Remembering Bongo, the handsome, affectionate patriarch of the Columbus Zoo's gorillas

Editor’s note:  Last week marked the 29th anniversary of the death of Bongo, who along with his mate, Colo, birthed one of the most remarkable gorilla families in captivity and whose final chapter as a late-in-life father proved that a silverback could raise a baby gorilla alone. In 1990, Columbus Monthly profiled Bongo soon after he died from heart disease. 

The dignified patriarch of the Columbus Zoo's celebrated gorilla family sat slumped forward, his head on the cement floor of the barred cage. His son Fossey tried to look into his face. One of his mates, Molly, slugged him on the shoulder, as if attempting to awaken him. Bongo—so powerful he could crush a coconut shell by leaning on it with one hand—remained motionless.

Gorilla keeper Beth Armstrong knew immediately, but called for assistance anyway. Zoo doctors tried to resuscitate him with oxygen. At one point, while trying to help revive the massive animal, Armstrong buried her face in his thick coat.

Bongo was dead, victim of a heart attack, at the age of 33. His death marked the end of a significant era. Bongo played a huge role in the development of the Columbus Zoo's reputation as a leader in breeding and raising gorillas. The Columbus Zoo has the third largest collection in the United States, 16 gorillas, and lays claim to a number of major achievements. This recognition is all the more important considering that gorillas are an endangered species. There are only about 500 in captivity, and the captive birthrate just started to exceed the death rate four years ago.

Bongo's job was to breed, and he did it well. He fathered four children and was a grandfather to 14—ensuring that the zoo will be able to build upon the four generations it has already housed in the past 40 years.

But there was much more to Bongo than his reproductive prowess. His presence inspired awe. He was an exquisite-looking animal. "Beyond majestic—the epitome of the perfect animal," says director Jack Hanna. Hanna says that in his first years at the zoo he would sit quietly and marvel at Bongo—the first animal he would take visitors to see.

Bongo carried his 400 pounds on a six-foot frame with a royal dignity and a confident strut. A beautifully tapered coat covered a muscular body. A ring finger measured six inches around, the size of a man's wrist. He had a classic physique, says Dianna Frisch, the Columbus Zoo head keeper of the great apes. She laughs and adds, “And he had great buns!"

Bongo led a storied life. He was paired with two of the most famous female gorillas in captivity: Colo, the first gorilla born in a zoo, and Bridgette, mother of the first twins in the Western Hemisphere. Dian Fossey, author of the best-selling book “Gorillas in the Mist,” counted Bongo among her friends. And Bongo achieved his own firsts, including the distinction of being the oldest reproducing male in captivity.

Those in daily contact with him say there was an almost mystical quality about him. The gorilla is a misunderstood animal, and it has only been in the past decade that humans have begun to learn much about it. The zoo-goer contemplating a captive gorilla may feel a certain respect and fascination at the obvious brute strength, the intimidating presence, the deep set eyes, so human.

Gorillas actually are gentle and aloof, and live in close-knit families, ranging in number from two to more than 20. Each family is dominated by a silverback—a large male so named because of the color of hair that runs along his back. Silverbacks, such as Bongo, are sexually mature—unlike their counterparts, younger males called blackbacks—and protect the family. Gorillas are intelligent, usually placed third in this category behind chimps and humans. The noises they make sound threatening, but are simply a normal part of their speech: Gorillas communicate orally with about 22 sounds, called vocalizations. An opened mouth, exposing large teeth, looks menacing, but it is a "play face"—the equivalent of a human smile. And the impressive chest thumping is really another form of communication. 

In Bongo's life, there not only was gentleness, but also something that can be called love. There was the love story with Colo, his monogamous mate for 27 years. There was the love story with Bridgette, his late-in-life romance. There was the love story with Fossey, his last son whom he raised himself. And there was the love story with his human keepers, his admiring friends. 

These love stories didn't develop until the later stages of his life, after he had spent the majority of his years in a gorilla hell—a small, sterile cage. He reacted violently to that environment. But eventually, he revealed a tenderness and wisdom unseen before in male captive gorillas, and he taught humans a new reality about the mysterious animals.

Those close to him were zoo keepers Armstrong and Frisch, and the zoo historian, Julie Estadt. And when they speak of him now, memories stir and tears well.

"There was something about Bongo that affected people," says Armstrong. “I know it sounds like I'm anthropomorphizing, but in terms of a human equivalent, he was like the person you hoped would like you because you respected him so much."

