The Silverback

As a young zookeeper at Busch Gardens in the 1970s, I was in awe of him. Hercules was a four-hundred-pound, male gorilla—a silverback. Hercules lived with his mate Megara but, to the best of my knowledge, he never sired any offspring. In those days, we assumed that if you put a male and female gorilla together, nature would take its course. Today, we know that gorillas live in stable family groups numbering from six to thirty animals. Each group is led by one or two mature males that are related to each other, usually a father and one or more of his sons. The sons learn their roles from the silverback. Hercules, however, was taken out of the wild as an infant. He never had the opportunity to learn how to be a father.

I learned how to be a father from my dad. Jim Porter was the silverback of our family. He served in the Army during World War Two—a sergeant in the Military Police. After the war, he trained as a plasterer and raised four boys. I was the oldest and worked as his chief laborer. I mixed “mud” when he had a side-job plastering someone’s walls. On nights when the mullet were running and he was out throwing his cast net, I carried a five-gallon bucket and swatted mosquitoes in the darkness of some Florida bayou. And I handed him tools when he was under the car repairing the brakes or changing the oil. Like a true silverback, he was quiet and patient—although we did feel the sting of his belt on our bare bottoms from time to time. It may not be fashionable in today’s society but in those days our house, like the gorilla family, was a patriarchy.

Gorillas are native to the tropical forests of equatorial Africa. They are the largest of the apes—robust and powerful animals with black skin and hair, and thick powerful bodies. Males are about twice the size of females, weighing in at up to five hundred pounds, and have a saddle of gray or silver hairs on the lower part of the back—hence the term “silverback”. The mature silverback makes all the decisions for the troop. He mediates conflicts and he is responsible for their safety and well-being. If the group is attacked, the silverback will protect the group, even at the cost of his own life. But, oddly enough, gorillas don’t fight with each other very often. They use ritualized displays that include standing on two legs, running sideways, throwing vegetation, and chest-beating with cupped hands. These impressive displays of agitation usually end with a sidelong glance at the offender that might, in modern parlance, be called a “stink-eye”.

The last silverback gorilla I worked with was Akbar. I wrote about him in this excerpt from my memoir, Lessons from the Zoo, Ten Animals That Changed My Life.

“One of my first projects as Deputy Director of the Toledo Zoo was the three-million-dollar Kingdom of the Apes area that opened in 1993. Toledo had an impressive collection of great apes that included chimpanzees, orangutans, and two families of gorillas. They lived in a symmetrical, rectangular, 1970s–era facility, with each of the four groups housed in a section that consisted of off-exhibit holding cages, a small indoor glass-fronted dayroom, and a slightly larger open-air outdoor space with a concrete floor. It was all hard-scape—concrete, glass, and steel. No animals had access to grass.

The renovation would improve the holding cages and add an eighteen-thousand-square-foot outdoor Gorilla Meadow and a three-story indoor dayroom. The old outdoor spaces would have a tall cage structure added to increase the vertical space, and grass would be planted to replace the concrete floor. It was a remarkable transformation, both visually and for the quality of life of the animals.

On Monday, May 17, 1993, I gathered with my colleagues to watch the male gorilla Akbar peer out of the holding area and carefully test the grassy surface of the new Gorilla Meadow exhibit. As soon as he determined it was safe, he allowed females Happy, Malaika, and Elaine to follow. The thrill of seeing the gorillas step into the sunshine was tempered by the concern we felt as Akbar carefully inspected the walls and fences of his new home. Only after he completed his tour of the perimeter and did not find any escape routes did we relax and celebrate our success.”

Akbar was raised in a family group, so he knew what it meant to be a silverback. When entering an unfamiliar space, his job was to check out the area to make sure his family would be safe, just like our father always did for us. My brothers and I were not afraid of our dad but, much like the gorilla family, we never had any doubt about who was in charge. I don’t remember him throwing any vegetation or beating his chest with cupped hands, but dad must have used some kind of ritualized threat displays, because he never raised a hand to us in anger. All he had to do was look at us out of the corner of his eye, and we knew we had better listen-up. When he said jump, we didn’t ask why. We just asked, “how high?”. And when we were sitting in his chair, he snapped his fingers and we moved out of his way.

Jim Porter died in June 2004—seventeen years ago this month. I still miss him. My father-in-law (the silverback of my wife’s family) died a few months ago. We will bury him the Sunday after Father’s Day. I am going to miss him, too. For the first time in our lives, my wife and I will not have a silverback to honor on Father’s Day. Their passing marks the end of a generation.

My brothers and I recently traveled back to our hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida for a weekend of golf, a baseball game, and some reminiscing. Dad featured prominently in our collective memory. As I look at the fine men my brothers have become and at how much we love each other and enjoy each other’s company, I realize how fortunate we were to have the upbringing we did. Our dad is the strong, male role-model that lives-on in the hearts and memories of the Porter brothers. We may not have a father to send a card to, but we sure have one to honor on Father’s Day. Today’s fathers—myself included—are not what they once were. If you have any doubt, watch me snap my fingers when my wife is in my chair and see what happens.

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