Questions, suspicions remain decades after iconic Samson's death
Every zoo has a celebrity and those who grew up in Milwaukee during the '60s, '70s and '80s most likely remember the Milwaukee County Zoo's famous gorilla, Samson. The iconic ape fascinated and terrified zoo-goers with his erratic behavior that ranged from what appeared to be extreme boredom to pounding against the glass window of his "cage."
Samson, who died of a heart attack in 1981, continues to be Milwaukee's most celebrated zoo resident of all time. During his lifetime, large crowds surrounded his tiled stall every day and he appeared on television, in magazines and even on a Milwaukee bus pass.
Samson, a silverback gorilla, was brought from Africa to the Washington Park Zoo, which preceded the current zoo, in 1950. He was about a year old at the time and arrived with another young gorilla, Sambo, who died exactly one month after arriving in Milwaukee.
Samson went on to live alone for 16 years before he was presented with a female roommate, Terra. The gorillas lived together for four years, but never mated. Terra was eventually moved to the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago where she became pregnant.
The combination of Samson's glass pounding, imposing presence, expressions that some interpreted as boredom and lack of interest in sex made some people speculate that Samson was bored, angry and depressed due to isolation and poor living conditions.
Kelly Frohs, a cartoonist living in Seattle, grew up in Sheboygan and visited the Milwaukee zoo numerous times with her parents and on school field trips. As a kid, she was wowed by his largeness, but as an adult, she became suspicious of her memories of Samson.
"I think a childhood memory can be such a distorted thing," says Frohs, who wrote a zine about Samson. "Samson's strange behaviors were always chocked up to his 'personality' when in reality he was probably crazy with boredom and depression and he wanted to smash the glass to escape."
Sam LaMalfa was Samson's caregiver and best buddy from 1973 until 1981. He contributed to a book published last spring by Darlene Winters called "How I Remember Samson."
LaMalfa says Samson's living space, a tile-floored room with a glass front for viewing, was at the time considered state-of-the-art because it didn't have bars and wasn't a traditional cage. Also, for the first time, the public didn't have to smell the gorillas thanks to units separated by glass.
LaMalfa, who was very close to 16 different gorillas during his career at the Milwaukee County Zoo which lasted until he retired in 1995, believes Samson's beating on the glass wasn't out of anger. If anything, it was out of loneliness and the desire to connect with people.
"He had his share of highs and lows, like anyone, and sometimes he would get upset when he'd get teased, but he was pounding on the glass to get an audience response. He was alone, without other gorillas, so he used the public in lieu of gorillas," he says.
Samson's disinterest in mating with Terra, according to LaMalfa, was probably also the result of his lack of socialization due to isolation but also from a lack of chemistry. Like humans, gorillas have to be attracted to a mate, they can't be matched and expected to act amorous. This is one of the reasons why modern zoos do not house gorillas in isolated spaces and instead allow them to live in groups so they can mingle and find the right mate.
Most likely, Samson was not disappointed with his surroundings. LaMalfa believes, because Samson was so young when he came to the zoo that he did not remember his time in the wild. Today, animals in zoos must be bred in captivity, because of the 1973 Endangered Species Act signed by President Nixon.
"As humble as his surroundings are to us looking back – he lived in a large bathroom – he didn't know anything else," says LaMalfa. Page 1 of 2 (view all on one page)
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