5 Facts About Taxidermist and Leopard-Fighter Carl Akeley

Imagine: You’re face-to-face with a leopard viciously trying to kill you. We know, this sounds like your worst dream – or more like a nightmare – you’re hoping you wake up from. But, this is something that actually happened to taxidermist Carl Akeley – and he lived to tell the tale.

Unless you’re a pro fighter like Mayweather, there’s no shot of fighting off such a primal animal who is dead-set on killing you. But for Akeley, his encounter with a leopard was not him staring death in the face, but rather, getting into a little scuffle with a bully. No big deal!

So, who is this man who’s able to fight a leopard? Here are five facts about certified badass Carl Akeley and his strange ride to becoming obsessed with taxidermy.

1. Carl Was a Major Advocate For Taxidermy 

Carl Akeley was many things – a naturalist, inventor, conservationist. But was more notably known as a taxidermist. So much so, he’s actually known as the father of modern taxidermy. After viewing an exhibit when he was younger, Carl became fascinated with taxidermy and believed it was an art form. Carl believed it’s important to show people what animals look like in the wild, in their natural habitat. He didn’t “hide his methods, he shared them with museums in hopes of having the animal skins placed on a perfectly molded recreation of the animal’s body, thus melding the artificial and the real to make something educational. His biggest goal was to build a large-scale diorama of Africa with the game that could be found on the plains.”

Source: American Museum of Natural History

2. Carl Akeley First Attempted Taxidermy At 12 Years Old

Killing and stuffing animals may not be everybody’s dream job, but it sure was Carl’s! His first attempt at taxidermy was at 12 years old when his friend’s pet canary died. Carl – being the good friend he was – offered to stuff the bird. Stuffing the inside of the bird, as well as sewing glass beads into the eye sockets, Carl fixed and preserved the animal. His attempt fueled his passion for taxidermy further, which led to years of educating and immersing himself in the subject matter. When he turned 19 years old, he was offered an apprenticeship at the Ward’s Natural Science Establishment, which started his journey of museum work all around New York.

3. Near-Death Encounters With Wild Animals

Leopards weren’t the only animals out for Carl’s blood – he has a long list of crazy scary encounters with wild animals. While on Mount Kenya, a bull elephant charged and almost crushed him. Another time he was tag-teamed by three charging rhinos, who just missed hitting him. And thank god for that –  he didn’t have any weapons on him! After successfully shooting a silverback gorilla, the limp, lifeless body came tumbling towards Carl and nearly knocked him off a cliff. Carl’s even shot hyenas, warthogs, and almost got an ostrich.

Akeley’s gorilla exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (Source: Wikimedia)

4. Carl Killed A Leopard With His Bare Hands

The ostrich attempt is where the infamous story of the leopard begins. During his first trip to Africa, Carl was face-to-face with a leopard. While out hunting for ostrich, there was a sound in the tall grass nearby. Figuring it was a hyena or maybe a warthog, Carl did a very foolish thing and shot blindly at the hidden animal. Hearing the animal’s shriek, Carl knew it was no hyena and most certainly was not a warthog. The 80-pound leopard lunged for Carl, sinking her teeth into his forearm. He jammed his arm down her throat while clutching her throat with his other hand in an attempt to strangle and subdue her. 

While discussing the near death incident, Carl explained:

“I couldn’t do it except little by little. When I got enough grip 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 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.”

– Carl Akeley

Carl was successful, making it out of the fight with his life and with the prize of the killed leopard. That crazy experience didn’t stop him from going back. Carl made a total of five trips to Africa to observe, study, and bring back animals.

5. Carl Akeley Died While In The Field

Spending years and multiple trips to Africa studying animals, Carl also began inventing tools that would help other taxidermists. He invented the “Akeley cement gun,” which mounted animals, as well as the “Akeley camera,” also known as the “Pancake camera”, which helped taxidermists film animals in the wild. It also was impressive mechanically for its ability to be  easily mounted, rotated and reloaded.

Carl Akeley died from a fever he contracted while in Congo in 1926. He died a few miles away from where he had previously observed gorillas during a trip to Congo in 1921.

Carl frequently communicated fellow environmentalist and former President Theodore Roosevelt (Source)
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