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Bongo's connection to Columbus goes back to 1956, to the birth of Colo—an event that elevated the Columbus Zoo into the zoological stratosphere. With the world's first captive-born gorilla, the Columbus Zoo had a valuable animal. Zoo keepers pampered Colo, much like parents with a firstborn. She was raised by humans; they fed her, held her, dressed her in cute little dresses. Colo, the gorilla princess.

Zoo director Earl Davis soon realized there was a problem. Colo was a spoiled brat, and started to behave more like a human than a gorilla; she needed a new companion, one from the same species. So the Columbus Zoological Society raised, according to newspaper reports, about $5,000 to purchase a young gorilla from the wild.

While Colo lived in relative luxury, Bongo was traveling with a gorilla family in western Africa, probably in French Equatorial Africa, what is today Cameroon. At that time, zoos acquired wild animals through animal dealers—a refined way of describing a grisly business. Essentially, dealers hired poachers to raid gorilla families and snatch the youngest ones, often times massacring the protective silverback and whichever other gorillas got in the way. The small gorilla was then rolled up in a cloth sack and later shipped thousands of miles to a strange environment.

The details of Bongo's capture are unclear, but on Oct. 1, 1958, zoo director Davis stepped off an American Airlines plane at Port Columbus with a 14-month-old gorilla, whose arrival was recorded by the flashing bulbs of the press photographers. And there was Bongo, cuddling in the arms of Davis, staring intently, perhaps curious, perhaps downright scared.

It was an important day for the zoo. Bongo would be more than a playmate for Colo—his assigned mission was to impregnate her. If he could sire a new generation of captive gorillas, then the Columbus Zoo would enhance its reputation as a leader in gorilla development and also fill its coffers (gorillas were and are popular attractions). In his excitement, Davis left his luggage at the airport.

The first meeting between the 33 pound princess and the 21-pound pauper came a few weeks later. Colo, wearing a red and white jumper, jumped around and climbed the bars. A shy Bongo—who already had been spooked by a toy rubber alligator—clung to his keeper. He tentatively reached out and touched Colo. Eventually, they lived in the same cage, and the zoo hoped that when they were sexually mature, at about age eight, they would breed.

The plan worked. From 1968 through 1971, Bongo and Colo conceived three children: Emmy, Oscar and Toni. Emmy was the first second generation gorilla born in captivity. Bongo had done what he had been brought to Columbus to do.

Actually, he had little else to do. Bongo and Colo lived in a 12-by-15 foot cage with a cement floor and tile walls. It was a numbing existence. Bongo essentially sat, ate and bred. And Bongo's and Colo's cage was both a home and an exhibition space; they couldn't escape the public eye. Although the Columbus Zoo was a leader in gorilla development, little was yet known about the animals. Zoo keepers "didn't know what they needed," says Frisch.

The unnatural quarters and constant, irritating attention greatly affected Bongo. He reacted brutishly. He beat Colo, hoarded food and, perhaps symbolically, threw feces at his keepers. He also got fat, weighing in at nearly 500 pounds in 1979, before shedding 100 pounds over the next 10 years with a change of diet. Part of the previous menu had been too many sweets, and, as a result, Bongo had terrible teeth and even required a root canal.

Dianna Frisch started as a keeper in the gorilla house in 1970. As a child she dreamed of working with primates—for Christmas once, she asked for a monkey. But her first experiences at the Columbus Zoo terrified her. "The gorilla house felt like a time bomb. There was a lot of angst," she says. "I told myself I couldn't work in this area. I was too frightened."

Beth Armstrong began working in the gorilla house about 10 years later, and felt the same fears. "I would try to feed Bongo with the people watching, and they were not very polite. Here he was, this dignified, proud beast, put on exhibit. It was totally frustrating for him. And he would lash out at me, try to get me, and I couldn't blame him."

Frisch made her peace with Bongo, but at his initiation. The turning point centered on an orange, a treasured food treat. When Frisch tossed one to him, he tossed it right back; he wanted her to peel it for him. The gesture meant that he trusted Frisch enough to return his prized food. She not only had his cooperation, but also his friendship.

Later, Frisch would dangle her long hair between the bars, allowing him to touch and smell it. Or they would play games—she hiding food in one fist. "One time I remember sweeping outside his cage, and the bulb was out. I complained about how dim it was in there," she says. "Next thing I know Bongo banged on the wall and the light came on. It was like Fonzie and the jukebox." Bongo didn't welcome visitors, and if one touched Frisch, Bongo reacted protectively, screaming and rattling the bars.

