A friend of mine used to have an odd way of judging a city: The more it loved its zoo, the lower it fell on the cool scale. This declaration though not entirely serious, did have a certain logic to it. After all, if you've got glamorous movie stars, towering skyscrapers, renowned art museums or dynastic professional sports teams to crow about, you might not spend a lot of time celebrating your local zoological garden.
Nearly two decades ago, this idea tainted my view of Columbus when I moved to the city, a place that adores its zoo pretty much like no other. Then my wife dragged me to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium for the first time, and my snobbish veneer was cracked. What changed everything for me was the gorilla exhibit—an extraordinary collection of creatures, from 400-plus-pound silverbacks to mothers with small children, all living together. Naturally, I had qualms about zoos, that these animals would be happier in the wild than in captivity. But I also couldn’t look away. I remember watching an older gorilla tickle a baby and thinking, “My mom did the same thing with me.”
This intergenerational dynamic has always been one of the biggest attractions of the zoo’s gorilla program. “They mirror us so closely,” says Beth Armstrong, a former Columbus Zoo gorilla keeper. “There are babies in there. There are juveniles, and the juveniles are always kind of getting into trouble and pushing and seeing how far they can go, and then adults have to intervene. People see this uncomfortable and also fascinating similarity between us.”Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
Those gorillas are also individuals, with unique quirks, personalities and histories, and Armstrong writes about them with insight, intimacy and heart in her lovely new memoir, “Voices from the Ape House,” about her 14 years caring for the Columbus Zoo’s gorillas. All of Armstrong’s ape portraits are wonderful, but her memories of Bongo—the great silverback who was captured in the wild as a baby and then taken to the Columbus Zoo, where he died in 1990 at 33—are the heart of the book, which will be released in March. For this issue, we’re excited to publish an excerpt ("Bongo and Me") that tells his story, a life of both tragedy and triumph.
With few gorillas left in the world, both in captivity and in the wild, Armstrong’s job provided her with a rare opportunity to observe these endangered creatures up close every day, watching them eat, grow, play, squabble, nurture their young and even form bonds with their human caretakers. And no gorilla left a bigger impression on Armstrong than Bongo, whose playful, forgiving and caring nature was an inspiration to her and her fellow keepers. “There was something so graceful about him—calm and regal.”
As you’ll discover in Armstrong’s essay, Bongo shattered misconceptions about gorillas and helped the zoo become a better place. And that’s pretty cool, no matter what my friend would say.