A former gorilla keeper remembers the pioneering silverback who shattered misconceptions about his species and helped create a better Columbus Zoo.
Sometimes, I still smell him, a whiff of his sharp, pungent scent, like unadulterated human body odor, only cleaner, mixed with a sweet, haylike fragrance. When I first began working with Bongo, he was 26 and weighed just over 400 pounds. The hair on his broad back was completely silver and short—close to the skin—hence the term silverback for an adult male gorilla. Bongo’s hands were humongous with extremely thick fingers ending in black fingernails, hauntingly similar to ours. His face was heavily lined, especially under his eyes. His muzzle was round with a down-turned mouth.
I have heard others describe gorillas as having a puzzled look in their eyes. I understand what they are saying; some gorillas can have a faraway, blank gaze. But not Bongo. His eyes were a beautiful rust-brown. They could be contemplative or mischievous (gorillas know when they are being funny), or they might look inward as if they are somewhere else. Those same eyes could also put you in your place with a brief dismissive glance. Bongo demanded respect from us, not intentionally, not because he needed it, but because you knew you were looking at a creature of such grace and wisdom.
Mentors come in all shapes and sizes. Some actively function as guides, and others, unintentionally through their compelling stories, serve as touchstones. Bongo was that beacon for me. I was always mindful of his circumstances, of his brutal capture from the wild at the age of 2, his monotonous life in captivity, being on constant public display for more than two decades, his daughters and son taken from him and his then-mate, Colo, for hand rearing by humans.
I think about this all the time. His story was not unique; many gorillas suffered similar fates. But there was something about Bongo. It was as if his story and history informed me daily. Often I would catch him in deep thought, his body still, his eyes seemingly far away, as if he were calling up some long-ago memory. At times like this, I would move away before he saw me. I felt like an intruder going through someone’s private papers or bedroom dresser drawers. I cannot speak for the other keepers, but for me, all that we would implement, all the husbandry changes, all our initiatives, everything we did over the 14 years I spent working in the Columbus Zoo’s ape house would continuously loop back to Bongo. All carefully laid at his feet, as if in apology.
It is a cold early spring morning, the cloud cover low and gray, threatening rain as I drive to work. I am about two minutes from the employee parking lot when I notice a dead opossum on the road near the back entrance gate to the zoo. As I drive around it, something catches my eye, a movement. Turning the car around, parking by the side of the road, I walk up and see more movement: The opossum mother has several babies that are still alive, crawling on her dead body. I wrap them in a towel, placing them carefully on the seat beside me. I’ll figure out what to do with them later, but for now I need to get to work.
It is 7 a.m., and our local wildlife rehabilitation center will not open for several more hours, so I take the opossums into the ape house with me until I can make arrangements later in the morning to transport them. I am wearing a long-sleeved flannel shirt over my khaki zoo uniform, so I button it up, tuck it into my pants and place the opossums inside my zoo shirt pocket, creating a pouch where they will keep warm from my body heat while I go about my morning feeding and cleaning.
Bongo walks over for his breakfast, does a lovely, long “mmmm-wahh” (how are you?) vocalization, and then sits quietly at the front of the enclosure. He is more engaged than usual, noticing straight away something is up; his eyes immediately zoom in on the slight movement inside my shirt. He looks up at me, as if in question, and then makes a gesture with his hand. I know exactly what he wants, so I place the food bin on the ground, then reach into my shirt and pull out a tiny infant opossum; its elongated snout and whiskers work overtime trying to figure out what is going on after leaving the warmth and comfort of my pocket pouch. Opossums are odd-looking creatures, strangely cute with teeny, needle-sharp teeth with a light grayish-white body, much darker gray ears, pink feet. Its marblelike black eyes look out from a white face.
Bongo is as intent as any time since I began working with him 10 months before, in 1982. He is patient but insistent. I move closer, holding my hand out to him. Bongo reaches out his huge finger, then gently strokes this odd-looking creature. And lets out the loveliest vocalization, a rumbling of approval.
