Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals

by Jay Kirk

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A sweeping historical narrative of the life of Carl Akeley, the famed explorer and taxidermist who changed the way Americans viewed the conservation of the natural world

During the golden age of safaris in the early twentieth century, one man set out to preserve Africa's great beasts. In this epic account of an extraordinary life lived during

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A sweeping historical narrative of the life of Carl Akeley, the famed explorer and taxidermist who changed the way Americans viewed the conservation of the natural world

During the golden age of safaris in the early twentieth century, one man set out to preserve Africa's great beasts. In this epic account of an extraordinary life lived during remarkable times, Jay Kirk follows the adventures of the brooding genius who revolutionized taxidermy and created the famed African Hall we visit today at New York's Museum of Natural History. The Gilded Age was drawing to a close, and with it came the realization that men may have hunted certain species into oblivion. Renowned taxidermist Carl Akeley joined the hunters rushing to Africa, where he risked death time and again as he stalked animals for his dioramas and hobnobbed with outsized personalities of the era such as Theodore Roosevelt and P. T. Barnum. In a tale of art, science, courage, and romance, Jay Kirk resurrects a legend and illuminates a fateful turning point when Americans had to decide whether to save nature, to destroy it, or to just stare at it under glass.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Kirk, who teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a rollicking biography of Carl Akeley, an American taxidermist who preserved realistic-looking beasts complete with aura of "will," for 20th-century natural history museums. (His breakthrough was papierma^ché.) But alive beats lifelike, so the author spends most of the book following Akeley's African safaris, where he hunts big game and touring tycoons who might fund his projects. These chapters combine epic adventure--Akeley endures waterless marches, fever, and bloody maulings by a leopard and an elephant--with the offbeat love story of Akeley and his crackshot wife, Mickie, who is forever rescuing and nursing her husband. (The marriage dissolves when Mickie essentially falls in love with a pet monkey who tears up their New York apartment.) A talented literary taxidermist, Kirk spruces up the story's anatomy with dramatic "inferences"-- imagined scenes and imputed streams of consciousness--and heroic cameos including a memorable turn by Akeley's safari companion, Theodore Roosevelt. The result is a beguiling, novelistic portrait of a man and an era straining to hear the call of the wild. Photos. (Nov.)
San Francisco Chronicle Eric Simons

An epic display of one man's life…Emotional, real, and incredibly detailed.
author of A Beautiful Mind Sylvia Nasar

Kingdom Under Glass reminds me of Herzog's Fitzcarraldo--a mesmerizing, true story of a magnificent obsession.
NPR's All Things Considered

A thrill ride…full of exotic safaris, brutal killing, and bloody encounters with the very creatures Akeley was trying to preserve.
author of The Professor and the Madman and Atlanti Simon Winchester

One might say that an author who stumbles across the story of a man who wrestles a leopard to death, stuffs the first Jumbo for Barnum & Bailey, and perfects the art of mounting dead gorillas really can't go wrong. But Jay Kirk has created such a boisterously good-natured account of the life of the great taxidermist and conservationist Carl Akeley that a tale already well-nigh-incredible becomes in his hands just wonderfully sensational. This is a true gem of a book, well worthy of its extraordinary subject.
author of Off the Road Jack Hitt

A jungle adventure story into the heart of Africa, at first, and then, what might seem like the campy world of taxidermy and those great museum dioramas but, ultimately, Jay Kirk is telling the story of the man who taught America how to see nature.
The Washington Post

Until reading Kingdom Under Glass I didn't think it was possible to use the words "fascinating" and "taxidermy" in the same sentence (at least not with a straight face)...but much of the book is about preserving dead animals, and fascinating it certainly is. This is thanks to gonzo narration by Jay Kirk, who has also written on travel and true crime. His prose is daring - sometimes even a bit wild - and he worms his way convincingly into the minds of his subjects.
Mother Jones

With a scholar's relish and a novelist's narrative flair…Kirk conjures the life and exploits of early 20th century taxidermist Carl Akeley.

A genuinely rip-roaring read!

