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MLA Full: "Carl Akeley's Fighting African Elephants." YouTube, uploaded by thebrainscoop, 11 December 2013,
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Or, how do you taxidermy an elephant?


The Brain Scoop is written and hosted by:
Emily Graslie

Created By:
Hank Green

Directed, Edited, Animated, and Scored by:
Michael Aranda

Production Assistant:
Katie Kirby

Filmed on Location and Supported by:
The Field Museum in Chicago, IL

Photo Credits:

Trees, mountains, water, scenery. Lake Elementeita, small lake west of the Aberdare Range, where Carl E. Akeley shot one of the elephants.:© The Field Museum, CSZ20136, Photographer Carl Akeley.

Several men from Safari walking down from the mountain and are carrying collections including tusks and skulls of the Elephants: © The Field Museum, CSZ20242, Photographer Carl Akeley.

[about 20 men] Porters carrying Elephant skull and tusks with dense jungle in the background. They are making their way down from the mountain.: © The Field Museum, CSZ20253, Photographer Carl Akeley.

Skull and 2 tusks of old bull Elephant (of Museum group) shot by Mrs. Delia Akeley: © The Field Museum, CSZ20004, Photographer Carl Akeley.

Image of the elephants in armature © AMNH Negative Logbook 16 410833 - American Museum of Natural History

Carl Akeley creating model of Bull Elephant for Elephant group © American Museum of Natural History, 330591

African Elephants Group (Loxodonta africana Proboscidea Elephantidae) front view. Security guard in uniform stands on left side. Background shows the columns that have been draped with large white sheets. White plaster miniature sculpture from Agriculture Building at the World's Columbian Exposition. Shows "Harvest" a Chariot sculpture group for Colonnade by Mr. M. A. Waagen. Columbian Rotunda of Field Columbian Museum, Jackson Park. Taxidermy by Carl Akeley: © The Field Museum, CSZ29277_A, Photographer Charles Carpenter.

Lowell Shapley!:

Thanks to Enrico Cioni, Katerina Idrik, Tony Chu, Barbara Velázquez, and Seth Bergenholtz for the awesome translated captions!

Welcome to Carl Akeley: Part Two, where we're going to be talking about the Fighting Elephants. If you want to learn more about the Four Seasons, click there!

In 1905 Marshall Field, the Field Museum's namesake and first major benefactor, funded a trip for Carl and his new wife, Delia, to go to Africa. After seeing Carl's work with P.T. Barnum's elephant, Jumbo, a few years earlier, Field was inspired to have his own pair of humongously over-sized mammals. 

Even at the beginning of the 20th century the African Elephant was considered to be a threatened species so people going on these expeditions were only permitted 2 elephants per person. That's still a lot of elephants per person. And to be quite honest, Carl kind of blew it. The two elephants he ended up taking down were done so in self-defense. So it was up to his wife, Delia, to take down the big bull elephant, which she did.

In order to prepare the hides for mounting, they worked with a team in the fields of Africa to salt the hides. Carl also invented a new way of using a kind of vegetable tan that would help preserve the hide, but still make it pliable without allowing it to rot.

Once they got back to the States, gigantic frames were made using a combination of metal rods and the animal's own bones, and then musculature was put on top of the frame. These armatures were informed by detailed measurements taken from the animals shortly after death. The hides were too massive to be worked whole so they were put on in numbered sections, and then each one of those sections was meticulously sculpted to capture all of the little wrinkles and nuances of the skin. After that, they used dyed threads to carefully hide all of the seams.

The elephants went on display in 1909 and became known as "The Fighting African Elephants." Carl's is the smaller one, and Delia of course has the bigger one. Today, Carl's elephant can be seen cracking along the edges, presumably because he tried to make it appear larger in death than it was in life.

We know from Carl and Delia's work together on the Four Seasons that their marriage saw a lot of love. But rumor has it that Carl posed these elephants this way to reflect that maybe things weren't going so hot. On a separate voyage to Africa, Delia's affections were stolen by another! It was a monkey. She initially trapped the monkey in order to make observations of it in the field, for science. She eventually let it roam free- at least, sort of; it was tied to a leash, but it moved with them between camps. It had it's own umbrella bearer, she made it a pair of little pants, it had its own toilet, and she named it J.T. Jr. I'm not making this up.

Eventually, Carl got a job at the American Museum of Natural History, so they moved to New York, and Delia insisted on bringing the monkey with them from Africa. But, surprise, surprise: monkeys don't do well in apartments in the biggest city of America. Delia became obsessed with taking care of J.T. Jr. She stopped leaving her apartment, and stopped inviting guests over for dinner because their apartment smelled like monkey poo all the time.

Carl started working long nights at the studio and would be gone for days at a time. This proved to be a problem, because eventually J.T. Jr. bit Delia on the leg, and the bite become so infected, by the time Carl came home a few days later, they almost had to amputate her leg. Naturally, this was kind of the last straw, and Carl insisted that J. T. Jr. finally be placed in a zoo. Delia was distraught, and without warning, she fled one night to join the war effort over in Europe, eventually filing for divorce overseas. 

A lot of that discourse can be seen reflected in his mounts here. Carl was a broken man for a long time, but eventually he remarried. Today, his influence can be seen all over the world, and the Carl Akeley Award is given out every year at the World Taxidermy Championships in order to honor innovation in the field.

If you want to see more of Carl Akeley's work, you can visit some of his dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History, and of course, you can always visit his legacy here, at The Field Museum.


It still has brains on it.