For International Polar Bear Day, I’d like to recount an entertaining story I recently stumbled upon while researching zoo history. And you will be happy to know that I can call it entertaining because no people or animals were hurt in this escape story. And who doesn’t enjoy an entertaining, benign escape story?
For a zoo employee, no day is ever the same—you never know what challenges or rewards you will face on a daily basis. But imagine coming to work and finding seven polar bears pillaging a concession stand, chowing down on sugary goodies. That’s exactly what happened on the wet, soggy morning of July 17, 1969.
The Brookfield Zoo, located in suburban Chicago, prides itself on being the first zoo in the United States to incorporate cageless, moated exhibits. These natural settings were a request from Edith Rockefeller McCormick (daughter of John D. Rockefeller), who donated 83 acres of land for the specific purpose of creating a modern, innovative zoo modeled after the cageless exhibits she admired in Europe. Zoo construction began in 1926 but was halted during the Great Depression; the zoo finally officially opened in 1934. Not only did it gain international recognition for its moated exhibits, but it was also the first zoo in America to house giant pandas (Su-Lin arrived in 1937), which drew millions of visitors through its gates during its first decade of operation.
The moated grotto exhibits, often cited as favorites, gave visitors an unobstructed look at the animals and allowed them to throw food to the begging bears—a very common practice at zoos in those days. In fact, the Brookfield Zoo had a concession stand right across from the polar bear enclosure that sold marshmallows for bear feedings in addition to human treats. The polar bears could watch that stand every day, all day in hopes that visitors spent their coins on goodies for them.
The moats and marshmallow combo worked out well for the bears and visitors entertainment-wise, but the zoo wasn’t prepared for what happened in the summer of ’69.
Between the evening of July 16 and the early morning hours of July 17, Chicago experienced torrential downpours. Flooding was so bad that even the deep moats in the polar bear exhibit flooded, creating a pool instead of a barrier. The seven (yes, SEVEN!) very smart polar bears were able to swim out of their enclosure and made a bear-line right for the refreshment stand that had taunted them every day for years.
When employees arrived the early morning of the 17th before the zoo opened, the bears had already broken the concession stand windows and had finished the supply of marshmallows. They had moved on to the stash of ice cream and chips, as well as tossing around a cash register.
When approached by the zoo employees, five of the bears immediately swam back into their enclosure. One had run over to say hello to the grizzly bears, who wanted no part in a cordial visit from their neighbor. The other bear made a run for the zoo restaurant, but guards, using vehicles with sirens and horns and firing a few shotgun blasts in the air, were able to redirect it back towards the polar bear exhibit. The bears didn’t need to be tranquilized, but the guards were prepared to do so if necessary. The local fire department was immediately called in to pump out the flooded water while the bears were kept busy with more marshmallows.
The incident made the national news, and a children’s book, The Marshmallow Caper, was written about it. It was also the first time in the zoo’s history that the gates had to close, as it is normally open 365 days a year. Luckily it was an event that could be looked back on with chuckles instead of tragic evocation. Keeper Jim Rowell remembered, “It sounds funny now, but any time an animal escapes it can turn into a nightmare.”
I could not find any details about modifications the Brookfield Zoo made to prevent the bears from escaping again, but the zoo did end the sale of marshmallows and prohibited animal feedings in 1970. Sorry, bears.
There might be a “big” reason that Valentine’s Day and National Hippo Day are back-to-back (February 14 and 15). After all, what greater romance involves nearly 14,000 pounds? Such was the case at the National Zoo—the love story of Arusha and Joe Smith, the Nile hippo couple who spent 25 years together in the Elephant House . . . and raised 18 calves!
The mighty Arusha was born in 1952 in Tanzania and arrived at the National Zoo in June of 1955 as an 865-pound three-year-old. Shortly thereafter, Joe Smith arrived in DC, still a baby at six months old but immediately inaugurating hopes for future baby hippos at the zoo.
After establishing their bond early in life and maturing into adulthood together, Arusha gave birth to their first calf in June of 1959. This event shocked everyone—no one at the zoo knew that she was expecting! Thus began their successful dive into parenthood.
