Old School Explorer, Mickie Akeley

Updated: Oct 17, 2020

Larger than life, Mickie Akeley was not afraid of many things, but she could not stand elevators.

Do you admire women who seize the chance to do what few people have done? To count down the days to National Kick Butt Day, October 14, I am honoring ten adventurous members of the Society of Woman Geographers. They were brave during an era when it took courage simply to don the trousers necessary to explore the Earth’s mountains, jungles, oceans, and skies. Today, I am honoring the outspoken Delia “Mickie” Akeley, who hunted for museum specimens alongside Teddy Roosevelt and didn’t hesitate to say she was too exhausted to enjoy chasing animals.

Mickie was an old-school explorer who married to taxidermist Carl Akeley. Today, we would call her a trailing spouse. But she did not trail for long.

During her first safari with Carl, Mickie quickly became a crack markswoman out of necessity. She recognized that a woman who could not take care of herself was a handicap on a safari. She frequently told her friends the story of why she learned to shoot.

“We were going quietly along the bush-covered banks of a stream looking for birds when a lion growled at us, and I became petrified with fright.”

Her young guide gen­­tly put his hand on her shoulder and whispered, “Very bad, memsahib! Very bad!”

“I am fully aware that it is ‘very bad,’” Mickie thought.

She collected her wits and backed up, clutching her shotgun, which she knew would not be lethal enough to save her from the lion. She recalled: “I don’t know what happened to the lion. His growl may have merely been a warning. He may have been as badly frightened as I was. But I did some heavy thinking as I walked back to camp.” She quickly learned how to shoot a 256 Mannlicher-Schoenhauser rifle. With only three birds to her credit as a marksman, she shot a charging bull elephant and dropped him six feet from where she stood. As Mickie wryly noted:

“It is not necessary to be a man to fire a rifle.”

Mickie admitted: “In a country where anything may happen and where even at night one must wake from a sound sleep and be ready for instant action, it would be folly to say there is no fear. But it is the sort of fear that stimulates, and perhaps it is that element that I have learned to love.”

“I do not feel especially brave. My work calls me to Africa, and I go gladly. It is hard to say what constitutes bravery. It may be a tautening of nerves in the face of danger; it may be the thrill of overcoming that stimulates and strengthens, in proportion to the thing to be overcome.”

She also admitted that she had come close to death a few times, once with a fever:

“I was delirious half of the time. When I wasn’t, I could hear the cook and my personal boy sitting outside the tent, discussing how they would prepare my body and arguing over how they would divide up my clothes. Each morning one of them would come in and ask politely if I was going to die that day. I always responded that I didn’t think so.”

But sometimes Mickie was too tired to feel the thrill of the hunt. President Theodore Roosevelt loved to tell the story about the time he went hunting with the Akeleys in Africa. They had been hunting elephants on Mount Kenya for several days. Mickie was tired. Not only was the climb steep, but they had to machete their way through the undergrowth on the side of the mountain, while the elephant would plow through the dense vegetation with ease. Mickie would take one step forward and slide two steps back. Frustrated, she pulled her hat down over her eyes so Roosevelt would not see the tears welling up.

Suddenly Carl saw an elephant’s footprint. He excitedly told Mickie, “My, dear, the elephants have been here.”

When Mickie did not reply, Carl drew closer to Mickie.

“I say! My dear, the elephants have been here.”

Mickie emitted a half-stifled sob.

“The damn fools!” Mickie said, causing Carl and Roosevelt to laugh.

Later, Mickie conducted some cutting-edge field studies in primate behavior and communication and became oddly attached to a small monkey they had captured. She planned to observe the primate in captivity and then compare its behavior in the wild to prove her hypothesis that monkeys are cleaner in the wild. Mickie liked the monkey so much that she decided to keep her. She named it J.T., Jr., after cartoonist John T. McCutchen, who was a member of the expedition party, even though the monkey was female.

When Mickie was not hunting big game or observing primates, J.T. was her constant companion. Carl became jealous of J.T. Once, when he left to hunt animals for the day, Carl left Mickie a note: “I love you. xxxx [kisses]. I want you with me darling. So much separation is hell for me. I’m jealous of your thoughts. Yes, I’m even jealous of the monkey. Oh, Mickie, can’t you tell how much I worship you?”

Despite Carl’s pleas for attention, Mickie became even more obsessed with J.T. At the end of the safari, she brought him home to live in their Central Park West penthouse. She bought J.T. a chair and spoon so that she could eat breakfast with Mickie and Carl. She kept J.T. for nine years.