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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Zoo History: The Bushman's Tale

For the American zoos of the early twentieth century, the Holy Grail of collection specimens was a gorilla... and much like acquiring the Grail itself, this seemed impossible.  Occasionally, a gorilla would arrive in the New World, but inevitably, they perished shortly after.  A lack of knowledge about their care and diet, inappropriate enclosures and social groupings, inadequate veterinary care, and the stress of a transoceanic voyage all conspired to take their toll. 

Such was the track record of the apes in American zoos that, in his guidebook to the Bronx Zoo, Director William T. Hornaday told readers that, if his zoo should ever acquire a gorilla, interested parties were encouraged to come and see it immediately... because it would probably die very soon.

The keeping of gorillas seemed a fantasy - at least until Bushman came to Chicago.

In 1929, a trio of young gorillas was obtained in what was then called French Cameroon by animal dealer Julius L. Buck.  As Buck prepared his shipment for America, he decided that the youngest of the three was too young to safely make the hard voyage across the Atlantic.  Instead, he decided to leave the baby ape with some missionaries in Yaounde, vowing to return for him when he was bigger and stronger. 

It was one of Buck's better decisions.  The other two gorillas died on their journey (as was the case for many wild animals exported to the US and Europe in those days), while the youngster left in Cameroon thrived.  By the time Buck returned to Cameroon to reclaim the ape, the youngster was hale and healthy, comfortable around people (he would have had to have been - he was nursed by a local woman that the missionaries had hired).  Another young Cameroonian was employed to accompany the gorilla back to America as a companion and playmate.  Today, gorillas are maintained in species-appropriate groups in zoos, and while Buck couldn't provide any other gorillas for the youngster, it was an important step in recognizing that apes needed companionship to thrive.

The gorilla had originally been offered for sale to an American socialite, Madame Abreu, but a disagreement over price left that deal void.  Instead, Buck began to shop the young gorilla to various zoos.  None originally took much interest in the offer - why spend money on a species with such a poor record of survival in zoos? - but Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo finally accepted.  The two-year old male sold for $3500, a portion of which was sent to the Yaounde missionaries.  They used their cut to purchase a stained-glass Nativity scene for their church - featuring all Africans.

Madame Abreau's loss was Chicago's gain.  For the next two decades - an unprecedented record for gorillas - Bushman entertained millions of visitors at Lincoln Park, providing countless Americans with their first encounter ever with a live gorilla.  Under the care of keeper Eddie Robinson, Bushman grew into a big, powerful male.  He enjoyed wrestling with his keepers (until he became too big to do so safely), playing football (though he had a regrettable tendency to end games by simply bursting the ball), and playing with a tire.  On one memorable occasion, he got loose in the back of the Monkey House, and was only herded back to safety when keepers frightened him into his enclosure with the use of a small snake.

As the first gorilla that survived for any length of time in an American zoo, Bushman was a star.  He was one of the most sought after attractions during the 1930's World's Fair in Chicago.  He was deemed such a boon to American morale during World War II that he was given a citation from the USO - and a new tire to play with, this one from Hitler's personal car. 

Bushman was Chicago's beloved son until the end of his days.  When he sickened in 1950, thousands came to pay their respects - prematurely, it turned out.  Bushman lived another three years.

There are several disappointing aspects of Bushman's story.  He was almost certainly collected from Africa at the expense of his mother's life.  He was never given a troop, or even a female, to have companions of his own species (Lincoln Park Zoo searched for other gorillas, but unsuccessfully).  His enclosure and diet would seem very inappropriate by today's standards... though at least the zoo came to terms with the fact that gorillas are herbivores, something which had eluded many earlier caretakers.

Bushman's story does have a positive legacy, though.  He showed the world that gorillas could be maintained in zoos, and Lincoln Park's success gave other facilities the push to improve their efforts to care for these apes.  Perhaps more than any other gorilla, Bushman helped begin the change in public perception of the species.  The movie King Kong had already begun to make its mark on the American imagination.  During the midst of Bushman's reign at Lincoln Park Zoo, another gorilla cropped up in the American scene - Gargantua, an acid-scarred ape exhibited by Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey, advertised as "The World's Most Terrifying Living Creature!"  While the circus played up the savagery of the species, Bushman gave Chicago a glimpse of a different gorilla - a gentle, giant vegetarian, one that, left undisturbed, posed no threat to man.

Today, Bushman's remains are on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.  His greatest legacy, however, is the thriving gorilla troop in a naturalistic environment at Lincoln Park Zoo's Regenstein Habitat for African Apes.  Lincoln Park Zoo is now one of the world's leaders in the conservation and research of chimpanzees and gorillas, in America and abroad.  And that legacy began with a playful baby that the zoo decided to take a chance on.

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