One stranger that Bongo accepted unconditionally, however, was Dian Fossey. In Columbus on a 1983 tour to promote “Gorillas in the Mist,” Fossey stopped at the zoo. Of course, she wanted to visit the gorillas. She chose to see Bongo first, and walked around to the back of his cage. She knelt and made soft, rumbling noises. Bongo noticed her. But there was no howling, no thrashing. Instead, he came close to her—inches from her face. And Bongo, too, made the same soft, rumbling noises. They sat and vocalized for several minutes. She returned to sit with Bongo over the next two days. “It's one of those things you don't understand, but accept because you saw it happen," says Julie Estadt. In Fossey's letters to the zoo, she always mentioned Bongo.

Life got better for Bongo in early 1984. The zoo completed its gorilla house renovation, adding an outdoor facility as the only exhibition space. The gorillas, if they wished, now had the option of privacy, as well as the chance to feel the sun on their backs, the wind in their faces, the grass under their feet. Their indoor environment also improved markedly—with larger cages and such small, but stimulating additions as straw, tires and ropes. "Bongo's personality changed drastically," says Frisch, revealing "the gentle demeanor that is gorilla."

He seemed more content, and became quite playful. A favorite game was a sort of tag. A keeper would run around his cage, while Bongo raced about inside, gracefully rolling his 400 pounds on the floor. He also became attached to a piece of cloth, clownishly draping it over his head or back—seemingly using it as a security blanket.

He didn't adjust immediately to the outdoors, though. It had been more than 20 years since he had been exposed to nature. One had to wonder what thoughts passed through his head as he squinted his eyes in the bright sunshine. One day a bird flew overhead ... and he ducked. Later, he got sunburned.

Another dramatic change happened for Bongo in 1985, when he was in the prime of middle-age. For 27 years, Bongo and Colo had lived together, mated together, played together. But their relationship had begun to wilt. Colo was disinterested in Bongo's sexual advances. Although gorillas were thought to be sterile after age 25, the Columbus Zoo keepers believed that the 28-year-old Bongo could father another child if paired with the right partner. They separated Colo and Bongo.

Colo accepted the change smoothly, but Bongo—the great silverback, the dominant male, the patriarch—became a nervous wreck. He filled the gorilla house with his long, mournful calls—similar to the sounds made when a mate dies. Curtains were hung to block Bongo's view of Colo, but he propped up a tire to step on to see over the sagging cloth. New females, Lulu and Donna, did little to lessen Bongo's pain. The cries became almost unbearable for the keepers; they considered moving the pair back together.

Then Bridgette came into Bongo's world. She was a star herself at the Columbus Zoo, mother of the first twins born in the Western Hemisphere, sired by Oscar, Bongo's son. Unlike Lulu and Donna, Bridgette was experienced. "She knew how to win him over," says Frisch. Bridgette played with Bongo, and also sexually pursued him. "He loved all of this," Frisch says. "He didn't want to spend a lot of time teaching." Their bonding was almost instantaneous; the years with Colo seemed to be a distant memory.

The keepers' hunch to pair Bongo with another female paid off. Bridgette became pregnant, making Bongo the oldest reproducing male in captivity. The pregnancy also set off an astounding chain of events that, as Estadt says, “rewrote the book" on how zoos regard gorilla families and older male gorillas.

Never before at the Columbus Zoo had a captive female gorilla raised a newborn herself; in the past, keepers took baby gorillas immediately from the mothers and raised them in nurseries. "Because the gorillas were so valuable, [most zoos] didn't want to take the chance of one of the babies dying," says Hanna. "Actually, what they were doing was destroying the family unit."

The Columbus Zoo had a precedent for exercising caution. At Colo's birth, her mother, Millie Christina, bled badly and sat slumped in a corner—unable to care for her newborn. Colo lived only after a zoo veterinarian found the dying baby and gave it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

But the zookeepers felt Bridgette gave them a unique opportunity. They thought she was capable of raising an infant gorilla herself—if she remained healthy. So they concocted a home made alfalfa and red raspberry tea to help prevent her from hemorrhaging during birth, as she had done in her prior labors. And they decided to allow Bongo to stay in the same cage, which had never happened during the births of his three previous children. Also, he would remain with the mother and child afterward to play some role in rearing the infant. "After all he had been through, it was felt he deserved a chance," says Estadt.

At 10 p.m. on Aug. 13, 1986, Bongo sat in the corner of his cage, looking small, being quiet. Bridgette, about 20 feet away, had just given birth to an unusually bald, pink male gorilla weighing only four pounds. The keepers named him Fossey—after Dian Fossey, who had been murdered about eight months earlier in Africa. Concerns about Bridgette's health and her ability to nurse the baby were unfounded.

