From 1951 to 1968, Seattleites were enthralled with Bobo. He was a favorite of photographers and reporters during his childhood in a private home in Anacortes, Washington; later, throughout his 14-year residence at Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, throngs of people visited him every single day. Locals said that Bobo's fame far exceeded that of any local politician, and Bobo's name sometimes appeared as a write-in candidate for mayor or city council. As writer David Humphries put it in a 1981 Weekly profile, "Before the Space Needle went up or the Pike Place Market was redeveloped, before the Sonics or the Seahawks, Bobo was Seattle, and Seattle was infected by a mad passion, Bobomania." Bobo was deeply mourned when he passed away in 1968, and his popularity even survived his death, as his taxidermied form became an attraction at MOHAI.
Last April, Bill Lowman, the man responsible for bringing Bobo to Washington state, died at age 84. His eldest daughter, Sue Pedersen, began the arduous task of sorting through Lowman's possessions, which included extensive Bobo artifacts like baby clothing, toys, photos, newspaper clippings, and condolence cards. She made a gift of some of these items to MOHAI, which led the museum to restore the beloved gorilla and put him back on display. Since July, when the "Gorilla in our Midst" exhibit opened, many visitors have come by to witness Bobo's return, and MOHAI is even hosting a "Bobo Memory Day" this weekend in his honor.
Bobo was captured in July 1951 when he was a two-week-old infant in what was then French Equatorial Africa, by an American gorilla hunter named William "Gorilla Bill" Said. Despite tales of Bobo being found helpless in the crook of a tree, a 1951 Life magazine profile of Said makes it clear that Bobo was probably captured by using the typical method of the time: Slaughter the family and make off with the infant. There was big money to be made by selling baby apes to zoos and private buyers, and Said took Bobo back to Columbus, Ohio, where the baby gorilla was placed in the care of Said's mother.
Meanwhile, 36-year-old Bill Lowman was a divorced fisherman who lived with his parents and two young daughters in Anacortes, Washington. He was fascinated by wild animals, and at various times had taken care of a spider monkey, a crow, and even a seal. Lowman was particularly curious about primates; he was interested in evolution and frustrated by censorship of the subject in high school. He set out for Gorilla Bill's home in Columbus, hoping to purchase a chimpanzee. Though the Saids didn't have any chimps at the time, they did have four-month-old Bobo. Lowman was smitten as soon as he laid eyes on Bobo, and he purchased him from Said for $4,000.
The Lowman home soon became a popular attraction, with people coming from all over to see the baby gorilla. Bobo was the star of a Life magazine story and a segment of the television show You Asked for It, and was featured regularly in local and regional newspapers. He appeared in a 1953 Mobil Dealer News article, wearing a Mobilgas uniform at an Anacortes gas station. In a 1982 Skagit Argus article, Lowman recalled people watching through the windows during family dinners. "It was like a private zoo," he said. "We felt like we were in a fishbowl."
Bill's daughters, Claudia and Sue, were ages seven and nine, respectively, when Bobo first arrived in December 1951. They adapted as best they could, becoming quite affectionate with Bobo. "We played and had fun, and of course there was a lot of excitement because we had all these people coming and activities going on," Sue recalls. Bill's father, Raymond, liked to show Bobo off, and even took him along with the family to a drive-in movie, where Raymond playfully asked the attendant, "How much you gonna charge for him?"
Bill's mother, Jean, became Bobo's surrogate mother. Every day she bathed Bobo, rubbed him with olive oil (to keep his skin soft), diapered him, and dressed him in layers of clothing. He soon progressed from bottle feeding to eating solid food at the table with the rest of the family. Sue remembers that Bobo had good manners and could feed himself "just as well as any ol' child; better than that, even. It's the same process as a human baby, just at a slightly faster pace--and at a lot more coordinated and athletic pace."
Wallie Funk, a family friend and former Anacortes American editor and photographer, says it was "almost eerie" the way Bobo was dressed as a baby. "They were really rearing him as a child," he says. "Bobo was an incredible thing for a small town like this. There were those, though, who had the concern, 'What if he gets out and takes my daughter to the prom?'"
Gorillas share approximately 98 percent of humans' genetic material, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that one could "pass" as a human for a time. Bobo was partially toilet-trained, and slept with Jean and Raymond every night. He communicated through noises and gestures, and enjoyed listening to music (especially Kate Smith) and playing the piano in a rough fashion. He loved to swing on his ropes and tires, and roughhouse with Raymond and Bill. In home-movie footage, Bobo can be seen playing with a small neighbor boy, crawling and running around and chasing him, even occasionally knocking him over, much to the boy's delight. "He was part of the community," recalls Bill's brother Jack. "The kids in the neighborhood all played with him." Bobo liked to tease the family dog, Rusty, by luring him to the door and closing it just as the dog was about to go in. His favorite trick, however, was to sneak up on Raymond and tip him over backward in his chair. In her journal notes on Bobo, Jean observed that when Bobo was engaged in "the teasing kind" of play, "his eyes were so alive and bright--and he smiled just as any child might, when enjoying that kind of fun." When Jean asked Raymond why he had such affection for Bobo, he said, "Because he is so nearly human."
