Jay Kirk | Field Museum | Literary Events | Chicago Reader
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Jay Kirk 

When: Sat., Nov. 6, 1 p.m. 2010
Phone: 312-665-7400
Price: free with museum admission
Kirk discusses Kingdom Under Glass: A Tale of Obsession, Adventure, and One Man's Quest to Preserve the World's Great Animals. Carl Akeley was one of the world's few taxidermy prodigies. The subject of Jay Kirk's novelistic biography went from preparing birds and feathers to adorn ladies' hats to stuffing P.T. Barnum's famous elephant Jumbo, after which followed gigs for the 1893 World's Colombian Exposition in Chicago and a position at the Field Museum, where his skill at creating lifelike tableaux served him well. "Chicago had grown too small for this taxidermist's ambition," Kirk writes, and Akeley was poached from the Field by New York's American Museum of Natural History. There he hoped to achieve his ultimate dream: a massive diorama consisting of every animal on the African continent. That required many specimens, and the real drama of the book lies in Akeley's many safaris. Along with various pestilences, he survived a leopard attack by strangling the cat as it tried to gnaw off his arm. Another time he was gruesomely mangled by an enraged bull elephant. His supportive but only so-long-suffering wife, Mickie, in effect left him for a pet monkey. Yet he remained undeterred. Akeley killed representatives of dozens of vanishing species in his quest to preserve them, sometimes simply discarding the bodies because he didn’t consider them perfect enough to be mounted. But in 1921 he had a sort of epiphany after shooting a mountain gorilla. Examining its humanlike features, he cursed himself as a "cold-blooded killer" and began work on a new dream—a gorilla refuge in the Congo. He died of a fever during yet another African expedition—this time to see gorillas, not hunt them—and was buried on the mountain where he fell. The Akeley Hall of African Animals opened at the American Museum of Natural History ten years later, on May 20, 1936. Only 15 of Akeley's planned 28 dioramas were complete. —Jerome Ludwig

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