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A Tale of Two Primates

In the first real job I had out of college, I worked in an office, but it was not as mundane as it sounds. For one, I had a unique view. As the public relations manager for the Philadelphia Zoo, my window overlooked the Polar Bear Pool and the African Plains. I’d swivel my chair to rest my high heels on the window frame behind my desk and watch the animals. The children would press their small hands and noses against the polar bear exhibit. They’d scream and jump back as Coldlilocks or Klondike dove into the blue water and smacked a great, white paw against the thick, scratched glass. The parents would explain to their children that the big bears were just playing. I’d laugh on the phone to one of my friends, “The polar bears are trying to kill the kids again,” and in the wild, they would have.

During a typical workday, I’d leave my office in the administration building and walk past the fake mountains of the African Plains, wandering the long path through the 32 acres of “America’s First Zoo.” I’d meander past the groaning tortoises as they glacially mated in their outdoor exhibit beside the Reptile House, past the flamingos munching flower petals and by the brown bears wrestling with their peanut butter-filled logs. Some days I’d visit the animal nursery (newborns were always good for positive news coverage. Maybe a new baby lemur would be playing and would run up one of my arms and down the other as if I were a firmly planted tree.

Or I’d stop by to visit the elephants. One of the keepers, who later became a friend, would sometimes take me inside the enclosure so Petal could greet me by running her bristled gray trunk up and down my coat, leaving a long slimy trail. After these visits, I might smell like a monkey or the powerful earthy odor of the Elephant House would cling to me. I’d call this my zoo perfume. But I’d always end my errands at the home of Massa.

Massa was the world’s oldest captive gorilla. Home was the Rare Mammal House, alongside the howling chimps and a separate band of gorillas. His exhibit was an older one, tiled like a sixth grade girls’ lavatory. It was decorated with his beloved tire swing, hay and fruits and vegetables for foraging. Captive animals need such things for stimulation. But gorillas are social creatures, and I would find him sitting alone in his exhibit, thoughtfully noshing on a piece of lettuce, watching visitors as they passed by. I thought he had sad eyes.

I felt I could relate to Massa. I did my job the best I could, but in the early days there, I spent a lot of time trying not to cry. I was terrified I’d be found out as a fraud, the girl who knew nothing. As an English major, I’d slept through biology lectures where I might have gleaned the difference between a phylum and a genus, figuring this would rarely come up in my adult life. Every morning I’d drive from my apartment west of the city through Fairmount Park to the zoo, tearful and stressing about all the things I had to do and all the things I was certain I’d never understand how to do. My days were filled with calls to reporters, writing news releases and deciphering how the zoo operated. It felt impossibly hard. I’d often cry on the way home, too.

Massa and I would meet for lunch regularly at his enclosure. No one knew then how long gorillas lived in the wild. In my official news releases, his longevity was attributed to “zoo cake,” which the Philadelphia Zoo had created as a healthy diet for captive animals. In reality, Massa had a uniquely Philadelphian taste for Tastykakes, particularly Krimpets, and for Kool-Aid, which his keepers secretly gave him as a treat in a big bowl. He was a junk-food junkie.

I’d go to see him when I was lonely, and I’d talk with him, especially when I was anxious. “My boss is crazy, and there’s way too much work for one person to do,” I’d tell him. He’d stare at me with wise eyes and listen as I tried to figure it out. I felt that he was my zoo-based therapist, as I only saw my real therapist once a week. The process of speaking to Massa seemed similar. I’d talk and he’d listen. After being with Massa, I’d tell myself, “If he’s lived here more than 50 years, I can last another month.”

I’d stand before him, leaning against the metal railing in front of the glassed enclosure. He was silvered a little, with deep-set dark eyes and a jaw that jutted out due to dental problems. And he had his own complicated past.

Massa was caught in the wild as an infant in Africa some time in the 1930s. His mother had most likely been shot. Very sick at the time, Massa was sold by a ship’s captain to Gertrude Lintz, a collector of exotic animals who lived in Brooklyn. She nursed him back to health and raised him like a small person. Because it is difficult to tell what sex a baby gorilla is, she thought he was a girl and clothed him in pretty dresses and diapers. She taught him to mop the kitchen floor. One day, she startled him while he was mopping, and he bit her badly. Sixty-five stitches later, he was relocated to the zoo to live in what was then called the Monkey House.