After the first-born, according to the Washington Post, Arusha gave birth every year through 1967 (the gestation period for hippos is eight months). That year, so high was the zoo’s confidence in her ability to bear healthy offspring that her calf was donated to Chile ever before it was born. Arusha did not disappoint.
She is not a pretty mother, but she is infallibly fertile, and she and Joe get along.
—Phil Casey, Washington Post, May 24, 1967
The only time that Arusha and Joe were separated was during the first week or so after each birth. Arusha was a protective mother, so Joe was moved out of Arusha and the calf’s space so that they could bond alone—and also so that the matriarch couldn’t rough Joe up. He understood very well that Arusha was the boss, so most of the time he knew when not to get too close. When she finally entrusted him with babysitting, Arusha would let him know when it was his time to give her a break from parenting. According to a keeper, Joe would even carry hay to Arusha so that she could dine in her pool. What a sweet guy!
Arusha and Joe’s accomplishments set a record for the number of Nile hippo births in captivity. Perhaps they benefited from something in the Elephant House water. In that same building, Billy made the National Zoo famous for its successful pygmy hippopotamus breeding. Formally named William Johnson Hippopotamus, Billy was a gift to President Calvin Coolidge in 1927, and until his death in 1955 he had sired 18 little gumdrops between mates Hannah and Matilda (yes, they were all named Gumdrop [followed by Roman numerals]—and interestingly all but one were female!). According to the zoo, the lineage of most pygmy hippos living in captivity in the United States today can be traced back to virile Billy. (After successfully breeding a whopping 52 of them, the National Zoo no longer has pygmy hippos, as the last of them were transferred to other zoos with the renovation of the Elephant House in 2009.)
Arusha and Joe’s offspring were offered to other zoos worldwide shortly after weaning due to space constraints. The one exception was Happy (nicknamed “Joe Jr.” by the keepers), born January 4, 1981—a few months after father Joe sadly passed away. (I could not find any information about the cause of death. Most news coming out of the zoo at that time focused on the fervent yet disappointing attempts at breeding Ling-Ling the giant panda.)
Happy’s arrival seemed to help Arusha recover from the loss of Joe. Before Happy, Arusha would watch the hippo tank and react to any noise, possibly anticipating Joe’s return. The Washington Post noted that she seemed to be “quite listless.” One other behavior she picked up after her mate’s death was his ritual of bellowing just before the zoo’s closing time. It was if he was announcing to the visitors that it was time to leave. Never having participated before, Arusha resumed his tradition, with the keepers’ prediction that she would continue until Happy would become old enough to take over.
Arusha and son Happy remained together at the National Zoo until Arusha’s death in 2004 at the age of 52. Happy lived solo but was certainly spoiled by his keepers. “He gets two meals a day. He has ceiling fans, skylights, spray showers, an exotic mural on his walls, as well as two pools,” reported the Washington Post. Happy was a favorite of keeper John Taylor, who was exceptionally sad to see him depart for the Milwaukee County Zoo in 2009, as plans to expand the elephant habitat did not include a home for hippos at the National Zoo.
Although he hasn’t followed his father’s fertile footsteps, Happy is currently living in Milwaukee with a female friend, Patti, and doing well. The handsome guy celebrated his 38th birthday last month.
Happy the hippo at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photos from the zoo’s Facebook page.
Happy the hippo at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photos from the zoo’s Facebook page.
Happy the hippo at Milwaukee County Zoo. Photos from the zoo’s Facebook page.
To say that the Wells family was shocked to discover that Bimbo was living just a few miles away at the National Zoo is a serious understatement. Kenneth and Margaretta Wells, along with their two children, had spent four years in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where the Reverend Dr. Kenneth served as headmaster of the Prince Royal’s College, a Presbyterian missionary school. They returned to the United States in 1951, making the DC area their home.