“Here comes the baby,” sing-songs a child as Bridgette ambles out the long chute to the outdoor exhibit on Labor Day weekend. Bongo, Bridgette’s mate and father of the infant, had come out first, as silverbacks will do, to make sure the area is safe for his family. Their 2-week-old son clings firmly with his hands and feet to his mother’s chest, his bum safely snug in one of his mother’s hands as she negotiates the chute system and climbs down into the outdoor habitat. Fossey is making his historic debut as the first mother-reared infant at our zoo, an event that is long overdue. We named this baby boy Fossey after pioneering gorilla researcher Dian Fossey. Our Fossey, too, is a pioneer.
Bridgette, on loan from the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, Nebraska, had a history of her infants being pulled shortly after their birth. She was, in essence, a baby-making machine. This was her seventh infant and only the second she was allowed to rear. In this case, we “owned” this infant, and the entire staff agreed that Bridgette would be the first gorilla at the Columbus Zoo to raise her child from birth. Meanwhile, 30-year-old Bongo, then the oldest reproducing male gorilla in captivity, was finally given what had always been his right but had been denied him—the opportunity to be a hands-on father. In the quiet of the night, Bongo witnessed the birth of his fourth child, and this time he was a part of the process, a quiet, comforting presence.
The birth took place in the old building with its renovated enclosures. Ironically, these were the very same that Bongo and Colo had so unhappily shared for decades, but with the recent renovations, the building had a completely different feel. It was relaxed and peaceful, and the new environment showed in the gorillas’ daily lives. They were behaving as gorillas.
Around 8 p.m., on the evening of Aug. 16, 1986, Bridgette began building a nest. Bongo sat calmly nearby, occasionally vocalizing to her in gentle encouragement. This was the first time we had left the male with the female during the birth. In the past, we had isolated the male from the female, resulting in the mother feeling additional stress because of the absence of her protector. What we learned from forward-thinking primate facilities like Apenheul in the Netherlands and Howletts in the United Kingdom, and from our past mistakes, was that a hands-off approach was best. The birth went smoothly, and Bridgette was a savvy mother, as she began to care for Fossey immediately.
Within 24 hours, it was clear that Bongo desperately wanted to touch his son. He sat by Bridgette, so close they were touching flank to flank. Fossey was cradled sound asleep in Bridgette’s lap. Bongo tentatively reached out his massive, leathery index finger in an attempt to touch the baby while looking in the opposite direction. He feigned nonchalance so studied and so intentional that it was droll, as if somehow Bridgette wouldn’t notice simply because he was pretending not to be there. But she did notice, and consistently brushed his hand aside until she finally looked at him as if to say, “I’ve got your number, pal. I see what you are doing.”
Bongo, busted, initially acted as if nothing unusual had happened, but after so many thwarted attempts, he placed his hand in his mouth, gently biting it as if venting his excitement and frustration, looking like a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar. Bridgette was the boss and would allow Bongo to touch the infant only when she deemed it acceptable. Twenty-four hours later, that moment arrived. I watched as Bongo, his body absolutely still, hesitantly extended his index finger and gently stroked the top of his son’s head and then softly vocalized to himself while sniffing his son’s scent from his fingers.
It is 11 p.m. when I approach Bridgette’s enclosure and notice her rotund belly heaving rapidly. Moving closer to get a better view, I see her standing and biting the hard mesh, as if to transfer her pain to it. She lets out a cry. Shortly after, her son, Fossey, now 14 months old, approaches from Bongo’s adjacent room through the baby-size door. He wants to nurse, but Bridgette pushes him away. Fossey whimpers and returns to the comfort of his father, and I am left utterly and thoroughly stunned.
