Sioux Falls, South Dakota—the zoo as a museum

delbrige-museum-elephant-crop-1250x400-43bd9When I arrived at the Great Plains Zoo in the summer of 1988, the first animal I encountered was the most impressive bull elephant I had ever seen. He had long curved tusks, his ears were fanned out in alarm, and his trunk reached out to smell whatever came his way. He was almost lifelike—but just, almost. He was actually a mounted specimen in the zoo’s Delbridge Museum of Natural History—a facet of the zoo that I initially found distasteful. The museum had over a hundred animals that had been shot by a local big game hunter and placed in his hardware store in the 1960s and ‘70s. Upon his death, the collection was purchased by philanthropist C. J. Delbridge and donated to the citizens of Sioux Falls on the condition that a museum be built to house them. The city decided to build the museum at the zoo. Fortunately, the specimens had been mounted by some of the best taxidermists in the nation and were in lifelike poses of museum quality.

Managing the museum was the most memorable aspect of my time in Sioux Falls. When I arrived there, the specimens were randomly arranged as individual artifacts in a large open indoor space. There was great potential to turn it into an educational facility if we could group them in naturalistic dioramas. I enlisted the aid of a local exhibit specialist, and we traveled to Los Angeles in October 1990 to consult with the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History. There we learned how to make molds out of silicon, latex, and plaster. We found out where to purchase artificial rocks and plants, and we observed the latest advances in robotics and animatronic exhibits. The first exhibit we developed in our own museum was an African waterhole, complete with artificial water, simulated animal footprints, and of course, our own mounted animals.

wide shotWe had many rare animals that our local citizens would otherwise never have an opportunity to see. It is difficult to appreciate the height of a giraffe or the mass of an elephant until you are directly underneath one. The collection even had a giant panda. It was not part of the original “hunted” collection. It had been donated later. As time went by and I grew to appreciate the educational value of our museum, I learned that natural history museums had a colorful history that predated most American zoos.

As circuses and their menageries of exotic animals were crisscrossing North America in the 1800s, some people were taking a more scientific interest in animals. One of the first organized efforts in North America was the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, which was founded in 1812 and opened its doors to the public in 1828. The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1846, New York’s American Museum of Natural History, in 1869, and the Field Museum in Chicago, in 1893–all with similar missions that involved increasing knowledge and inspiring an interest in nature and culture.

By the late 1800s, natural history museums were beginning to crop up all over the country. This phenomenon grew out of the industrial revolution’s gift of leisure time to the American people and the desire for “nature” amidst the nation’s growing urbanization. The first expeditions sent out by museums explored the western wilderness of America and brought back new species of plants and animals to identify, study, and catalog. The wealthiest of these museums soon began to widen their scope, sending explorers around the world to recover everything they could, from the antiquities of Egypt, to the fossil beds of Mongolia, to the rich wildlife of Africa.

Unfortunately for the wild animals destined for these museums, “collecting” was a scientific euphemism for killing, and one of the most well-known of the early collectors of wildlife was none other than former President Theodore Roosevelt.

When Roosevelt retired from the presidency in 1909, he was only fifty years old. The youngest former president in American history, he was looking for adventure and for a project that would take him away from Washington, D.C., and politics. A naturalist at heart, he turned, not surprisingly, to his boyhood fascination with natural history. Three weeks after the inauguration of his successor, William Howard Taft, Roosevelt set out for British East Africa to collect big game for the Smithsonian Institution. Many of the specimens were destined for the new U.S. National Museum building, then under construction on the National Mall, and today known as the National Museum of Natural History.

Roosevelt and his expedition team arrived in Mombasa in present-day Kenya on April 21, 1909. By the time they were finished nearly a year later, they had amassed thousands of specimens for the museum and also obtained live animals for the National Zoological Park, including a leopard, lions, cheetahs, gazelles, and some birds. Though it is tempting to be appalled at the loss of life, Roosevelt was a lover of nature who dedicated himself to protecting both wildlife and natural resources. He recognized that without dramatic action, the rich natural resources and incomparable landscapes of our country would disappear as quickly as the American bison had in his lifetime.

One of Roosevelt’s contemporaries, and someone who spent time in Africa with him, was taxidermist Carl Akeley. Akeley had been part of a zoological collecting expedition to British Somaliland (now Somalia) in 1896 for the Field Museum in Chicago, the first expedition into Africa by any American institution. It was there that he became somewhat of a legend in Africa when he killed a leopard—with his bare hands. According to his account, he was walking through the bush when he wheeled to face the leopard as it was in midair. His rifle was knocked flying and in its place was eighty pounds of frantic cat. Fortunately for Akeley, she missed his throat and struck him high in the chest, catching his upper arm in her mouth. He managed to grab her by the neck, stuff his other hand in her mouth, and fall on top of her. After an epic struggle, Akeley strangled the leopard.

Akeley’s real claim to fame, however, was in the world of taxidermy. His museum dioramas, which can still be seen today, were astonishingly realistic. When he entered the profession and observed the techniques of the time, he saw a better way to mount animals than those commonly in use. He was put off by the upholsterer’s method, in which a skin was sewn up like a pillow and stuffed with straw or excelsior until it would hold no more, then artistically pulled in with thread here and there to create contours. These mounts appalled Akeley’s aesthetic sensibility. He was an artist and wanted to be a sculptor in the world of taxidermy. He developed a technique for removing the skin of an animal by making only a few incisions and re-sewing the skin over a carefully sculpted mold to make a mounted animal (not a “stuffed” animal) that was incredibly lifelike.

Akeley’s mounts revolutionized not only the world of taxidermy but also the world of museum exhibits. His artistic eye extended to the rest of the diorama as well. He took black-and-white photographs of scenes in nature and gathered samples of bushes, plants, and other natural materials. He used these back in the studio where he made plaster casts and reproduced some of the artifacts in wax.

Later in his career, as he developed more elaborate dioramas, he added professional artists to his team. Before the development of color photographs, it was the only way to portray a landscape accurately. Akeley demanded a specific setting for the individual animals, and he would not accept a generalized background for any of his dioramas.

It was this tradition of museum exhibits that we hoped to tap in Sioux Falls. If we could link the zoo collection with the museum collection, there was, I felt, a unique opportunity to provide a complete animal experience. This is one of the reasons that when the Toledo Zoo came calling with a job opportunity, I had to take it. They also had a museum, although one with no mounted animals, and on August 8, 1991, I departed Sioux Falls for the next big chapter of my life in Toledo, Ohio.

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