While living in Thailand, the Wells family adopted a black white-handed gibbon named Bimbo, who loved playing with the Wells children and students at the school, generating laughs with her antics, and tormenting the neighborhood pets. She developed a fondness for fresh pineapple and expensive British chocolates and would join the Wells family for waffle breakfasts. (It would take her days to lick all of the syrup out of her fur!) Bimbo was family.
A home video by the Wells family. Bimbo appears at the beginning of the clip. Source: Presbyterian Historical Society
After four years in Thailand, it was time for the Wellses to return to the United States. Unable to take Bimbo with them, the heartbroken Wells family arranged for the gibbon to live with friends, with the understanding that if they could not care for her that they would find her a good, loving home. They tearfully said their goodbyes to Bimbo and Thailand.
Fifteen months later, when the daily Washington Post arrived at the Wells’s home in Arlington, Virginia, Kenneth showed his family a large photo of a gibbon that accompanied a story about new arrivals from Thailand at the National Zoo. “That looks like Bimbo,” he commented. His eighteen-year-old daughter exclaimed that it HAD to be Bimbo—“No other gibbon looks like Bimbo!” Roberta’s mother told her not to get her hopes up too high, that there is a very slim chance that it was actually Bimbo—after all, Thailand was full of black gibbons. Their curiosity highly peaked, the Wells family enthusiastically journeyed into the city to visit the new zoo arrival.
Their initial attempts to engage with the gibbon proved unsuccessful due to heavy crowds. Not giving up, the next day Kenneth contacted Ernest P. Walker, the assistant director of the zoo. Wells recounted their story and inquired about the possibility of meeting the gibbon early in the morning before the crowds descended upon the zoo. Agreeing but dubious, Walker explained that the gibbon was indeed purchased from a dealer in Bangkok, but that he was unaware of how the gibbon would have made its way from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand to Bangkok near the coast—a 400-mile distance. Could it really be Bimbo?
On a Friday morning, the Wells family met Walker at the Small Mammal House. Clutching a tin of pineapple and a box of chocolates, the children began calling out to the gibbon with the endearing coos that they used back in Thailand. But would she remember after fifteen months and in a completely different setting? Bimbo immediately started crying and attempted to hug Roberta through the bars. She then gobbled down her favorite, familiar treats. Roberta asked Walker if she could enter the enclosure to make sure there was no question of Bimbo’s identity; Walker agreed, offering safety warnings. Within seconds of the Wellses entering the gibbon space, Bimbo latched onto both children tightly and cried softly. Everyone was in tears. Roberta then rubbed Bimbo just under her eyebrows—a gesture that gibbons normally despise but Bimbo grew to love. Bimbo refused to let go of them. That was enough to convince Walker. (He did draw the line at using waffles and syrup as proof.)
That is the first time I’ve seen a gibbon enjoying English creams. She is yours without a doubt.
—Ernest P. Walker, assistant director of the National Zoological Park
The story of this amazing reunion attracted national press. The Wells family returned to the zoo for a photo shoot, and Margaretta Wells penned an article about the reunion, which appeared in the July 1953 issue of National Geographic. (This article includes thirteen fantastic photos of the Wells family with Bimbo.) Visitors flocked to the Small Mammal House to catch a glimpse of the celebrity gibbon.
The Wells family enjoyed regular visits with Bimbo. She often had to forgo her chocolate treats with other gibbons lurking, but I’m sure knowing that her “family” was close it made her life at the National Zoo, half a world from her homeland, a much happier one.
“Arlington Family, Former Pet Reunited by Picture in Post.” Washington Post (June 15, 1953), p. 15.
For this installment of “Zoo Walks through History,” I have the extreme pleasure of interviewing Kara Arundel, author of Raising America’s Zoo: How Two Wild Gorillas Helped Transform the National Zoo (Mascot Books, 2017). Kara has a personal connection to the National Zoo’s history and the events that unfold in her book. In 1955, her father-in-law, Arthur “Nick” Arundel (childhood author of Nicky’s News) and formerly enlisted Marine, participated in a safari expedition in the Belgian Congo, only to return to DC with an infant gorilla under each arm. Moka and Nikumba would become the first gorillas since 1932 to reside at the National Zoo and would help pave the way for SNZ to become a highly respected institution for gorilla conservation and research.