The problem was that Bobo was a gorilla--a western lowland gorilla, to be exact--who would eventually grow to be 6'6" tall and weigh 520 pounds. Long before he was fully grown, Bobo's intelligence, physical strength, and boundless energy wreaked havoc on the Lowman household. He could open latches and hooks, turn lights on and off, roll the car windows up and down, and blow the car horn. He practiced jumping from one dining room chair to another, even rearranging them for distance. He destroyed something nearly every day--dishes, books, records, musical instruments, furniture, phones, clothing, curtains, doors. He even bit people on occasion. "Bobo reached a point where he was no longer a kid around the house," Funk explains. "He was swinging on the rafters in the house, and dropped down on the dining room table and split it in half." Sue remembers that friends didn't stop by anymore, "because they were afraid to come."
Jean was deeply attached to Bobo, and tried everything she could think of to keep him in the family. She wrote to people all over the country in similar situations, and read books and articles about gorillas. She was convinced that Bobo could learn to live like a human, if only she and the rest of the family could figure out how to train him properly. Nothing worked, though, and physical discipline only seemed to confuse Bobo. Sam Wasser, formerly a primatologist and now an assistant professor at the University of Washington's School of Medicine, thinks the Lowmans' problems with Bobo were probably insurmountable. "To think that you can change millions of years of evolution and quickly turn a gorilla into a human is naive," he says.
In a last-ditch effort to contain his destructiveness, the Lowmans built a separate room for Bobo, but he was lonely, and refused to stay in the enclosure. The family finally decided to sell Bobo--weighing just over 60 pounds, and still clearly a child at age two-and-a-half--to Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo for $5,500. Though other zoos in the country were perhaps better equipped to take a gorilla at the time, the Lowmans wanted to keep Bobo within visiting distance.
Bobo's transfer to the zoo on December 6, 1953 was traumatic for everyone concerned. Film clips show devastatingly sad scenes of a fully dressed Bobo, wearing a jacket, T-shirt, trousers, and suspenders, being led like a prisoner to his new quarters and hugging Sue and Claudia inside his cage. In a 1987 Anacortes American article, Bill said, "It was like putting a member of the family in a home. Worse." Jean, in particular, did not want to let Bobo go. She stayed at the zoo with Bobo for several weeks, first on a couch inside his cage, then in nearby quarters as she tried to acclimate him to his new surroundings. Jean eventually had to be physically torn from Bobo's side by Bill and Raymond, as Bobo held fast to her leg. Wallie Funk says Jean was worried that "Bobo would die of a broken heart--she was just concerned for him." In her notes, however, Jean admitted that "the adjustment may have been greater for me than for him. When I thought of leaving him alone at the zoo, my feeling was as intense, I am sure, as a mother's when she has to leave a child at some institution."
Though Bobo was stripped of the clothes Jean had insisted he wear and was no longer fed at a dining room table, he had a hard time acting like a gorilla. By all accounts, he identified more with humans than with other animals at the zoo. He hammed it up for spectators: Each year his birthday was a huge media event, with cameras clicking away and Bobo routinely demolishing his birthday cake, much to the crowd's delight. "He was always such a good entertainer," Sue says. "Running around, jumping on the tire, that sort of thing. He was very animated. And he always looked at people, because he was always looking for us."
For Seattleites in the '50s and '60s, Bobo was truly a novelty. Sue points out that when Bobo first arrived in the Northwest, many people associated gorillas with King Kong. "Well, obviously, Bobo was no King Kong," she says. "So having Bobo here changed people's feelings about gorillas, and they learned a lot. But when you think about Bobo as an individual, it wasn't very good for him."
It wasn't only the general public that misunderstood gorillas at the time. In an attempt to foist the nuclear-family ideal on Bobo, the zoo decided in 1956 that he needed a mate. A young female gorilla named Fifi was moved into Bobo's cage. Although Fifi remained with Bobo for the rest of his life and at times clamored for his attention, the two never mated. The media came up with all sorts of theories why: Maybe Bobo was too human to be interested in a female gorilla. Maybe Fifi simply wasn't Bobo's type. Maybe Bobo's libido wasn't in order. Sadly, Bobo and Fifi were probably just victims of the most damaging misunderstanding of gorillas at the time: They are social animals, not monogamous, and only prosper in groups.
