[After the elephant, the gorilla was Carl Akeley’s greatest love. He went to Africa for the fourth time in 1921 to collect three for the American Museum of Natural History, and came back with those three, as well as a new resolve to help preserve the animal. In the mythos of Carl Akeley, this trip was a transformative one, the redemptive act in the narrative of his life.
What follows is a bit about the mountain gorilla that got cut from the book. Mostly to trim what is still, in the end, a perhaps exceedingly long final chapter. Maybe this is how it works. Maybe you get to what you know is your book’s final chapter and suddenly it’s Oh, damn, I have so much more to pack in here.
For more on Carl and gorillas, be sure to check out Jay Kirk’s biography of Carl Akeley that came out last year.]
The Gorilla genus has two main species. The more common Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla) lives in the lowlands near the South Atlantic coast. It was discovered (well, by white people) in 1847. Its cousin, the Eastern Gorilla (Gorilla berenghi), lives up in the mountains and was discovered in 1903. 1903! We discovered radioactivity before we did the mountain gorilla, and given what little we knew about the former’s dangers back then one can imagine the confusion and mystery and misinformation that surrounded the latter.
This was decades before Dian Fossey, before George Schaller. At the turn of the century, gorillas were ferocious, maneating creatures that nabbed (white) women away from camps in the night. One missionary published an account of the Western gorilla which claimed that if a hunter is unable to take a shot when confronted with the beast, the latter will take the gunbarrel in his jaws and crush it, robot-like, between his teeth.
And it wasn’t just hunters or collectors compelled by the mythos of the gorilla. Dr. Max Thorek, president and surgeon-in-chief of the American Hospital in Chicago, once wrote Carl that he was “interested in the subject [of Gorilla preservation] for scientific reasons. I have been experimenting a great deal with the transplantation of glands from the higher apes to the human, and also the transfusion of blood from the same animals to the human.” he enclosed with this letter an article he’d published in a “leading medical journal” that he failed to name. The article, “Preliminary Report of Free Testicular Transplantation from Ape to Man with Histologic Findings,” aimed to study whether grafting hominid testicles in the scrotums of impotent humans could “restore lost physical and sexual capacity”—a sort of Viagra of Dr. Moreau.
The first white man to kill a gorilla was Paul Du Chaillu, in 1855, who had the good sense to write of the experience, “I protest I felt almost like a murderer when I saw the gorillas this first time. As they ran—on their hind legs—they looked fearfully like hairy men; their heads down, their bodies inclined forward, their whole appearance like men running for their lives.” Ward’s Natural Science Establishment [where Carl had his first taxidermy job] had a gorilla mounted at the front gate, its arms raised menacingly above its head. Prince William of Sweden shot 14 gorillas just days before Carl arrived in the Belgian Congo.
In his notes for the expedition Carl already sees the need for preservation. They’d be hunting in the plateau joining Mts. Mikeno, Karisimbi, and Bisoke, and, “I doubt if the entire gorilla population will exceed fifty individuals,” Carl wrote. “It will be a very simple matter to exterminate them.”