How did your father-in-law transition from Nicky’s News fame to presenting Moka and Nikumba to the National Zoo?
Dr. William Mann was a close friend of the Arundel family. Mann had been the National Zoo’s director in 1936 when an 8-year-old young Nicky Arundel started a neighborhood newspaper to advocate for giraffes at the National Zoo. Mann was still zoo director in 1955 when Nick Arundel, went on a pleasure safari to Africa and brought back two baby gorillas for the National Zoo.
What were those initial conversations like between Nick and the zoo regarding the gorilla transaction?
The first two gorillas at the National Zoo came in 1928 and 1931, but both died after only a few years at the zoo. By the 1950s, Dr. Mann decided he wanted bring gorillas back to the National Zoo. From the 1920s through the 1950s, zoos often acquired gorillas by contracting with hunters. But as early as the 1940s, many African colonial governments started putting restrictions on hunting, including the number of gorillas that could be captured. Mann was negotiating with his international contacts to get gorillas, but the zoo couldn’t afford the steep price for two young gorillas.
Nick was not involved in these negotiations but when Nick and his family began planning a family trip to Africa, Nick and his father offered to help capture gorillas and escort the animals to America.
How were Russell and Nick able to get past the restrictions in place for obtaining and exporting gorillas?
That’s an excellent question. The National Zoo had permits to export gorillas. But documents from the Smithsonian Institution Archives—and Nick Arundel’s journals—talk both about Nick capturing the gorillas as well as donating $10,000 to the French Equatorial African government, which already had two gorillas in captivity. The book lays out these two narratives and the sources.
I conclude in my book that it was more likely the Arundels paid the F.E.A. for the gorillas. Nick, however, was a formerly enlisted Marine and CIA operative who worked covert missions in Korea and Vietnam. His capturing gorillas with the help of natives may have been unlikely but not impossible in 1955.
I’m trying to imagine myself on an airplane with two baby gorillas. It must have been a bit easier than bringing back, say, two giraffes, but still a challenge!
Yes, that’s definitely not allowed these days. At first, Nick had a hard time finding an airline to fly him to America with the baby gorillas. Sabena Airlines, a small Belgian airline, agreed after Nick promised to have newspaper photographers on the tarmac when they touched down in New York to take pictures of the gorillas—and the plane. Nick prepared baby bottles of infant formula and packed diapers for the trip. He had also spent nearly a week with the gorillas getting them used to him as their temporary caregiver. Nick also had the gorillas examined by a veterinarian in the Belgian Congo who discovered that Nikumba had a cold and a parasitic disease that causes diarrhea. The young gorilla was put on medicine right away and Nick determined he was well enough to fly.
It was winter so the gorillas traveled with Nick in the passenger cabin with airline passengers taking turns feeding the baby gorillas with bottles. The trio first stopped in Brussels where a heated truck drove the gorillas to the Antwerp Zoo where they rested for the night. The next day, Nick and the gorillas flew on another Sabena aircraft to Idlewild Airport (now John F. Kennedy Airport) where, as Nick promised, a waiting press corps took photos.
One of the themes of your book that I found fascinating was how the practice of acquiring animals for the zoo has changed dramatically and how much the welfare and care of the animals has improved so much. We have learned a lot about zoo management since the 1950s! I’m sure your father-in-law would love seeing the gorilla spaces evolve from smaller cages to much larger exhibit spaces and large outdoor yards.
The zoo’s transformation is a prominent theme of the book. In no way am I discounting the efforts by earlier zoo leaders and the challenges they faced, such as rations for World War II efforts and budget disagreements between the federal government and District of Columbia. There is evidence throughout the zoo’s history that compassion for animals was a top priority.
Significant changes began happening in the 1960s and 1970s, however, when international and national conservation agreements were enforced and more was known about gorillas’ behaviors in the wild. These developments really influenced better animal management practices at zoos.
