A Gathering of Wonders

Joseph Wallace

St. Martin's Press

1 The Specter of Extinction
INTO Ag WILD WORLD
It was extraordinary how quickly that rhino was on his feet. More than that, he no sooner was up than he was charging. I can see him yet. His head was down and he snorted like a switch engine. His tail was up and his short, heavy legs were pounding along furiously. . . . It certainly took that rhino a very few seconds to cover half the distance to us, but it seemed more than long enough to me. He seemed to be the size of a freight car, and his snorts were actually terrifying.
—Museum preparator James L. Clark, describing
a 1909 encounter in Lives of the Hunted (1929).
James L. Clark wasn’t alone among the early employees of the American Museum of Natural History in risking his life for science. Again and again, Museum scientists gloried at the opportunity to confront the largest, most untamable, most dangerous animals in existence. This thrill of the chase (bordering on machismo but thankfully leavened by humor and even self-deprecation) shines in the letters, field journals, and published writings of nearly all of the Museum’s explorers during the institution’s first fifty years.
The need to challenge the unknown is what drove Roy Chapman Andrews (“I was born to be an explorer. . . . I couldn’t do anything else and be happy,” he said) to spend years on pitching boats in frigid northern seas, studying whales. It’s what sent Carl Akeley into the African wilds again and again, even after his notorious (and almost fatal) encounters with a charging elephant and a wounded leopard. And it’s apparent today to anyone who walks through the Museum’s magnificent halls of North American, Asian, African, and marine mammals, with their lions, grizzlies, walruses, and other spectacular creatures.
Joel Asaph Allen (1838–1921), the first curator of the then-joined Department of Mammalogy and Ornithology, would seem an unlikely choice to hire such a group of risktakers. By the time the forty-six-year-old Allen joined the Museum in 1885, he was plagued by a variety of physical and emotional ailments, illnesses that bedeviled him for the rest of his long life. A mild-mannered, shy man (though often witheringly forthright in his written opinions), Allen spent most of his time at the Museum or convalescing at home, not in the field.
But before joining the Museum, Allen had participated in some memorable surveys of the wildlife of the American frontier—expeditions that reveal why such adventurers as Andrews and Akeley would later feel at home in the Museum. Undoubtedly the most remarkable of all was an 1873 engineering and scientific exploration of the Yellowstone River area in Dakota territory, a journey that ranks among the most dangerous expeditions of all time.
This region harbored dangers above and beyond those posed by wild animals and disease-bearing insects, Allen later recalled. The resident Sioux Indians, having clashed frequently with federal soldiers, were naturally suspicious of any visitors from the East. “Hence a heavy military escort was this year provided for the protection of the engineers,” Allen recalled. “The escort comprised the famous Seventh Cavalry, with Gen. George A. Custer in command, and parts of the Eighth and Twenty-Second Infantry, and a company of Indian scouts.”
Allen, employed at the time by the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, sought to capture and collect specimens of as many bird and mammal species as possible. But the difficulties of this task became clear once General Custer—whose reputation for brutality against Indians preceded him—and the local Sioux began skirmishing. “Indians were first seen watching us from neighboring bluffs near the mouth of the Powder River; they soon became bolder and were seen daily, when orders were given forbidding straying from the line of march, or the use of firearms without permission from the commanding officer,” Allen wrote. “This compelled us to abandon bird collecting and side excursions for several weeks.”
Soon the standoff broke into open fighting, in which both sides sustained casualties. Although the remaining expedition members eventually made it to safety, these were not the last confrontations between Custer and the Sioux. “It was only three years later, and about sixty miles south of Pompey’s Pillar, on the Little Big Horn, that General Custer and his whole command were massacred in a fight with this same band of Sioux Indians,” Allen pointed out.
Given his experiences, no one would have blamed Allen for turning his back on field research forever. Instead, he saw such threats merely as challenges to be overcome. “The opportunities for natural history collecting and field research on this expedition were far from ideal, but we did not return empty handed nor without well-filled notebooks,” he wrote later. “To me it was an experience of great value from the naturalist’s point of view, and one I have never ceased to recall with much pleasure for its personal associations and its dash of military flavor.”
Allen’s early exploits also brought him face to face with one of the driving forces behind nineteenth-century science: the decimation of North America’s wild game, especially the bison. “In the summer of 1871 the author saw on the plains of western Kansas Buffaloes by the hundred thousand, if not by the million,” he wrote in 1902. “Three years later these same plains were covered with the bleaching carcasses of these hundreds of thousands of Bisons, from which merely the hides had been removed and the bodies left to rot.”
Allen brought passion for exploration and outrage at the slaughter of wild mammals and birds to the Museum when he arrived in 1885, but at first his new employer’s financial problems did not allow him to act on either. The Museum could afford to employ only a few scientists in the 1880s and 1890s. In 1888, for example, Allen’s title was “Curator of the Department of Ornithology, Mammalogy, Fishes and Reptiles. Also temporarily in charge of the Department of Invertebrate Zoology.” Who had time for fieldwork?