My mind drifts back to several months prior, when I watched Bridgette quietly interact with her son. He was in an ornery mood, full of energy, and pestering his mother while she tried to rest. They were together in a hay nest in the relatively confined space of the chute. Fossey was swinging from the ceiling mesh, using his forward momentum as a battering ram to kick his mama in the face. He was thoroughly enjoying himself. Scooping his tiny bum in her large hand, she gently pulled Fossey toward herself, holding him tightly against her chest, effectively trapping him. She began to tickle him until her laughter and his became one. My eyes had teared. How lucky I was to witness such an intimate and gentle way to discipline an infant.
I come back to the present and watch as Fossey approaches his mother once again, but she cough-grunts him away. Bongo then cough-grunts at Bridgette as if to correct her unexpected behavior, but she appears oblivious as Fossey forlornly returns to his father, this time holding his right arm across his chest, a reliable sign of insecurity and uncertainty for him. After that, Bridgette lies back down and appears to be resting. One hour later, Fossey returns to her and attempts to nurse. She pushes him away and this time something breaks in him. Fossey climbs on her back and begins screaming in frustration—his lips curled back, teeth showing—and beats her with his fists. Most alarming of all, Bridgette does nothing to dissuade him. A moment later, Fossey, softly hooting, with his arm across his chest as if in a half hug, resignedly climbs down from her back and goes back to his father.
My shock turns to alarm. I have never seen her ignore her son and have never seen Fossey pitch a fit, a behavior unusual in a gorilla. It’s then that my worst fears are realized, that what we are facing is the very real possibility of Bridgette’s death.
My mind turns to her mate, Bongo, who was housed on public display for decades, never able to get away from the oftentimes insensitive and jeering public. Eventually, Bongo was given this renovated home where he never had to face the public again, if he chose not to; he had more than paid his dues. In addition, he was introduced to overweight, even-natured Bridgette. They were a good match, both in their 20s and both seemingly in tune to one another’s moods. They reminded me of an older couple who find each other late in life and realize and appreciate the miracle of finally finding their respective mate. Bridgette gave birth to Fossey when she was 25 and Bongo 30. I could not wrap my head around the idea of a future without Bridgette’s presence in both her son and Bongo’s lives.
After a sleepless night, I arrive back at work early the following morning. My colleague Charlene Jendry shares her concerns with me: Now Bridgette is no longer eating or drinking. The vets come by to check on her and then move on to their morning rounds. The other keepers leave to deal with the daily feeding and cleaning of the remaining gorillas. Charlene and I stay to tend to Bridgette. During the night, Fossey’s “baby” door was closed, barring access to his mother. He and Bongo sit quietly watching her.
At 10:55 a.m., I begin having difficulty charting Bridgette’s respirations. Trying to keep the panic out of my voice, I say, “Charlene, you’d better call the vets, I can’t seem to get her breathing down.” As soon as Charlene hangs up the phone, the words “She’s not breathing” come unwanted out of my mouth. We open the door to go to her and begin chest compressions, as I mutter under my breath, “Come on, Bridge, just breathe.” Charlene and I both watch as the color of her gums fades from a healthy pink to gray. When the vets arrive in less than two minutes, they too attempt to resuscitate her.
I cannot bear to look at Bongo and his son; both are so absolutely still and unmoving. Only when we move Bridgette’s body out of the building does Bongo react. He stands on the stoop leading to the overhead chute, indicating for me to open the door for his access. Then he walks all the way to the end, enabling him to peer out the building’s side door where Bridgette’s body is being carried to the waiting zoo van. As I watch, I feel as if my heart will break.
It is late August 1990, just a week past Fossey’s fourth birthday and about three years after his mother’s death. The morning cleaning is almost done, the ape house smells of wet cement and fresh hay, and the soothing sounds of Mozart play on the tape deck. Bongo has chosen to stay indoors. He has access to the small outdoor enclosure, but being Bongo, he opts out of being on public display. He likes his quiet, his solitude, but he is not alone; his 4-year-old son, Fossey, is scampering in and out of the building.
After Bridgette’s death, Bongo immediately took over the role of sole caregiver to his son without a hitch. We in the ape house never doubted that Bongo would tenderly care for Fossey, but his actions shattered the broader zoo world’s misconceptions about the paternal capabilities of silverbacks in captivity. Other females were eventually introduced, but the bond that these two males have is as essential as breathing. They are buddies, partners in crime, pals, father and son.