Nick Arundel, who was one of the first board members of the Friends of the National Zoo and later a FONZ board president, wanted a first-class zoo, and he was impatient with what he saw as slow progress. In the 1970s, when he was FONZ president, he called the National Zoo a “national disgrace.” He was so excited when the Great Ape House and its adjacent outdoor play yard opened in 1981, allowing Nikumba his first opportunity to step on grass since leaving Africa. Nick continued to support the zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute until he died in 2011.
One other fascinating part of your narrative is how many men transitioned from big game hunters to conservationists—starting with William Hornaday and continuing with the members of the African Safari Club. How do you think that “lightbulb” turned on where they realized that the hunting of exotic wild animals was no longer desirable?
Nick was a member of the African Safari Club, whose members met regularly to discuss the sport of hunting: the weapons, animals, and places. Nick and four other members formed the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation in 1961 when they became concerned about the loss of protections for African wildlife during decolonization. The original goal was to help train Africans to manage the continent’s wildlife resources. Their change of heart came alongside the global realization that exotic wild animals need protecting to ensure they won’t go extinct.
Some of the early AWLF members still supported and participated in the sport of hunting non-threatened animals, though they found it difficult to explain the difference between protecting some animals while hunting others.
The title of your book, and the part you have a personal connection to—the gorillas—is certainly a major storyline in the book, but you weave in so many more interesting stories about the zoo’s history. Was your intention to focus on the gorillas but ended up branching out more?
I always had a sharp focus on the story of the gorillas at the National Zoo. I began researching the book simply because I wanted to learn more about how Nick captured two gorillas and brought them to America. Over the five years it took me to research and write the book, I learned so much more about the National Zoo, the people who worked there, and the animals who lived there. The full history of the National Zoo’s gorillas could not be told without understanding the stories of the gorilla caregivers, other animals at the zoo, and the spirit of cooperation of zoos across America as they grew their animal conservation missions.
Your book is so well researched. You must have camped out in the Smithsonian Archives! When you were poring through these artifacts, did you stumble upon any surprises?
The Smithsonian Institution Archives collects and preserves all the documents from the Smithsonian Institution museums, including the National Zoo. I was amazed at how much documentation SIA kept since the zoo was founded in 1889. There were reports, letters, maps, photos, oral histories, and more. It would have been very difficult to tell the stories in my book without all the available historical documents.
SIA’s Reading Room is in Washington, D.C., is free and open to the public. I made nearly two dozen visits to review the National Zoo’s files. On one trip, I was reading through a primate log book from the 1970s, which had handwritten notes from the keepers about what each animal ate, their behaviors, and social activity. As I was turning pages, a clump of black hair fell onto my lap! I examined it closer and realized it was probably gorilla hair. I put it back between the pages and kept reading. I never knew what I’d find in those files and luckily, I never found any live animals!
Mandara—“Super Mom”! I was very excited that you included the legendary story of her “adopting” baby Baraka—much like when she “borrowed” Moke last year. Wouldn’t you love to know how her “adoption” of Baraka really unfolded?
Absolutely! “Mandy” as some keepers affectionately called her gave birth to her first offspring in 1991 when she was only 7 years old. Kejana’s birth was the first gorilla birth at the National Zoo in nearly 20 years and the young Mandara proved to be an excellent mom. Just 11 months after Kejana was born, another female gorilla gave birth at the Great Ape House. The zoo was closing for the evening and Haloko went to a behind-the-scences part of the gorilla exhibit. About 15 minutes later, Mandara appeared holding Haloko’s newborn baby—Baraka Ya M’Welu. No one knows if Haloko gave Baraka to Mandara or if she took him from Haloko, but Haloko did not appear to try to get her infant back. Mandara continued to nurse and care for both Kejana and Baraka. Mandara would have five more healthy babies at the National Zoo over the next two decades.
Now that Moke has been born, you realize your book needs a second edition, right? (No pressure!) Are there any future projects on the horizon?
