January 29, 2021
Born To Live Taxidermy
The father of modern taxidermy, Carl Akeley, was what you'd call a real "man's man." He's aged whiskey in an oak barrel that's been anthropomorphized into a human being. But you already knew that from looking at him. This colorized photo of Akeley standing next to his fresh kill shows just how tough he really was.
It's one thing for a hunter to take out his prey with a gun or even a bow and arrow, but it's an entirely different ballgame to take a wild animal's life with your bare hands. Akeley didn't just leave his trophies to rot, he practiced taxidermy in an era when you actually had to go out and do the dirty work yourself if you wanted something for your display case.
Akeley was a little bit Ted Nugent, a little bit Paul McCartney, and a little bit vaudeville, but he was all-around a unique specimen.
Born on May 19, 1864, near Clarendon, New York, the young Carl Akeley was pushed towards the farming life, but that's not how he saw his life taking shape. Akeley was fascinated with taxidermy from a young age after he was taken to an exhibit in Rochester with 50 variations of animals on display, all brought to life through the art of stuffing and mounting.
Akeley took his first stab at taxidermy when he was only 12 years old after a friend's canary died. Akeley stuffed the bird and sewed glass beads where its eyes would go in order to "fix" the animal. These two simple experiences led Akeley to his destiny. Over the next six years his obsession with taxidermy took over and studied as much of the art as he could before setting off to find work in his chosen field.
At 19, Akeley took an apprenticeship at Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester before bouncing around the museums of New York. His co-workers found him overly ambitious, which didn't do him any favors, but after stuffing P.T. Barnum's beloved elephant Jumbo, Akeley was able to write his own ticket.
Hand to paw combat
In his lifetime, Akeley made five trips to Africa where he studied the animals of the plains and brought specimens back to the States. It was on his first trip to Somaliland in 1896 where he encountered the leopard in the photo in question. While on an expedition funded by the Field Museum of Chicago, Akeley and his buddies decided to hunt ostrich at dusk. After firing into the grass they heard a shrieking sound that they believed to be a warthog.
Not so, the sound proved to be that of a leopard who pounced on Akeley and tried to rip him limb from limb. Akeley and the animal fought to the death with Akeley barely coming out on top. Akeley wrote of the encounter:
I couldn't do it except little by little. When I got grip enough on her throat to loosen her hold just a little she would catch my arm again an inch or two lower down. In this way I drew the full length of the arm through her mouth inch by inch... [There was] only of the sound of the crushing of tense muscles and the choking, snarling grunts of the beast... I felt her relax, a sort of letting go, although she was still struggling. At the same time I felt myself weakening similarly, and then it became a question as to which would give up first.