Instead, he was determined to greatly enlarge the mammal-and-bird study collections. With few exceptions, during his early years, this goal was achieved more through donations and purchases than collecting expeditions. And, as early annual reports make clear, progress was slow, with typical donations including “1 Mole; 1 White-Footed Mouse; 1 Bat; 1 Cow; 1 Angora Cat” and “1 St. Bernard Dog”—this last donated by future Museum President Henry Fairfield Osborn.
Eventually, purchases and other acquisitions helped the Museum’s exhibit and study collections grow by thousands of specimens. But Allen and Museum President Morris K. Jesup well realized that no Museum can build a truly comprehensive collection by merely accepting what is offered to it. So, when finances allowed in the early 1900s, the Museum began hiring new scientists and preparators, all of whom soon began to build the swashbuckling reputation that would characterize the Museum in the decades preceding World War II.
Roy Chapman Andrews, Carl Akeley, and James L. Clark were joined by a host of other scientist-adventurers, including Herbert Lang, Harold E. Anthony, James Chapin, Rollo Beck, and George Cherrie. Collectively, they spent decades tracking through the uncharted forests, swamps, coasts, and deserts of previously unexplored regions of South America, Asia, and Africa, and added tens of thousands of specimens and a host of indelible stories to the collections of the American Museum.
Oddly, the most colorful, poignant, and influential of all these men, Carl Akeley, was not a scientist at all, but a sculptor and preparator of habitat groups. No matter: Whatever his qualifications, Akeley was the man who first made us familiar with the true character of the animals of what he called “brightest Africa.” Most importantly of all, he introduced us to one of our closest relatives, the mountain gorilla, and by helping insure that species’ survival, marked himself as one of the world’s first great, if unsung, heroes of conservation.
CARL AKELEY’S GREAT DREAM
“The game must go,” is the cry of Africa. “This is no longer the world’s zoo but an agricultural country.” Unfortunately the beasts of the forest are communists. They have no sense of property rights; to them a tilled field is a strip of particularly delectable vegetation, an ideal feeding ground—nothing more. . . . Add to the bands of hunters officially appointed to protect gardens and flocks those who kill for food, for gain and for “sport” and it becomes evident that the wild life of Africa is doomed.
—Carl Akeley, the Mentor
magazine, 1926.
The Museum has benefited throughout more than half a century by high talent among men and women in its service, but Akeley was the only genius who has been one of us.
—Museum president Henry Fairfield Osborn,
after Carl Akeley’s death in 1926.
What sort of a man was Carl Akeley? He was a brilliantly innovative sculptor and preparator, a man who knew what a wild creature should look like in a museum, and who revolutionized the field of taxidermy to bring his vision to life. He was an expert hunter who was thoughtful enough to shrug off society’s expectations and abandon hunting for “fun.” He was a tireless self-promoter whose story is still familiar today, more than seventy years after his death.
But mostly, Carl Akeley was this: A man who, upon realizing that the wilderness and the animals he loved were threatened with destruction, engaged in a lifelong battle to ensure that this catastrophe did not happen.
Carl Akeley was born in 1864 in rural New York. “By all rules of the game, I should have been a farmer,” he recalled, “but for some reason or other, I was always more interested in birds and chipmunks than in crops and cattle.” At the age of thirteen, he also became interested in the field of taxidermy, an enthusiasm that would never leave him.
Before his twentieth birthday—and before contacting any museum or professional taxidermist—Akeley was already beginning to stretch the boundaries of what a museum exhibit should include. “I went so far as to take a few painting lessons from a lady in Holley, New York, a village near my father’s farm, in order that I might paint realistic backgrounds for my stuffed birds and animals,” he wrote many years later. “So far as I know, my early attempts in this direction were the first experiments with painted backdrops for taxidermic groups. At least one of them is still in existence, but I have been a bit afraid to go see it.”
After a stint as a taxidermist at Ward’s Natural Science Establishment (a then-famous supplier of mounted animals, fossils, meteors, and other objects to museums and collectors), Akeley moved on to a museum in Milwaukee and then to the famous Field Museum in Chicago. There he honed his vision of animal preparation, rejecting the old method of stuffing skins with straw, a technique that resulted in lumpy, unnatural specimens.
Instead, Akeley’s method, developed during his years at the Field Museum, involved modeling a lifelike clay mannequin of the specimen on a rough wood-and-wire armature, casting the life-sized clay model in plaster, and then molding a final image over the plaster model out of cheesecloth, papier-mâché, shellac, and wire. The plaster was removed, and the prepared skin of the specimen was then cemented to the model, resulting in a far more realistic mount than was ever possible before.
In 1896, Akeley visited Africa for the first time, on an expedition to Somaliland with the great zoologist Daniel Giraud Elliot of the Field Museum. By the time he returned, Akeley recalled, “I had determined upon Africa as the country whose superb animals I would recreate through museum groups for the benefit of the American public. I was so bewitched by the beauty and splendor of Africa that it seemed to me inconceivable then that I would not immediately return.”