Bongo played the role of loving father. Although silverbacks run the family, raising babies is the female's domain. But whenever Bridgette woke up at night to feed Fossey, Bongo awoke also. He would sit close to Bridgette when she held Fossey. He would extend a thick, powerful finger toward his son to touch him, then smell the scent on his finger. Calmly, Bridgette would push his hand away. Bongo would return the finger, slowly, until it was pushed away again. Then, as if unable to control his urge, he bit on his knuckles. At times, Bongo would try to fool Bridgette by looking away from Fossey while reaching out to him.

One time, with Fossey asleep inside the gorilla house, Bridgette went into the outdoor gorilla yard, leaving Bongo and Fossey inside. Fossey awoke, crying. She didn't hear him; Bongo did. He looked at the baby, then toward the chute that led outdoors, then to the baby, then to the chute, to the baby, to the chute. Slowly he approached Fossey, still looking back and forth, and he picked him up. He appeared uncertain of what to do with the tiny, crying, squirming baby. Bridgette, finally hearing the cries, raced into the cage, backed Bongo into a corner and took her son into her arms. Frisch says it was the first time that she knew of a male captive gorilla holding a baby.

Gradually, Bridgette permitted him more contact. Bongo, his hands so massive, so strong, gently touched the baby, tickling him. As Fossey grew, he jumped and pulled on his tolerant father. They would play chase, with Bongo in the lead, looking at Fossey over his shoulder. “It was an extraordinary relationship,” says Armstrong of the new family. “It was a perfect match.”

Then disaster struck. Bridget suddenly died in 1987 when Fossey was only 14 months old. For three days, Bongo’s and Fossey’s sorrowful cries filled the gorilla house.

The zoo had a dilemma. Who would raise Fossey? The options were limited. Fossey was too old for a nursery or another female. The only choice was Bongo, who at 30 was the human equivalent of a 60-year-old man. But Bridgette seemingly had prepared Fossey for her death. She had weaned him unusually early, and after her initial reluctance, had encouraged Fossey to play often with Bongo.

Frisch felt confident that Bongo would do what no other silverback had done: raise a child. But precautions were taken. There would be round-the-clock observation of the pair for at least two weeks. One major concern was food. Silverbacks eat what they want; everyone else gets leftovers. Would Fossey get enough to eat?

As it turned out, not only did Bongo let Fossey eat first, but Frisch became concerned that Bongo himself wasn’t eating enough. In fact, he responded so calmly to the transition that the 24-hour observation was canceled after three days. 

The two became inseparable. They spent hours playing together, the small gorilla child climbing constantly over his father, Bongo placing his huge mouth over Fossey, tickling him like a mother who blows on her baby's belly. Bongo wore his play face often. The deep-throated noises each made were the sounds of laughter.

He even handled Fossey's first crisis smoothly, when Fossey grew sick with the flu. For two days, Bongo made soothing vocalizations and gently stroked the head of the shivering Fossey until the virus broke its grip. Bongo also—although he had never made one before—fluffed up nests of straw for Fossey's bed, just like Bridgette had done. When Fossey ran off to play outdoors with another young gorilla, Bongo sat nearby, watching.

Fossey and Bongo became a popular attraction at the zoo, and made news not only in the local press, but also in a national tabloid, a two-page spread in the National Enquirer.

Eventually, zoo keepers introduced two new females into the family, Molly and Sylvia, which seemed to please Bongo. But the females caused a problem. A younger male in another cage, Sunshine, began to challenge Bongo, calling for Molly and Sylvia, and teasing Fossey. In the wild, challenges are resolved by fights. In captivity, in this case, Bongo and his clan were moved—starting last spring, they began spending nights in one of the old sterile cages. It was a difficult decision, but Frisch says the stress caused by Sunshine's belligerence began to harm Bongo.

And so, sadly, it was in one of those stark cages that Bongo died on Sept. 25, 1990. During the early morning, the heart attack struck. He apparently died in his sleep.

When Armstrong found Bongo, she kept softly repeating his name over and over, not wanting to believe what she knew was true. "His death affected me so quickly and deeply, I didn't want to talk about it. ... Because with a gorilla like Bongo, you could never do enough. We did the best that we could do, but you felt like you should be doing more. I would go home at night and worry about him, be so frustrated that he was missing Bridgette, that he deserved so much better in his life. ... But maybe it was time. He raised a confident kid. He had done what he had to do."

And in the gorilla house on the day of Bongo's death, the animals sat in mournful silence, the stillness punctuated only by the short, hooting cries of Fossey echoing off the concrete walls. 

This story originally appeared in the December 1990 issue of Columbus Monthly.

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