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.
The Boston Globe

In painting Akeley's lifelong passion for preserving rare animals and tying it to modern-day conservation and environmental goals, Kirk brings together Victorian and modern ideas about nature and humankind in smart, sensitive ways.
USA Today

With novelistic details, Kirk's book re-creates the adventures of a brooding genius who went big-game hunding with Theodore Roosevelt and invented a new camera that revolutionized photography and film.
Library Journal
In the early 20th century, Carl Akeley elevated the craft of taxidermy by perfecting innovative techniques for mounting lifelike specimens and displaying them in meticulously re-created habitats. Shooting and skinning animals, Akeley endured malaria, rat-bite fever, meningitis, and animal attacks to obtain the highest-quality African mammals for the Chicago Field Museum and the American Museum of Natural History. His stunning dioramas of elephants and mountain gorillas were admired by Teddy Roosevelt and Dian Fossey, among many others. With a large dose of artistic license, journalist Kirk has constructed a biography of Akeley from what could have been the thoughts, feelings, motivations, and conversations of Akeley and other individuals. But instead of providing new insight or perspective on Akeley's life and considerable legacy, Kirk's narrative reads like a wordy, digressive novel. VERDICT While some readers might find the novelistic approach entertaining, others will find it irksome. Those with serious interest in Akeley should turn to Penelope Bodry-Sanders's more informative Carl Akeley: Africa's Collector, Africa's Savior. [Library marketing.]—Cynthia Knight, Hunterdon Cty. Lib., Flemington, NJ

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He felt heartsick when he saw the gorilla start its death tumble. It was coming right for him. Three or four hundred pounds of silver-backed ape slumping down the bright green jumble of vegetation in joyless somersaults. Rolling like a rain barrel, long arms flopping, ass over applecart, a furry black hogshead headed straight for the chasm below. Nothing was going to stop it now from hurtling into the void. Even if it ran him over first. Even if it took him with it. A skinny sapling was the only thing between him—between Carl Akeley, the world's greatest taxidermist—and the three-hundred-foot plummet. He leaned into it, rifle still pressed to his shoulder. The recoil alone would have knocked him off the mountain without the little tree wedged into his spine.

Technically, it wasn't a straight three-hundred-foot drop. Directly behind Akeley, crumbling just under the heel of his Silver & Edgington hobnail boot, was a sheer twenty-foot drop, and below that a sharp fifty-foot slide—and then the big straight two-hundred-foot plummet. Chances were if the gorilla kept its momentum and made it over the first drop, it was going all the way, leaving Akeley with nothing to show for the thousands of miles he'd traveled to collect it for his greatest work-in-progress.

That is, if the gorilla didn't collect him first.

His Watusi guides and gun bearer were still clinging to the steep bank, where they had frozen at varying angles after spotting the black shaggy head thirty feet or so above them. They'd first seen it from across the canyon, a black speck minding its own business, and they had spent the better part of the morning getting from the one ridge, down the canyon, and back up the other side to the crest of this one just to see if it was indeed what they'd hoped. For hours, nothing but the sound of machete. The climb alternated between strictly vertical and almost vertical, and he had to repeatedly beg the guides to stop so he could catch his breath. It was grilling work, and quite honestly he wondered if he would survive it at all. To look at him was to wonder the same thing. Here was a white man clearly done in. He was gaunt and rattle-eyed. Feverish shadows cast by the brim of his pith helmet burrowed into the crags of a face that looked as if it were literally aging by the hour. He had felt the onset of the fever before he'd even penetrated gorilla country. Despite the cool moist climate he was a man on fire. By the time they'd got to the other side of the canyon, hauling themselves up by the mutinous nettles and thistle stalk—and then out along the crest of this narrow ridge, the terrible drop just beneath—he had had almost no strength left at all. Barely enough to stop for a smoke.

Leaning against the solitary sapling, he had got an upward bead on the gorilla rustling about in the vivid welter of greenery. His gun bearer clung to the slope with his right hand, like a whaler hanging off the mizzen shrouds, holding out the second rifle if Carl needed backup. The guide who'd spotted the ape had then lain down on the ground before him, naked but for his goatskin, and waited patiently for bwana to take the shot. The explosion was only a residue now. All dead quiet except the crumpling whoosh of vegetation as it parted in the wake of the gorilla's fall.

Carl Akeley nearly sank with relief when the gorilla passed cleanly between him and the terrified guide. But then dread immediately filled in the relief when the gorilla catapulted over the first ledge.