I would love to write a second edition of Raising America’s Zoo! There are many more animals, animal caregivers, and advocates that deserve to have their stories shared. I’d love to hear from everyone’s suggestions. Please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I cannot thank Kara enough for sharing her insights. If you have not already, pick up a copy of her fascinating book. She has inspired several of my blog posts thus far and certainly many more to come!
Kara will also be discussing her book at the Tenley-Friendship Library in Northwest DC on Wednesday, March 6 at 7 p.m. I hope to see you there!
When zoos are looking to draw more visitors through their gates, they will often hold special events—exhibit grand openings, birthday parties for popular animals, or holiday light displays. Some are certainly more creative than others. Let’s just say that Jungle Jack Hanna, in his early days as director of the Columbus Zoo, had a few ideas of his own.
Hanna, one of the most famous faces of the zoo world from his appearances on the David Letterman Show and Good Morning America to his energetic public appearances promoting wildlife conservation, was hired as the director of the Columbus Zoo in 1978. At the time, the zoo was in really bad shape—only 350,000 visitors walked the 90-acre grounds that year. In fact, many Columbus residents didn’t even know the city had a zoo. Hanna, although pretty much a stranger to the world of zoo directorship, had just the energy and positive outlook that the zoo needed to bring a boost to the zoo’s budget, staff morale, and overall reputation in the zoo community. You would even find him walking the grounds after hours picking up trash.
In those early years as director, his zest for public relations helped him procure some big donations from prominent Columbus businesspeople. His energy and lofty aspirations were quite attractive, and he made it hard for these donors to turn him down. The first big project of his directorship was the renovation of an old elephant yard into an outdoor gorilla habitat. The gorillas were the most popular animals at the zoo, especially with a celebrity in their midst. Colo was the first gorilla born in captivity in 1956, and the Columbus Zoo’s gorilla program, also known for its successful breeding, was very well respected in the zoo community. The outdoor yard was the first project of many that would bring animals out of cages and into more natural habitats.
As improvements were being made and visitorship began to climb, Hanna also was becoming one of the most prominent faces in the city. From 1981 to 1983, Hanna hosted Hanna’s Ark, a television program that aired on the local CBS affiliate in Columbus. He and his co-host, eleven-year-old daughter Kathaleen, brought the zoo animals into Central Ohio residents’ homes on a regular basis. Thus began Hanna’s television career, making both himself and the Columbus Zoo household names.
During the early 1980s, however, the Columbus Zoo experienced some cuts in federal funding, and the zoo needed to generate more revenue locally. Jack Hanna’s creativity and enthusiasm went to work overtime, as what he came up with was pretty darn crazy. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?
[W]orking with him was never boring. –John Switzer, zoo reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, on Jack Hanna
The Flying Wallendas, a popular circus and aerial stunt act, was known for entertaining audiences all over the world—tightrope walking across massive gorges, waterfalls, and giant sports stadiums—often with no safety netting. In 1978, Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the famous family, fell to his death during a performance in Puerto Rico. Since the incident, booking the Wallendas was viewed as super risky. Apparently not to Jungle Jack! He contacted Enrico “Rick” Wallenda, who was looking to make his comeback, and offered to hire him for an event at the zoo. Wallenda enthusiastically accepted.
Hanna himself admits that what happens next was really boneheaded in retrospect. . . .
On May 15, 1982, fifteen thousand visitors flooded through the zoo gates to witness Rick Wallenda tightrope walk a span of 80 feet across the outdoor tiger enclosure. No one was injured or killed, and the crowd was quite entertained. At one point, Wallenda dazzled his spectators with a headstand, and at another he faked a fall. The nervous Hanna muttered, “Can’t he just walk across?” The tiger was given a huge steak bone to gnaw on, so, other than emitting a few growls it was not super interested in the circus act going on 40-feet above it. Afterward, Wallenda called the act “kind of a thrill.”
