Those who are aware of it at all are likely to regard taxidermy as an art principally appreciated by those who like to kill animals and then have them stuffed and mounted to appear alive. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, taxidermy was considered a legitimate branch of the natural sciences, the only method by which the world at large could study the variety, structures and habitats of exotic animals (many of whom were even then being hunted to extinction). Of the many practitioners of this grisly discipline, none was as skillful and as celebrated as Carl Akeley, the subject of Jay Kirk’s engrossing new biography, Kingdom Under Glass.
Akeley was born in 1864 in Clarendon, New York, and became absorbed in taxidermy in his early teens. Largely self-taught, he first showed his genius for physical resurrection in 1885 when he was called upon to preserve P.T. Barnum’s main animal attraction—the elephant Jumbo—after a locomotive shattered the luckless beast. In the years ahead, Akeley would create exhibits for major museums in Milwaukee, Chicago and New York City and lead months-long expeditions into Africa to collect specimens for his grandly conceived projects. His work earned him the respect and friendship of Theodore Roosevelt, also an avid hunter/collector, as well as the sponsorship of photography pioneer and philanthropist George Eastman.
The slaughter brought on by this passion for collecting was epic. On one of Akeley’s hunting forays with Roosevelt, the party killed four elephants before noon, two of which Akeley discarded for imperfections. On that same expedition, Kirk reports, Roosevelt and his son Kermit “shot seventeen lions, six giraffes, four buffalos, five rhinos, four hippos, and, give or take, about a thousand birds.” Such massacres were commonplace.
Kirk presents Akeley as a driven, exacting, humorless man who lived for his art—and who ultimately died for it, succumbing in 1926 to exhaustion, dysentery and related maladies while on safari in the Congo. But the most interesting figure by far in this book is Akeley’s first wife and fiercest protector, Mickie. A tomboyish sort, she was so devoted to implementing her husband’s visions that she had become a wildlife expert in her own right by the time the two divorced.
Motion picture photography and cheap travel to exotic places eventually undercut the lure and usefulness of taxidermy. But Akeley set a standard for verisimilitude that was never surpassed. In Kingdom Under Glass, Kirk strives for the same liveliness that Akeley imparted to his creations, writing with such specificity, color and drama it appears he’s looking over Akeley’s shoulder.