Though they visited only occasionally, Bobo never forgot the members of his human family; he instantly recognized them whenever they showed up. Just a couple of weeks before Bobo died, in fact, Bill and Raymond visited him inside his cage, something they hadn't done in many years. Bobo had an apple, and he broke it in two with his hands. He handed half over his shoulder to Bill, exactly as Bill used to do with Bobo at home.
Bobo was found dead in his cage on the morning of February 22, 1968, at the age of 16. The cause of his premature death (gorillas in captivity usually live for 30 to 40 years) remains foggy. Bobo had lost a lot of weight the month before--60 pounds--and had occasionally appeared short of breath. He'd been seen rubbing his throat and limping, but his keepers thought he was getting better.
Zoo officials reported that Bobo had died from an "undiagnosed illness," which resulted in massive blood clots in his lungs. According to a medical-journal account by the doctors who performed Bobo's autopsy, however, he died from a "fracture of the larynx with hemorrhage into the neck, resulting in asphyxia." Bill Lowman partially blamed the zoo for Bobo's death. In a 1982 Skagit Argus article, he hypothesized that Bobo's demise was the result of a fall from a sagging cable wire stretched above his cage, which Bobo occasionally ran across. "Some way, somehow, on a safety factor, someone slipped up," he said. Sue agrees that "when Bobo died, it was too bad that someone hadn't noticed there was anything wrong before perhaps they could've done something that would've prevented [his death]." Still, she asserts, "I think he was treated very, very well. And I know my dad and my grandparents kept in pretty good contact with some of the zoo people." None of Bobo's keepers are still alive, but Violet Sunde began her career as Woodland Park's gorilla keeper just a year after his death. She believes "for as much as people knew about gorillas at the time," Bobo was well cared for. "The keepers really adored him; gave him a lot of attention," she says. "I think he was happy."
A decade later, Woodland Park moved its burgeoning gorilla group to "the world's first naturalistic gorilla exhibit," where the apes could "feel plants under their feet, climb trees, and forage for food much like they do in the wild." The zoo now has nine gorillas, spanning three generations, and three full-time gorilla keepers. Primates born in the wild are no longer accepted by zoos to prevent any incentive for poaching, so in-captivity births are extremely important. In its "Bobo's Legacy" display, the zoo attributes its successful breeding program (10 gorillas born at the zoo so far, eight of whom are still alive) to the attention Bobo first garnered. "Bobo brought a lot of people to the zoo," says Sunde. "It did spark the zoo to get more gorillas as a group, rather than an individual or a pair. We've come a long way since Bobo, and I can't help but think he had something to do with that."
Bobo clearly impacted those who knew him, but he didn't exactly revolutionize overall perceptions of gorillas. For 27 years, a gorilla named Ivan was housed in a barren, isolated cage in the B & I shopping mall in Tacoma. Only after the mall went bankrupt six years ago was Ivan shipped to a highly acclaimed zoo in Atlanta. People identify with gorillas--we marvel when they eat with a spoon, or interact with us--and activists hope that connection will one day make people stop killing gorillas in Africa and locking them up in malls in America. Still, if some Tacoma residents had their way, Ivan would be imprisoned to this day. A 1995 WSB-TV 2 Atlanta program interviewed Tacomans at a going-away party for Ivan. "He was something for our kids," one teary-eyed mother moaned. "And now they're gonna take him. It's not fair!"
Folks at the Woodland Park Zoo had a hard time saying goodbye to Bobo, and rather than bury him, had him stuffed. They hired local taxidermists Chris Klineburger and his son Kent for the job. "They seemed to think there was a real value in it," says Chris. Strangely, while gorillas are rarely seen standing on their hind legs, the Kline-burgers stuffed Bobo fully erect. The scientific community was appalled. "It's awful," says Daris Swindler, a former UW professor of anthropology. "They must never have seen a real gorilla in the wild. It's like [Bobo's] gonna say 'good morning' to you."
Others, however, loved the Sasquatch-like form. In a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article from the time, Woodland Park Zoo director Frank Vincenzi said, "I am very pleased. Bobo was one of the few gorillas I ever saw that liked to walk upright. It's nice to remember him that way." Chris Kline-burger defends his decision to create a standing Bobo, noting that "it's more impressive to show the height that way, and they do walk around like that." Bobo was shipped off to MOHAI in April 1968 and put on display a few months later.
