The Famous Taxidermist Who Fought A Leopard With His Bare Hands

“He shot wildly off into the grass, he heard a shriek or a yowl, and quickly realized, ‘Oh, that’s not a wart hog.’ ” —Jay Kirk, telling Akeley’s story

In A Nutshell

Need a dead stuffed animal? Better call Carl Akeley. This guy was the father of modern taxidermy, but he almost died on his first trip to Africa when he was attacked by an angry leopard. Out of bullets, Akeley was forced to fight the big cat with his bare hands.

The Whole Bushel

Once upon a time, before Animal Planet or David Attenborough, museums relied on taxidermied animals to educate the masses. And if you needed a lion or elephant stuffed properly, you called on Carl Akeley. Considered the father of modern taxidermy, Akeley has an entire wing of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City named after him. But even though he was widely respected for advancing the art of preserving dead animals, Akeley almost became cat food on his first trip to Africa in 1896.

During a journey to Somaliland, Akeley and his assistant were out hunting ostriches for the Field Museum in Chicago when the hunter spotted something lurking in the tall grass. As this was his first big trip, Akeley was a bit inexperienced and thought the mystery creature was a warthog. Wanting to bag poor Pumba and take him back to the States, Akeley raised his rifle and squeezed the trigger. But when he heard a bloodcurdling shriek, he realized his mistake. This was no pig. It was a leopard—and it was still alive.

Night was falling fast, and Akeley wasn’t keen on spending the evening on the savannah with a ticked-off, sharp-toothed, ready-for-revenge pussycat. Akeley and his partner packed up their gear and high-tailed it back to camp, wanting to get out of the brush as fast as possible. But when the men reached a clearing, they spotted the wounded leopard about 20 meters (60 ft) away.

Not wanting to end up stuffing the cat with his own entrails, Akeley raised his rifle and fired twice . . . but he missed both times. On his third shot, the bullet grazed the leopard, sending the feline into a frenzy. Enranged, the big cat screamed and charged the American, all teeth and bad attitude, ready to take a little revenge.

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Terrified out of his mind, Akeley pulled the trigger a fourth time, and like a scene from a ridiculously cliched action movie, he heard a sickening, hollow “click.” He was out of bullets. Downright desperate, Akeley tried to flee, loading cartridges into his rifle as he ran. Working the bolt, he turned to shoot, only to see the leopard flying through the air, fangs bared. Fortunately, Akeley’s first shot had wounded one of the cat’s back paws. Thanks to the bullet, the leopard’s jump was a bit off, giving Akeley enough time to throw up his hands. The cat sank its jaws into the man’s forearm, and the two started wrestling back and forth, fighting for their lives.

Eventually, the man and cat grew weak and tumbled to the ground. As they fell, Akeley landed on top of the carnivore, snapping one of its ribs. That gave him an idea. With every ounce of strength he could muster, Akeley started jumping up and down on the leopard’s rib cage, slamming his knees into the big cat’s bones. At the same time, he strangled the creature with his left hand while ramming his right arm down the leopard’s throat. Sure, he was a jerk for shooting the cat in the first place, but you’ve got to admit, the man had moxie.

Determined to make it back home, Akeley kept squeezing and shoving and bouncing until the leopard went limp. Staggering away, the hunter returned seconds later with his assistant’s knife and mercifully sent the beast to the great big savannah in the sky. Victorious, Akeley went on to a long career of shooting and stuffing wildlife, until he had a Damascene conversion. Undergoing a complete 180, Akeley gave up hunting, became a staunch defender of mountain gorillas, and was responsible for opening Africa’s first wildlife sanctuary in 1925.

Show Me The Proof

NPR: Wrestling Leopards, Felling Apes: A Life In Taxidermy
Popular Science: December 1925
The Field Museum: Carl Akeley

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