Before his mood had given way to dread that he would lose this most rare and dear prize, the taxidermist had been filled with an almost childlike sense of awe and glee. That he was actually seeing a gorilla in the first place! That this most unknown and mythical creature was actually just up there, looking down at him, with an expression of passive curiosity. Its face was ugly and mild. It looked as if it were rethinking through some small but persistent self-doubt. Part of Akeley's sense of disbelief, certainly, was caused by the great heat boiling his flesh, the fever that cauterized everything passing before his eyes. He should have started taking the quinine earlier. Now, along with an evil headache, everything was distorted with an aura of unreality. It was an eerie beauty of volcanoes and misty ravines, of crooked trees dripping with moss and silvery lichen. He half expected to see fairies springing out of the lacy chest-high ferns.

Really, like a boy, he had had to pinch himself when he had seen the first knuckle print in the mud. He'd held his hand over the four impressions, curling the back of his trembling fingers above the larger mold. Then, after scrambling farther along on all fours in the ruck and jumble of vine and bamboo, they'd come to several footprints in a slick of mud. They were enormous. All but human. It was then he felt his faith slipping, and he switched from the Springfield to the double-barreled elephant gun.

Theoretically, he told himself, he did not fear the gorillas. He had even composed a sort of creed against this fear: how he had spent too much time around wild animals to believe in monsters. He knew they weren't looking for trouble. But now he felt almost excited to a painful degree. That was how the first white man to encounter a gorilla, Paul du Chaillu, had put it right before he'd blown the "hellish" creature straight to kingdom come. Akeley had gorged himself on these early sensational narratives before coming here. Du Chaillu believed the gorillas were so powerful they had driven out the lions and elephants from this region where they lived. Excited to a painful degree, though, was exactly how Akeley felt, even if he had tried to convince himself ahead of time that the brutes could not possibly be half as ferocious as their popular image: that of a demonic beast capable of snapping a rifle in its teeth, or ripping the head off a man with one hand, and with a penchant for abducting human females for purposes of unchaste cavorting. But when he saw the print in the mud, he'd been all too eager to hold the rifle. Then when he had finally come upon this one sunning itself on the upper slope of the canyon, it seemed a benign and gentle beast. Crouched on a mezzanine of dense vegetation, doing nothing more than regarding the day. Akeley had waited for it to charge, or to beat on its chest, as he had read in accounts, but it did nothing of the sort. It merely barked at him, like a seal. And on the fourth bark Akeley had pulled the trigger.

The truth would still bring people to the museum in droves. If only it didn't vanish into the chasm first.

After the first bounce the gorilla stopped abruptly at the very lip of the canyon. Snagged at the last moment by a wiry tree. A miraculous save, against all odds. Saved by an even scantier tree than the one Carl had used to brace himself for the shot. There it dangled, wrapped around the little tree, creaking heavily, a four-hundred-pound silverback, suspended over the very brink of the eastern Congo.

Its body was still hot.

He had only a jackknife to skin it. The guides had discouraged him from bringing any of his scientific paraphernalia. The climb was too steep to carry anything extra. He had left behind his motion picture camera as well, and he had no porters. While he roughly skinned and skeletonized the gorilla where it lay, the others held on to it where they could, and on to the American as well, clutching hold of his boots to keep him from slipping over the edge.

Wouldn't Mickie have loved that? Wouldn't that have made life easier for his soon-to-be ex-wife? End all the wrangling. Send home the lawyers. No more need to come up with epithets to call him in the newspapers. A "cruel caveman" and all the rest. No need for her to invent more malicious lies to drag his reputation through the mud.

As he tugged away at the animal's skin, he tried to keep his focus. This was no time to think about marital troubles. And yet, if he did somehow slip, if the branch suddenly snapped, and he fell to his death in the embrace of this half-skinned grizzled old ape, tumbling together through space before being smashed to bits, wouldn't Mickie have had the last laugh then? She'd be singing the hinky-dinky, parlez-vous. No doubt about it. He'd had to play all sorts of stupid games just to keep her from sabotaging this latest expedition. Lying about the date of his departure, for example. He was sure it incensed her that he'd come back to Africa without her. That all the glory was his this time around. But what if he lost his balance in the slippery blood? It would be in all the newspapers: Carl Akeley, the world's most renowned and redoubtable taxidermist, the explorer, inventor, resurrection artist, flenser of elephants, tailor of the integument, sculptor of the dermic membrane, had fallen to his death, pulled over the brink in the embrace of a four-hundred-pound gorilla. How sensational! Even if it paled in comparison to the sordid stuff his lawyers had told him Mickie was prepared to release to the papers.

