How do you stuff an elephant? The – ha ha – obvious answer is ‘with great difficulty’. As for the actual answer: funnily enough, the preparation and mounting of elephants for museums is quite well recorded. These African bush elephants Loxodonta africana are on display at the Field Museum in Chicago (thanks to Matt Wedel for the photo). Just look at their size, and wonder… how do these dead animals get to look so alive?
All too few people realise that, when you look at a ‘stuffed’ animal, you’re looking at a tanned skin that’s been skillfully fitted over a postured mannequin* or replica of the animal’s body, and not at a preserved carcass [the image below shows the skin of one of Carl Akeley's elephants being prepared for mounting. This skin is for one of the AMNH elephants]. That might be blindingly obvious to you and I but, believe it or don’t, most people do honestly think that a taxiderm mount is a pickled (!) or freeze-dried (!!) carcass, or a carcass that has had its innards ripped out and replaced with straw or cotton wool or something. For small animals, the mannequin might be made from plaster, wood, plastic, woodwool, or any number of other materials, but for a giant thing like an elephant, a pseudo-skeleton has to be constructed from wood, metal and plaster (or their more modern equivalents), and this in turn is used to support mesh, cloth and eventually clay.
* For common game animals, such as deer, postured mannequins are available commercially.
I was going to elaborate at great length on how Carl E. Akeley (1864-1926), the master of African megamammal taxidermy, developed an oustandingly successful technique of mounting elephants for museum displays. However, I discovered that someone else has already done an excellent job: check it out here. The Field Museum elephant shown at the very top (Mike P. Taylor provides a scale) is one of two standing in Stanley Field Hall in the museum (you should be able to see parts of the second one standing behind the first: the Tyrannosaurus rex specimen FMNH PR2081 stands at the other end of the hall). Both were collected by Akeley and his wife Delia (1875-1970) in Kenya in 1906.
Having mentioned Carl Akeley I feel compelled to say more about him. There is loads that could be said: he was involved in the creation of many outstanding museum dioramas (you may know of the American Museum of Natural History’s Akeley Hall of African Mammals: the Mountain gorilla diorama is shown below, from the AMNH diorama site), and also in the procuring and photographing of animals in the wild. I’m particularly interested in his involvement in gorilla conservation.
In 1921, Akeley led an AMNH expedition to the Virungas (in what was then the Belgian Congo). Remember that Mountain gorillas Gorilla beringei had only been known to science since 1902 (and only named scientifically in 1914) and virtually nothing was known of them outside of fairytale. While Akeley’s team succeeded in obtaining a group of five gorillas, all of which were – of course – shot, we known from his writing that he was moved by their gestures and expressions. He wrote of seeing a ‘heartbreaking expression of piteous pleading’ on the face of an infant as it died, and thought that it would have come to his arms for comfort if it could. When referring to the dispatching of another specimen, he noted how ‘it took all one’s scientific ardour to keep from feeling like a murderer’. Mary Bradley, also on the expedition, made similar comments about the gorilla deaths she witnessed (the quotes are taken from Jones (2006), available for free online if you search for it) [image below shows Akeley with the Somalian leopard he killed - by hand - after it attacked him in 1898 (some sources say 1896)].
Akeley’s observations meant that he was able to do a lot to help dispell the mythical image of the gorilla as some sort of dangerous, savage monster. Concerned that these animals did not have the protection they deserved, he lobbied the Belgian Government on his return home to create a gorilla sanctuary, and in his lectures and writing he soon became an activist for gorilla conservation. After a series of setbacks and controversies, the Belgians created a park for the gorillas in 1925. In that year, Akeley set out again on an expedition to the region. It would be his last journey: he died in Africa after contracting a virus, and was buried there.
Well, I really didn’t start writing this with the intention of writing about the history of gorilla conservation, but there you go. For more on gorillas there’s also The Cultured Ape and Attenborough on gorillas. Note also that Brian, at Laelaps, wrote about Carl Akeley and the 1921 AMNH gorilla expedition here.
I think this brings us to the end of Stuffed Megamammal Week. I hope you enjoyed it. In case you missed any of it…
Refs – –
Jones, J. E. 2006. “Gorilla trails in paradise”: Carl Akeley, Mary Bradley, and the American search for the missing link. The Journal of American Culture 29, 321-336.