The Legend of Carl Akeley

Zak Martellucci - Senior Creative Consultant

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Imagine standing in a jungle clearing. It’s hot, it’s humid, and it’s almost silent… except for the snorts of an elephant staring you straight in the eye.

And this isn’t just any elephant.

It’s a bull elephant, weighing almost seven tons and in a phase called musth, which basically means it’s releasing a lot of testosterone and is really pissed.

This exact situation is one Carl Akeley found himself in on the slopes of Mount Kenya in the 1910s. Carl had already tried to shoot the elephant to protect himself and his crew, but just as he attempted to pull the trigger, the elephant swiped him with its trunk – knocking the gun out of Carl’s hands and giving him a scar across his face he’d have the rest of his life.

He was stuck, with no good options. If the elephant charged he’d either be trampled to death or stabbed by its two massive tusks. There was no escape.

So what did Carl do?

Basically, he did exactly what any normal, self-respecting man would do. He decided that when the elephant charged at him, he would jump up, grab its tusks, and proceed to swing his body through the elephants’ legs, in hopes that they would pass on either side of him and he could run away free.

Yup, totally normal.

But you want to know the crazy part?

In true Indiana Jones-fashion, Carl Akeley did just that. When the angry beast charged him, he jumped up and grabbed the tusks.

Unfortunately for Carl, as he swung himself under the chest of the elephant, the beast stopped and quickly sat down, instantly flattening Carl and knocking him unconscious.

But not dead.

You Might Have Been Wondering How We Got Here…

I’d like to back up for a second and introduce you to Carl Akeley: taxidermist, conservationist, sculptor, inventor and the world’s biggest badass.

If you’ve been to any of the top Natural History museums in the United States, like the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York or the Field Museum in Chicago, you’ve probably seen the taxidermy and dioramas that Carl Akeley created. Not only are these dioramas insanely gorgeous, they’re also impressively realistic.

Carl Akeley revolutionized the taxidermy process. Instead of just stuffing dead skins with sawdust and cotton (as was done before), he built a frame using its bones and metal, then carved over top of it all the muscles, tendons, etc. Everything just below the skin. After building these Westworld-like creations, Akeley would slip the skin on and have an impressive, realistic creature.

Carl tried hard to make sure the animals he collected looked as real as possible. The same parameters applied to the rest of the scene, as well. Many of Carl’s dioramas represent real places and real times when he was actually collecting the animals.

And when I say “collecting the animals,” I mean journeying into the jungle with his wife and son (and maybe a small crew) to hunt and kill these creatures. More often than not, Akeley was with just a tiny group of people when he went to some of the wildest places on Earth.

For example, the time he was sat on by the elephant (remember that?), Akeley only had a small crew of locals with him. When they heard the cracking of bones and a gasp of air, they ran from the scene and the terrifying elephant who had hurt Carl, assuming, obviously, that he was done-zo.

Akeley’s wife wasn’t so easily fooled. When she went back and found him later, she discovered that he wasn’t dead, just severely injured. A few months in a full body cast later, and Akeley was back to normal.

The World’s Biggest Badass

There are some AMAZING stories about Carl collecting specimens and literally getting into claw-to-fist combat in the process. In his time, Carl did things like using a crocodile as a raft while he was pursuing another, larger crocodile. Chill.

But, my favorite story involves a leopard. Here’s how it goes:

One day Carl is walking in a jungle clearing and out of nowhere jumps a female leopard. Before he knows it, the leopard has pounced straight at his face. Lucky for Carl, he reacts quick enough to put his hands up to defend himself but unlucky for Carl, he gets his hand caught in the leopard’s mouth…

Now, human instinct in that moment is probably to pull your hand out and run away. But nope, not Carl.

He waits just long enough for the leopard to loosen its grip and then, instead of pulling his hand out, he slowly punches down the leopard throat.

Essentially killing it from the inside out.

Having defeated his fanged foe, Carl throws it on the ground, stomps on its chest and brings it back to camp.

If that’s not badass, I don’t know what is.

Oh and by the way – this leopard is still in the Field Museum’s collection today. Since it’s not on display, at least we have a photo from later that day when Carl got back to camp.

Hold Up. It Doesn’t Sound That Cool That Akeley Went Around Killing Animals.

You’re right, it definitely doesn’t sound good that Carl was going around killing lots of African animals. But we have to keep in mind that this was a different time period than today, with different conceptions of how conservation and education work.

Today, we definitely don’t think of killing animals like the ones Carl collected as a good thing, but in the early 1900s, the work that Carl and his crew were doing was considered to be a very high form of animal conservation and education. Carl’s work enabled thousands of people to see animals and landscapes they would never have seen before. His goal was to honor the majesty of the creatures he killed, not gloat in their destruction.

So yes, Carl and his crew killed many animals and, while it doesn’t justify it, their intentions were in the right place.

Ok, So You Mentioned His Wife…

Carl had two wives actually, Delia and Mary Jobe – both equally exciting and badass women.

His first wife Delia, often called Mickie, was a pretty famous explorer as well. She met Carl when he was working at the Milwaukee Public Museum. The pair married in 1902. Delia often assisted Carl with his taxidermy and even went with him on expeditions to Africa to collect the specimens he needed for his dioramas. The Fighting Bulls in the main Stanly Hall at the Field was actually collected by Delia.

On one of their last trips to Kenya together, Delia brought a monkey back to the States with them. They named it J.T. Jr and Delia spent much of her time caring for it. Since they had moved to NYC and Carl had started working at AMNH, Delia became increasingly occupied by the monkey. Some biographers think that was the reason they ultimately separated and later divorced in 1923.

After their divorce, Delia went back to Africa and continued to explore, but spent more time focusing on ethnographic study than conservation. In fact, Delia became one of the first westerners to explore the deserts of southeastern Africa and spent time living with the Pygmies of the Ituri Forest in Zaire.

Carl’s second wife was Mary Jobe, whom he met while working at AMNH. They married soon after Carl divorced Delia and spent the next few years together in Africa studying the mountain gorillas of what was at the time the Belgian Congo.

Unfortunately, Carl died on this expedition, but that wouldn’t stop Mary Jobe. She continued the expedition, leading as many as twenty men through the Belgian Congo. She ultimately went on to be inducted into both the Ohio and Connecticut Women’s Hall of Fame.

Both women were super impressive in their own right, only adding to the badassery that was Carl.

For all the exploration, taxidermy creation, amazing wives and full on beast-mode attitude, I’d say Carl Akeley is the world’s biggest badass.

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