Instead, Akeley spent the next nine years improving his mounting technique, teaching his methods to other preparators (including James L. Clark at the American Museum in 1903), and dreaming of his next trip. He finally got to visit East Africa in 1905; it was on this trip that he first made the acquaintance of the African elephant, “the most fascinating of all wild animals,” in Akeley’s words. Soon after, however, the Field Museum cancelled plans for an African mammal hall, and Akeley took his drive and determination to the American Museum, beginning with a 1909 collecting expedition to East Africa.
This famous African expedition included, at times, James L. Clark, Theodore Roosevelt, and Chicago Tribune cartoonist John T. McCutcheon, who not only memorialized the trip’s adventures in a lively book called In Africa but also shot one of the elephants that now make up the magnificent group that anchors the Museum’s Akeley Hall. It was during this expedition that Akeley first envisioned a massive hall that would show many of the animals of brightest Africa.
Akeley spent the remaining seventeen years of his life planning, designing, collecting for, and trying to finance the African halls. He died ten years before they were finally completed under the guidance of James L. Clark and Akeley’s widow, Mary L. Jobe Akeley. There’s little doubt, however, that he would have been thrilled with the result. More than seventy years after his death, the hall’s dioramas of African savannas and rain forests, filled with lions, rhinos, zebras, and dozens of other species, still seem infused with Carl Akeley’s unflagging energy. They are lit with the vividness of his memories of the continent he loved so much.
Akeley achieved his goal of displaying Africa’s mammals in realistic settings. But he wanted much more. His passion—his mission—was to exhibit animals that he believed would soon be gone from their homelands, driven into extinction by hunting and habitat loss. The goal of the Akeley Hall was always to remind us that such spectacular, irreplaceable animals exist and perhaps to inspire us to help prevent their destruction.
When he was still a young man, Akeley began to have doubts about the propriety of hunting for sport. During his very first trip to Africa, his 1896 expedition to Somaliland, he collected some specimens of the native donkey called the “wild ass.” Shooting one, he was surprised to see it make no attempt to flee. Instead, it stood calmly nearby until, Akeley recalled, “I put one hand on his withers and tripping him, pushed him over. I began to feel that if this was sport I would never be a sportsman.”
Akeley’s discomfort turned to disgust when he shot another, inflicting a flesh wound that the animal would certainly have recovered from if it had run away. But, like the first, it didn’t. “As we got near he turned and faced us with great gentle eyes,” Akeley wrote. “Without the least sign of fear or anger he seemed to wonder why we had harmed him.”
Again, the hunter was able to approach the animal so closely that it seemed almost tame. The two wild asses, Akeley marveled, “appeared not to realize that we were the cause of their injuries but rather seemed to expect relief as we approached—yet one English ‘sportsman’ boasted of having killed twenty-eight.” As for Akeley himself: “I announced that if any more wild asses were wanted, someone else would have to shoot them. I had had quite enough.”
Akeley’s scorn for European “sportsmen” runs like a stream of lava through his writing. He blamed them for the fact that, as Museum President Henry Fairfield Osborn put it, “in Africa the remnants of all the royal families of the Age of Mammals are making their last stand, that their backs are up against the pitiless wall of what we call civilization.”
Each time he returned to Africa, Akeley could see the results of hunters’ depredations with alarming clarity. In 1926, during his final trip to Africa, he found that the plains that had swarmed with game just fourteen years before were now barren. “I have not appreciated the absolute necessity of carrying out the African Hall, if it is ever to be done, as I now do after this painful revelation,” he said in an anguished letter home to Museum Director George H. Sherwood. “The old conditions, the story of which we want to tell, are now gone, and in another decade the men who knew them will all be gone.”
In a remarkable article entitled “Have a Heart,” written for the Mentor magazine just before he embarked on this final expedition, Akeley excoriated those who hunted African animals for fun. “Two types of so-called ‘sportsmen’ who have no possible excuse for their slaughter of African game and who might well be controlled are the man who is dominated by blood lust, and the ‘game hog,’ ” he wrote. He described the former as a man who would rather wound an animal and then slit its throat than kill it cleanly with a single shot, and the latter as someone who killed as many animals as his hunting license permitted—even if it meant throwing away the bodies afterwards.
The local tribes could not be held responsible for the disappearance of the game, Akeley believed. “The white man of Africa blames the native for the present depletion. It is true that in places the natives have great drives, using pits, poisoned arrows and such other methods as they have used from time immemorial, and thus occasion the killing of great numbers of animals,” Akeley pointed out. “But we must remember that when the white man came the land was teeming with animal life and for generations that game and the natives had been there together. Directly or indirectly, civilized man is responsible for the rapid disappearance of wild life in Africa.”
It’s clear that Akeley cared deeply about the animals of Africa’s plains, rivers, and forests. But it was the mountainous rain-forests of the Kivu region of the Belgian Congo that moved him most deeply, especially one resident of these cold, misty forests: the mountain gorilla.
Akeley’s first encounter with the gorillas was in 1921, on the slopes of Mount Mikeno and Mount Karisimbi. He journeyed to the remote forests to collect a family group for the African hall, and he was admittedly nervous as he entered gorilla country for the first time.