Once again, he tried to focus on the task at hand. Carefully cutting out the gorilla's heart. Handing it to one of the men to wrap in leaves so he could preserve it in formalin later, back at camp. Ditto with the brain, liver, and specimens of skin around the pubic region—all specifically requested by the museum biologists—all the better to read into the story of their nearest living relative. He looked up at the volcano, Nyamlagira, in the near distance, near enough it made a low rumble in the air. It all looked like something from a Jules Verne novel. Who knew if at this very moment he held in his hand the skull of the "missing link"?

His boss, Henry Fairfield Osborn, president of the American Museum of Natural History, of course scoffed at the idea of any such link being discovered in Africa. In fact, he was about to send off a million-dollar expedition to Central Asia, where he was positive he'd find it.

Carl had heard some of the foolish yarns about gorillas as a guest of the White Fathers, whose mission sat at the foot of Mount Mikeno, and from where he had started his climb and got his guides as well. Shortly before his arrival a gorilla had evidently come down into a nearby village. When the men went to chase it from the banana groves, it had killed one of them, torn the man limb from limb and ripped off his head. Carl wasn't really inclined to believe the story. These Belgian friars had settled here after being expelled from Uganda. They were not entirely reliable. A day before reaching the mission, he'd passed a small cemetery where eleven Belgian officers were buried, killed during the war, the graves enclosed by elephant grass, marked with moldy wooden crosses, piled high with rocks to keep away hyenas. It was the war that had given Mickie her chance to get away from him in the first place. The Great War had replaced all their former adventures. How many years had it been since they'd stood back-to-back in a standoff against a charging dust storm of elephants? What pure exhilaration to feel her small shoulders pressed into his back, quivering with each kick of her rifle. But those days were long gone.

The White Fathers Mission was a small compound of low whitewashed buildings, dirt floors, thatched roofs, and windowless shutters. (In the nearby village of Gisenyi, the local doctor used spent photographic plates for windowpanes.) At the mission the White Fathers grew vegetables and tobacco and roses. They taught the local Watusi children, conducting the spiritual salvation of the savages, and put them to work making cigars and bricks for the cathedral they were erecting here in the wilderness. The White Fathers, as overseen by Père Supérieur von Hoef, had made themselves somewhat of a welcome hostel to gorilla hunters. Most recently, Prince William of Sweden had shot fourteen. This was the same prince rumored to have divorced his wife just a few years earlier for being a Russian spy; but then it turned out the princess had simply deserted him and refused to return to cold Christiania. Now he intended to prove himself as a big-game hunter and to give his fourteen ape skins to the museum in Stockholm. The prince had taken along le Père Supérieur, who, in his long white robes, stiff cape, and fulsome beard, looked like that other mad monk Rasputin. Le Père had shot one himself and dismissed Akeley's claims that the gorilla was in danger of extinction, believing that the mountains were populated by thousands. Carl doubted there were more than a couple hundred.

This particular one he was now expertly skinning with a jackknife seemed to him like a worthwhile sacrifice—if only to preserve a likeness of what would be lost forever if a few more Prince Williams ever made their way up this mountain. Even so, doing the museum's bidding this time around made him feel like a plain murderer. He had never felt quite as sick about his job as he did now. But still, as civilization continued its rapid march across the last of the earth's hidden worlds, there was really nothing else he could do but preserve a snapshot of this near relict.

If only he'd been able to preserve what he'd had with Mickie. It was the grounds of cruelty that really ticked him off, he thought, as he severed the gorilla's head. He kicked aside the pile of innards and watched them slide down the grassy slope. That he had tied her to their bed and turned on the gas in their Upper West Side apartment. Threatened to cut her throat with a razor. Abandoned her to die of blood poisoning after her infernal pet monkey had bitten her on the leg and damn near cost her her life—of all things, that he had abandoned her. Well, she had deserted him first. Not the other way around. They were all stinking lies. It was outrageous, especially now that he had found out the truth. That she meant to ruin much more than his good name. That all along—or at least in the end—it was she who had planned to murder him.

Or at least that's what the psychiatrist said.

