Questions, suspicions remain decades after iconic Samson's death
Although he was not connected to other apes, Samson was emotionally connected to LaMalfa. "He protected me," he says.
If Samson spotted friends or zoo attendants walking up to LaMalfa and raising a hand to pat him on the back or shake his hand, Samson would beat on the glass and grunt aggressively.
"I was his big yellow banana," says LaMalfa.
LaMalfa says gorillas have about 24 different sounds they make and they are able to communicate among themselves and with humans through vocal sounds and body language.
LaMalfa is also known for putting Samson, who was a vegetarian, on a diet. In 1971, Samson weighed 652 pounds. Back then there were not veterinarians on site to consult with – the zoo has two full-time veterinarians today – but LaMalfa knew Samson was overweight and slowly started to reduce his intake by a "banana here, a slice of bread there" until the gorilla lost about 100 pounds.
Even though LaMalfa was closer to Samson than anyone else – a relationship he says that was built over time, through trust – he never spent time in Samson's unit with him. It wasn't out of fear – LaMalfa stepped into many other gorilla's living spaces – but he believed Samson was so attached to him that he would try to keep him in the space with him. Forever.
"He had been alone for 16 years. If I entered, there's a good chance he would block the door and I'd be eating bananas and peanuts for the rest of my life and my wife and kids would have to visit me on the other side of the glass," says LaMalfa, joking but not joking. "Samson could be very possessive."
On Nov. 27, 1981, Dr. Bruce Beehler, the deputy zoo director, received word that Samson was possibly choking. Beehler rushed to the scene, performed CPR and a tracheotomy on Samson, but he had suffered a massive heart attack and died.
Heart problems with gorillas in captivity is an issue currently being researched by groups of scientists. The Atlanta Zoo founded the Great Apes Heart Project and the Milwaukee zoo a key partner in the project that's dedicated to determining why so many great apes in captivity have heart problems.
"This is a very large effort dedicated to determining the origin of heart issues in great apes and what can be done about it," says Beehler.
For 15 years, Dr. Victoria Clyde, a veterinarian at the zoo, performed ultrasounds on bonobos, orangutans and gorillas to find out more about the cause of the heart attacks. Genetic abnormalities, which cause heart issues in humans, might contribute to the high rate of cardiac events.
Clyde also determined the apes' food pellets contained more sodium than indicated in the analysis and got the manufacturer to reduce the amount of salt in the pellets. She also put them on a low-salt diet.
"It might also be due to stress," says Beehler. "We just don't know but all avenues are being explored."
Today, a replica of Samson stands in the Milwaukee Public Museum. After his death, Samson was stored in a freezer for three years, received what LaMalfa refers to as severe "freezer burn" and could not be taxidermied like Sambo. Instead, Wendy Christensen-Senk, the museum's full-time taxidermist, reconstructed him with LaMalfa consulting to make sure it looked like the real Samson.
"Samson was a very handsome gorilla. All gorillas have different personalities and different appearances. It's like a kindergarten teacher who sees all of her students as individuals," says LaMalfa.
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