Opening the crate of a newly arrived animal at the zoo is always a tense moment. You never know whether the animal will walk out calmly, refuse to come out at all, or come flying out like the human cannonball at the circus. That is why I was nervous and excited at the same time – I didn’t know what to expect. It was late evening and we had just returned to the zoo from the international terminal at the airport. The heavy bedding of wood shavings and straw was both comfortable to sit in and soothing in its scent of fresh pine, as I sat cross-legged in the twelve foot by twelve foot holding stall in the Toronto Zoo’s quarantine building. Our job that evening had been to pick up two wooden crates from an international flight at the airport, return to the zoo, and uncrate the animals. We were to give them some food and water and, if they appeared healthy, leave them for the night. The veterinarians would give them a thorough exam in the morning.
I had lifted the sliding door out of its track and laid it on top of the wooden crate and settled a few feet from the opening, peering into the darkness. My plan was to sit quietly and wait for the baby gorilla to emerge. Would he remain inside, walk out calmly, or jump out in a rage, biting and clawing everything (and everyone) in sight. The answer, as it turned out, would be a little bit of everything.
We sat staring at each other for a long time. His name was Joseph and he was settled with his back at the far end of the crate, looking at me without making direct eye contact. He was thirty pounds of black fur and dark eyes, clearly frightened and unsure of what to do next. As I was about to give up and leave him to explore after I left, he stirred and walked calmly out of the crate and into my lap. I wanted to comfort the little guy and welcome him to his new home. I knew he would be safe and well-cared-for with the best food, other gorillas for companionship, and modern veterinary care. It would be some time before I learned the real story of how gorillas came to be at the zoo. For now, I just wrapped my arms around him as I would one of my own sons.
We sat for a few seconds, with him in my lap facing away from me and then in slow motion, he placed his mouth over my bare, right forearm and bit down – hard. So hard, in fact, that I hollered in pain and jerked my arm away. I pushed him out of my lap as gently as I could under the painful circumstances and left the pen to examine my injury. The bite broke the skin slightly, leaving a bloody imprint of his upper and lower teeth like some dental impression. My worries about what diseases he might be carrying escalated ten days later, when he died. As it turned out, he had no transmissible diseases and obviously, I have survived with no ill effects. Fortunately, this was long before we knew about the Ebola virus and the other deadly diseases coming out of Africa or I would have been well and truly freaked-out! 1
The date was May 9th, 1974 – 40 years ago today – and Joseph had arrived at the Toronto Zoo with Josephine, a young female of about the same age. I know of two other pairs of infant lowland gorillas that we received that year. How did these six baby gorillas from the wilds of Africa find themselves at a zoo in North America? I don’t know for sure, but I have an idea that I’ll suggest next week in Part two.
[NOTE 1: An excerpt from my next book, In Search of Eden: A Quest for the Perfect Zoo]