," Kirk says.

A Taxidermist's Dilemma

Akeley was hunting, skinning, and mounting exotic animals just as the conservation movement was gaining ground. The paradox is obvious today, but in the early 1900s, the scientists Akeley worked with were desperate. They knew many of these animals were on the brink of extinction because of colonization, settlement and habitat loss in Africa. But Kirk says they felt they had no choice "other than go to shoot a few more animals to put in a museum."

During an expedition in 1921, Akeley started to question his actions. While collecting mountain gorillas in the Congo, he had an epiphany. Kirk says, "He started to feel like a murderer."

After over a decade of hunting and killing wildlife, Akeley switched gears and began spending his time trying to persuade the Belgian government to establish a wildlife sanctuary in the Congo. His efforts eventually paid off. Africa's first wildlife sanctuary was established there in 1925 — and a year later, Akeley died of fever in the Congo, just miles from where he encountered his first gorilla.

"Without a shadow of a doubt, without [Akeley] the mountain gorilla would have gone extinct," Kirk says.

The Death Of Taxidermy?

Today, stuffing animals — even if they aren't packed full of sawdust and other scraps anymore — is seen as brutal, even barbaric.

"I think there is a lot of ambivalence about it in natural history museums. I mean there is really no need to go kill these animals anymore to put them on display for entertainment or edu-tainment," Kirk says, because of the high-tech video tools available.

Nonetheless, a number of natural history museums are proud of the exotic animal dioramas they have and don't plan on getting rid of them any time soon.

If you want to get up close with some of the mountain gorillas Akeley killed, skinned, and stuffed, you can check them out at New York's Museum of Natural History — and if an exhibit of "fighting elephants" is more your thing, head to the Field Museum in Chicago.

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NPR Staff