But the controversy didn't end there. Following the removal of Bobo's pelt, the rest of his remains were autopsied and handed over to the UW primate center. The center stored Bobo's body in a commercial freezer downtown for several years and then moved it to the UW's Burke Museum. When the Burke's freezer broke down in 1975, Bobo's remains were quickly "skeletonized" and his flesh discarded. Currently, Bobo's bones reside in the UW anthropology department, where they are used for teaching purposes. Only one piece is missing: Bobo's skull.
The mystery of the missing skull was detailed in David Humphries' 1981 Weekly article. Humphries claimed that he had solved the puzzle: Bobo's head was in the hands of local physician Merrill Spencer. The article quoted Spencer angrily refusing to give up Bobo's skull, followed by the UW primate center's Daris Swindler vowing to "start formal proceedings" against Spencer. No lawsuit was filed, but Swindler is still convinced that Spencer, one of the attending physicians at Bobo's autopsy, has the skull. "I dissect human cadavers, and I don't keep the skulls," he adds. When reached by phone, Spencer says only, "I don't know what you're talking about," and hangs up.
"He's a lying old devil," Swindler responds when told of the comment.
Taxidermied Bobo remained on display at MOHAI--with the exception of a sojourn at the Anacortes Museum from 1987 to 1991--until three years ago, when Bobo was put into storage to make room for "Salmon Stakes," MOHAI's exhibit on Seattle's salmon industry. Bobo wasn't doing so well by the time he was pulled from public view. He was dried out, dusty, and decrepit.
Last June, MOHAI P.R. director Feliks Banel and curator Elizabeth Furlow led me through the museum's vast storage area, past ship models, Rainier Brewery artifacts, and shelves teeming with donated bric-a-brac. Finally, I was standing face to face with Bobo. He looked not quite like a gorilla or a human being, but rather something strangely in between. Banel pointed out his eyes, which looked dull, so unlike those in the photos of Bobo when he was alive. His face appeared drawn; his neck just didn't have that thick, furry, gorilla look; the characteristic bulk on top of his head was missing; and overall, he was sort of scrawny looking.
The next time I saw Bobo, he'd been restored (by the Klineburgers, the taxidermists who did the original work). MOHAI apparently received many inquiries about Bobo during the time he was in storage, and though the museum had reservations about returning Bobo to public view, it finally caved and gave the public what it wanted. Bobo's new display features a rehabbed pelt--it looks pretty much the same as before the restoration, but a bit glossier. Chris Klineburger says they gave Bobo a thorough vacuum-cleaning, repaired minor damages with a putty-like substance, and repainted his skin with acrylic paints and leather dye. Bobo's hulking frame looms in the center of a glass case filled with memorabilia from his youth: the Mobilgas shirt, his bottle and rattle, a jacket, a T-shirt, and a tiny pair of overalls.
Banel says there's been a steady stream of visitors since Bobo's return in July, with many people saying they remember him from their childhoods. One family even attended with a boy called Bobo, named after the ape he was now looking at through the glass. Bobo stands there silent, still the crowd pleaser, as people stare and point. "We pride ourselves on the non-interactivity of the exhibit," Banel jokes. In contrast to the whiz-bang, hands-on displays so popular in modern museums (including MOHAI), Bobo's case seems refreshingly simple; almost respectful.
One can't help but wonder how the Lowman family feels about Bobo's taxidermied afterlife. Sitting on the porch of her beautiful Bainbridge Island home, Sue Pedersen says in her husky voice, "Well, being that he was such a Seattle/Pacific Northwest institution, I don't think they wanted to just bury him. They wanted to preserve him, and that was the only way to do it." Her voice breaking, she adds, "I only went once, in my whole life, to see him at the Museum of History and Industry. Once. I think I took my children there." Bill Lowman visited too, but was only saddened by what he saw. "He was family," Bill told the Anacortes American. "It's like having a nephew stuffed and put on display."
In a 1995 KCTS documentary, Sue expressed sadness and regret about the way things turned out with Bobo--his life and death at the zoo, and even purchasing the gorilla in the first place. Said Sue, "I learned that it's really cruel to take an animal such as a gorilla and to keep him in your home when you know that you cannot continue to keep him there."
Bill--who'd always insisted that Bobo taught people to care about wild animals--put on a happier face. "All over the Northwest here, people had the opportunity to see this gorilla, and to become acquainted, and to watch him in action," Bill told KCTS. "It was selfish for us to have him at home any longer than we had to."
Today, the gorillas and orangutans remain among the most popular exhibits at the Woodland Park Zoo. As for the apes themselves, they're often found clustered under the glass in front of their enclosures, as close as they can get to the humans who watch them.
"Bobo Memory Day" will be held this Saturday, September 16, at the Museum of History and Industry. See Diversions, page 75, for details.