I was introduced to Samantha in 1991 when the Erie Zoo hired me to do scenic murals in the assorted animal exhibits of the main building, which included Samantha’s day room. The faux-rock guys had preceded me and turned two walls into natural-looking rock formations with artificial plants.
My job was to recreate central Africa, Samantha’s birthplace, on a blank spot on the wall opposite the thick glass viewing panels.
She was a smallish female lowland (which means short-haired) gorilla. Calm, gentle, she kept her appearance up , always looking well groomed compared to some other primates I could name. She had a pleasant expression of repose. Her slightly furrowed brow made me wonder if she lived a deeply contemplative inner life. She was confined to her holding area or to the outside yard while I toiled over a hot spray gun while creating a scene of more rocks among grassy hills running off toward the horizon. She was shy initially but quickly got accustomed to the new kid on the block.
A Muralist Spurned
Then one of the female keepers told me Sam had a crush on me. I didn’t know how to feel about that: insulted or highly complimented (and how did the keeper know?). I decided to choose the latter. The keeper explained that Sam was raised from infancy in the home of a previous Zoo director and probably thought of herself as human. The keepers decided to let me feed Sam her orange juice with brewer’s yeast each morning using a straw stuck through the wire mesh. It made both of us happy, sort of like a high school date at the malt shoppe except that we were of different species. It never woulda worked.
I had to move on to the next job before the time came that she was let into her new, remodeled exhibit. Jim Rhea, the Zoo’s director at the time, was a father figure for Samantha. He stood outside the glass and watched as she systemically investigated every feature with her hands, nose and tongue. When she got to the mural, she stared for a time as if gazing into the distance. Then she sidled up to the painted illusion of some tall grass clumps and tried to pluck the grass. But each time, her fingertips hit a wall. She turned back toward her Dad looking askance and no doubt wondering why she couldn’t get the grass. In doing so she paid a photo-realist artist the highest possible compliment: she thought it was real!
In subsequent years when I returned to do Erie’s Children’s Zoo (early ’03), and scary ultraviolet-lit train tunnel (spring ’03), I always stopped to visit Sam. I’d sit on the ledge beneath the glass with my back against it. She would sit against the glass on the opposite side so that we were back to back, and she’d throw furtive glances over her shoulder at me. Visitors seemed to think it was either cute or weird.
I had a small, surprising window into the gorilla mind a few years later when my I returned to Chicago from a trip east the long way, through Erie, with my new wife, who had a mane of black hair. When I greeted Sam through the glass, she seemed totally disengaged. Then I could see the light pop on in her eyes. She put her hand on the glass, and so did I. She sat with her back against the glass, and so did I. Then I said loudly (because I knew from working in the space that you could hear the people in the hallway),” Samantha, there’s somebody I want you to meet.” Walking up to the glass, she stared at my wife. Would she be jealous, despondent, uninterested? She then moseyed over to a new spot along the glass. My wife joined her. They sat back-to-back and exchanged glances over their shoulders.
I had been spurned by a gorilla! It must have been some primal factor, the spontaneous appearance of the “Sisterhood of Black Hair.” We didn’t stay long but it was clearly “Girls Club” now and I was disinvited.
From Jim Rhea I learned that Samantha and her sibling, Henry, were orphans with mythical origins. Back in the mid 60s there was a coupon company called Sperry & Hutchinson that issued S & H Green Stamps with any purchase from a participating merchant. The more you bought, the more free stamps you got. A consumer would paste the stamps into a booklet and then exchange the booklets for fabulous prizes, from cookware to cars and yachts, chosen from the fabulous S & H catalog.
The Zoo had a great idea: would Sperry & Hutchinson buy two orphaned gorillas for them if the people of Erie donated a sufficient quantity of booklets? The PR value to all parties was immediately evident. A deal was struck and Samantha and Henry (“S & H,” wink, wink, nod, nod) were instant celebrities. But Henry wasn’t healthy, and soon Sam was alone. Jim’s predecessor as Zoo Director took her home ,and she grew up with a sister (human) her own age. Jim showed me a photo of the Director strolling through the Zoo with his daughter on one hand and Samantha on the other, both in diapers.