Today on this late summer day, Bongo sits quietly on the floor, his legs outstretched, back ramrod straight. Bongo vocalizes to Fossey as he comes running through the short chute that connects the small outdoor area to the indoor one. Fossey swings down, using the metal handholds on the wall to make his grand entrance into his father’s space. He is energy in motion. He runs over to his dad and rolls into him, lying flat out on his back, arms and legs spread, belly and groin exposed, an invitation for a tickle. His dad does a perfunctory “naa-humm” vocalization, looks down at his son in a stately sort of way; he waits a moment before reaching out a huge hand to tickle his boy.
Fossey happily laughs, then his laugh turns into a gasping chortle as his dad leans forward, holds his son in place and continues to tickle him while nuzzling Fossey’s belly with his mouth. There is such trust between them, this 400-pound adult male and his 75-pound kid. It would never occur to Fossey that his father could or would hurt him. They absolutely adore one another.
I am in the adjacent enclosure, lost in the soothing monotony of hosing the floor. Hearing their mingled, deep-throated laughter, I stop, kink my hose, lean against the mesh and watch them. They are oblivious to me, and I revel in my privilege, of bearing witness to such deep devotion.
Several weeks later, I am early for once, the first to arrive. It is such an anomaly for me, a person who struggles with being on time. Surely it is made to happen, like so much else in life—a change in plans, a missed appointment, a detour that puts you right where you need to be at the very moment when you are essential either as a witness or a participant. It is a gift of perfect timing, of circumstance, dropped in front of me. And once there, why do I open the side door off the kitchen first, which is usually the last place to be checked? But I know why: Bongo is there.
Bongo is slumped forward, his face resting gently on the concrete floor. It is obvious he had been in his usual position, sitting straight up, his legs at a V in front of him. It is as if he were a tree that had just been felled. Fossey moves tentatively around his father’s body, his uncertainty evident; he is perplexed. Every few minutes, Fos leans down, looking into his father’s slack face, and then quietly begins circling Bongo’s body again.
Later, I will wonder about that day, the timing of it all. And all I will feel is a wave of thankfulness that I was the one to find Bongo, to bear witness to his death—caused by cardiovascular disease—without the company of others. To see his young son bending down, his worried face inches away, peering into his father’s unseeing eyes, while quietly and desperately hooting for some measure of a response, before I say, “Ohhh, Bongo,” and begin to weep.
Gorilla keepers like nothing better than telling stories. Every keeper has a story that moved them more than others, a special moment that solidified their commitment to and love of working with gorillas, an instant that floored them with its significance and continues to inform them even years later.
It is September 2016, and my husband and I are in a hotel pub on the Isle of Skye in Scotland, after a long day of exploring its most ancient and starkly beautiful landscape. Outside, the rain continues as the misty evening descends on the Munros before the sun briefly illuminates them to an even deeper gold before the gloom returns. It is good to be sitting with a drink in hand in front of a fireplace, when in walks an eclectic group of fellow travelers, led by a black-robed nun, their host. One member of the group, rail-thin in her late 60s and with a short, severe gray haircut, wears a fetching teal-and-black kilt and starched white blouse. She sits down next to us and introduces herself and then her fellow travelers as they slowly make their way over from the bar and join us in front of the fire.
We begin chatting about our respective lives when my husband casually mentions that I used to work with captive gorillas. And so the stories begin, unheralded. My favorite stories of Bongo slip easily from my tongue, as these strangers sit beguiled, not by me but by the life of my extraordinary teacher.
Excerpted from “Voices from the Ape House” by Beth Armstrong, to be published in March by Trillium, an imprint of Ohio State University Press. ohiostatepress.org
Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to Columbus Monthly magazine so that you keep abreast of the most exciting and interesting events and destinations to explore, as well as the most talked-about newsmakers shaping life in Columbus.