She was batty. Completely insane. But, still, if she was prepared to go public with her mad ravings, it wouldn't just be ruinous to his reputation but would besmirch the museum as well. He pried off the finger- and toenails one at a time with the blade, carefully numbering each like a rare beetle, tucking them into his breast pocket.

He felt incredibly weak and tried not to think whether he'd be able to get back to camp on his own. His fever radiated around him like a box. He could have lain down right here and fallen asleep; but he would rather do anything than resort to the humiliation of having his men carry him back like a child. He was far too old to be doing this kind of work anymore. The sapling bowed under the weight of the half-skinned gorilla. A vulture floating out over the canyon banked an invisible current. Even if Akeley didn't fall to his death, Mickie might get her way regardless. He could tell by the troubled looks of his guides that he must have appeared grave indeed. More like a sickly seventy-year-old than a man three years shy of sixty. By his own estimate, he'd lost twenty pounds in the last three weeks. His clothes barely hung on his frame. He looked like the first draft of one of his own manikins.

He worked till the point where his fingernails felt sore and loose—a hazard of the trade; arsenic made it all but impossible to keep one's fingernails.

After they had skinned the gorilla, his guides packed up the bones in their baskets, and with Carl following behind at a determined limp, they began the march back down to the base camp.

Somehow he made it on his own before dusk.

As he prepared a batch of plaster to make a mold of the soles of the gorilla's feet and the palms of its hands, the mist shuffled through the trees and wrapped around the camp. His men were busy cleaning its skeleton, and he kept a close eye on them while they worked; he had already taken all the necessary measurements and preserved the organs in jars of formalin for the trip back to New York. One of the men was attempting to build a fire. In this weather, in the constant fog and rain, it was a struggle, and everything—tents, guns, chop boxes—was covered by a green spidery mold. Just to protect the unexposed film for his motion picture camera, each reel was kept in a sealed tin. Five reels then went in a larger tin box with the lid soldered on. Then four of those packages were sealed inside a corrugated cardboard carton and packed in a tin-lined cedar box. The whole shebang was carried in a galvanized iron box just heavy enough for one porter to manage on his head (while keeping his balance with a spear).

He held the gorilla's head in his lap, studying its face, as he stirred more plaster for a death mask. The gorilla was an older male, no doubt in the twilight of its peaceable life, even if, in death, he could see the vague indentations of worry in its dilated creased face, its uncertain eyes. It was deeply unsettling to recognize such distinct character looking back at him. There was no other word for this quality. This old ape had had its own dilemmas. It made him feel like a murderer, not just because in a distorted way it looked humanish—and no doubt that distortion was caused in part by the fever—but because, unlike a zebra or hippopotamus, it had that vaguish quality of personality. Zebras had fierce spirit, but they did not have individual character.

Akeley poured the white gloop over its face, letting the plaster seal in all the inscrutable furrows, concealing, for now, any doubts about what he had just done.

Later that night, to the utter disgust of the native guides, out of some irresistible curiosity, he would cook and eat some of the flesh of the old gorilla. He was depleted and ate it for strength. The unmarinaded meat was surprisingly sweet. It did not taste taboo. But then, in the middle of the night, he woke in a cold sweat, convinced he had hallucinated the entire thing. The trip across the sea. The hunt. The terrible climb. The reality of the gorilla. He could not be convinced otherwise until he stumbled out into camp and saw the old male's skin hanging there, flapping in the cold wind.

Its skeleton creaked at him on the rack.

He could hear a hyrax in the trees, making its eerie screech, just like a child shrieking in pain. However pitiful, the cries of this strange shrewlike creature did nothing to elicit the sympathy of its enemy the leopard. The cat's tracks were visible on the ground around their tents come morning. In the distance the cauldron of Nyamlagira was spitting lava and glowing under the scud of clouds drifting across the night. In a way he envied the old gorilla. He would have gladly exchanged roles. Given it his steamer ticket back to New York, let it deal with his wife, the lawyers, pick up his god-awful lecture circuit. Just leave him here to die in peace. Let the volcano be his funeral pyre.

But then, he would never have lived long enough to give the gorillas reason to thank him. For truly, even these ones here, the dead and dismantled, would have risen from their vats of formalin to thank the taxidermist if they could have seen what he was about to do. His next act. Even if he didn't know yet himself, it would change everything.

Excerpted from Kingdom Under Glass by Jay Kirk
Copyright 2010 by Jay Kirk
Published in 2010 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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