With everyone believing that he was a she, Massa arrived at the zoo to become the bride of a male gorilla, Bamboo. There was a big media “wedding” where the two gorillas were placed in the same enclosure. The living arrangement didn’t last long. When it was clear that a mating relationship wasn’t going to work out, the two males were separated and a “divorce” followed. But because he’d been socialized with humans, he couldn’t exist in a gorilla band. Massa lived alone ever after.

Since primates are dangerously susceptible to human diseases, I was given a yearly TB vaccine. After that clearance, I could go behind the scenes in his keeper area, too. The keeper area was more open so the staff could interact and monitor the animals as they tended to them. Before reaching Massa’s two enclosures, I’d have to dodge the poop-throwing chimps and the orangutans wearing empty Pampers boxes as hats to amuse themselves, finally arriving several doors down a small hallway. Here there was no glass between us. He’d come closer in order to sit and look at me, sometimes holding my hand. Once, I took a documentary filmmaker back there. He observed our interactions, saying, “Massa responds to you — look at him follow you.”

I often wonder what Massa might have told me if he’d learned a language I’d understood. If he knew sign language, what would he have said with his hands? What was he trying to say when his eyes looked into my own? The children smiled at him, and he appeared to smile back. But a gorilla’s grimace isn’t friendly; his bared teeth are a defense.

Perhaps I also tried to be a therapist to him. My understanding about healthy relationships grew from my own therapy. My therapist waited patiently while I tried to communicate my feelings. Eventually I understood and appreciated my own heart because of her gentleness with me. Because of what I’d been given in her office, later when I fell in love, I was freer. I was able to speak to someone who wanted to hear me.

I thought Massa looked at me as a lover might. He seemed to long for the same kind of connection and closeness with another being that I longed for at that time. With Massa it was always as if he could see the green hiding inside of me, the unripened fruit that eventually would turn golden and drop richly into my human lover’s hands.

The call woke me at 2 a.m. on Dec. 31, 1984. Massa had died. The animal supervisor needed the pathologist’s help to carry Massa’s body out of his enclosure down to Penrose Lab, an old brick building that housed the zoo hospital. All that day, the animal supervisor and I handled hundreds of phone calls and media visits. We told Massa’s story over and over. People who loved Massa also called, wanting to express condolences. It was a slow news day, which meant that there was even international coverage of his death. “We are saddened by this loss of our most beloved resident,” I said again and again. Repeating his obituary so many times made my own grieving worse.

After his death I went back to the pathology room in the Penrose Lab where the necropsies were performed. By the time I got there, the big metal table with the upturned sides only held the bloodied instruments of the procedure. His heart and arteries were examined by the zoo’s research staff. Parts of his brain were sent to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx for further study. His bones went to an anthropologist who reconstructed the skeletons of prehistoric primates. Massa lived to be 54.

The pathologist deemed his cause of death to be coronary artery disease. He likely lived far longer than a typical gorilla in the wild, but I couldn’t help but think that over time, his heart might have hardened from his solitary existence. I imagined his veins and arteries closing up, becoming narrower and narrower till there was only the whisper of life —and then nothing.

I still have the big poster of him at home: a mock-up of Time’s Man of the Year cover, which had been made for his 50th birthday. Each year his birthday was conveniently celebrated on Dec. 30 to encourage public attendance during a holiday week. You’d get into the zoo free if you brought him a birthday card. I made his “birthday cake” that last time — putting a pint of ice cream, lots of fruit and whipped cream over a large square piece of the zoo cake. Standing high on a ladder that leaned against his enclosure, I hung the crepe paper, some of the cards, and the cut-out “Happy Birthday” sign. He sat and watched me all morning, sometimes tapping on the glass between us.

In all the years since, it’s Massa’s sadness that still stays with me, the in-betweenness of being raised as a human when he was tiny and then being given away and treated as an animal again. The specter of his solitary existence, his never having community with other gorillas, still haunts me.

Did Massa remember the woods and greenery? The thick dark forest, the last time he felt the clasp of his mother’s arms around him? Or did Mrs. Lintz pick him up as an infant, cuddle him as she changed and dressed him? I remember, as he took a grape from me, his old-man hands soft at the palm, with nearly human fingers. The keepers scratched his back through the enclosure, to his great pleasure. He’d sigh deeply, leaning against the bars with his eyes closed, so the touch would continue.