Jim also had a tale, probably apocryphal. When the Zoo Director brought Sam, wrapped in a pink blanket, for a checkup to the pediatrician who had volunteered his services to the Zoo. When the doctor learned who was out in the waiting room, he went out to greet them. He unwrapped Sam, to the horror of the surrounding mothers, he gave her a hug and brought her into the exam room. One of the mothers reportedly stood up and said indignantly,” Well! If that monkey gets preferential treatment over my child, I can just take my money elsewhere!” And she stormed out.
August of 2012. The Zoo asked me to consult and help create a TV studio for their Kiboka Research Station tree house and to paint a mural for the new genet exhibit (I still don’t know what a genet is), see Tale of the Tree House. When I went to visit Samantha I found that she had become a national celebrity. There she was on the cover of People Magazine along with her new companion, a bunny with large black and white patches named, appropriately, Panda.
It was good to see Sam with a pet. But she was a bit rumpled looking and tired. They told me she had a cold. I had known her for 21 years, and during that time I had gone from brown hair to gray, but over 21 people years. I wondered what that would translate to in gorilla years.
I’ve often wondered what it was like for her to “imprint” on a mother and family that she later realized were not of her kind. She no doubt loved them but might have started feeling that she was the odd one. They were tall , pink, hairless and always making sounds that she later learned had meaning. If she looked in the mirror, she was short, black, and hairy, and she was unable to mimic their sounds. Sam’s story was the reverse of Tarzan’s: an ape raised by humans.
When she reached the age and size that required her to live at the Zoo, I imagine it must have been difficult for her to be separated from her family. Gorillas are as social as we are. After enjoying being picked up and hugged regularly, to suddenly have no physical contact with humans, to always have glass panels or steel mesh between you and your caregivers, must have been hard. This conclusion is supported by another story from Jim Rhea.
For some reason, something needed fixing in Sam’s day-room exhibit, and they couldn’t wait for her to saunter into her holding area. Someone had to go in with her. Jim considered himself to be the person most trusted by Sam. She was surprised to see him enter her exhibit but after accomplishing his task he found Sam waiting near him. She reached out and hugged him tightly around the knees. He talked to her and tried to get free, but she would not let go. For about 45 minutes he thought about the papers on his desk and the phone calls he should be making. She finally let him go, and he concluded that her behavior might represent years of accumulated hug deficit.
The Zoo did what they could for her loneliness. She had a string of potential mates offered to her, but she would have nothing to do with them. My guess is that she thought of them as animals; she was raised to love humans. Eventually, having experimented with other companion animals, the Zoo hit on the idea of a bunny. Sam rarely picked up Panda, but they shared food and usually sat together while relaxing.
While discussing some future work over the phone recently, with Cindy Kreider, the present Zoo Director, I learned that Samantha had died of natural causes at the end of 2012. A few days later a package arrived from the Erie Zoo. Inside was a framed painting of pastel greens and pinks, in smears across the surface that looked like Japanese brushstrokes depicting bamboo leaves. It was simple, elegant, understated. It turns out Sam was an artist too. I hung the painting in a prominent place in my dining room. Tucked into the back of the frame I found a portrait photo of Samantha and Panda with the dates “1966 – December 2012.” She was 46.
I’ve since thought about her keepers. It may seem exaggerated to say that losing an animal under your care can be as hard as losing a family member. But love is love no matter the object, and a noble soul is a noble soul no matter the species. And grief is grief. It will not turn you loose, and you cannot get to the other side without going through it. Time does not erase the memory, but it does relieve most of the pain.
I like to think I take people as I find them, but I must admit that I sometimes gauge a person’s moral development by how they respond to animals. I like the Native American way of referring to animals as our brothers and sisters. Animals, especially those who are closest to our species, often have something to teach us if we have the wisdom and humility to look for it. It’s almost always about unconditional love, but I have also been inspired by an animal’s perseverance, loyalty or acceptance of adversity. The more I learn about an animal, the more I see that here is a being worthy of respect. Samantha will be missed by her humans.
Photo of Sam and Panda courtesy of Erie Zoo, the two animals superimposed on my exhibit mural by my good friend, photographer Gerry Hoos of Glenview, Illinois.