However, the professional zoo community, particularly the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA, now the AZA), was not as amused. The executive director chastised Hanna for acting in a way that violated AAZPA ethics. Hanna explains, “I had exploited the Bengal tigers through showmanship, not zookeeping. . . . I apologized. . . . But deep down inside I was still thrilled about all those people we drew. Looking back today, however, I would rather have no visitors than initiate a performance like that again.” Hanna brought the zoo back from near extinction on his energy and good vision, but that was not one of his better ideas.
I’m a promoter. They never know what I’m going to do next. —Jack Hanna, 1983
(This event was immediately followed by a tug-of-war match between Belinda the elephant and a group of Ohio State University athletes.)
The next year, Hanna received the publicity he needed, through more “natural” means. The zoo made history on October 25, 1983, when gorilla twins Macombo II (“Mac”) and Mosuba were born—the first set of gorilla twins born alive in a U.S. zoo. The zoo found itself in the national spotlight again; Hanna proudly introduced the new babies on Good Morning America (his first appearance on the popular show), and visitors flooded to the zoo to witness history. (Mac still lives at the Columbus Zoo, and Mosuba resides at the North Carolina Zoo.)
In terms of local financial support, beginning in 1985 local voters would pass the first of many tax levies to support the zoo’s improvement plans.
Today, the Columbus Zoo spans 588 beautiful acres, and over two million visitors enjoy the park annually. Hanna retired in 1992 but still serves as Director Emeritus and makes occasional appearances at the zoo. He is also very active in promoting wildlife conservation worldwide. As pronounced on the zoo’s website, “The staggering variety of animals, habitats, and immersive experiences that define today’s Columbus Zoo would not exist without the efforts and visionary leadership of America’s favorite zookeeper, Jack Hanna, and his commitment to making the world a better place for animals and people everywhere.”
Another celebrity animal called Smithsonian’s National Zoo home, but unlike Smokey Bear (rescue cub) and Ham the chimp (retired Air Force veteran), Mohini Rewa arrived in DC with a completely different, “enchanting” story.
What made Mohini such a celebrity? When she arrived in the United States in 1960, she was the only white Bengal tiger outside India. The only known white tigers were found in the Rewa district (now part of Madhya Pradesh), with only nine sightings in the wild. The last known wild white tiger was killed by hunters in 1958, leaving behind only those bred in captivity. Four of these rare exotic tigers resided at the palace of the Maharaja of Rewa, from whom Mohini was purchased. She was basically considered royalty.
Like how so many exotic animal stories begin, this one started with a hunting trip. Ralph S. Scott, a DC realtor and attorney participated in a hunting excursion to central India. Upon seeing the gorgeous white animal (presumably one in captivity), his goal was to bring one to the National Zoo. He recruited billionaire John Kluge, president of the Metropolitan Broadcasting Corporation of New York, to help fund the purchase. After an agreement of $10,000 was reached with the Maharaja, Theodore Reed, director of the National Zoo, headed to India to select and escort his tiger back to the United States.
Reed chronicled his India excursion in a 1961 National Geographic article. Upon his arrival at the palace (also present was SNZ carnivore keeper Bert Barker), Reed fell in love instantly with the two-year-old, 190-pound Mohini (named for her father, Mohan, and translates as “Enchantress”): “Her stripes were black, shading into brown, but her main coat was eggshell white instead of the normal rufous orange. Exotic coloring and magnificent physique made her a tiger without peer.” Smitten, Reed said, “I was glad that financial details had been completed before I came to India. How could I have made a canny bargain after seeing these magnificent cats?” Reed selected Mohini out of a litter of four white cubs.
As she came closer, I was astonished by her perfect development. Her ice-blue eyes were peculiarly aloof, yet inquisitive. I extended my clenched hand in the experienced animal handler’s form of greeting. Daintily, she licked my knuckles. Fortunately, bars separated us—her fangs were three inches long.
—Theodore Reed, Director of the National Zoo, on Mohini
According to Reed, bringing Mohini back to the United States proved quite a nerve-wracking ordeal. In fact, Mohini almost didn’t leave India due to problems with the financial exchange and a heap of customs red tape. Can you imagine traveling halfway around the world only to be told that you cannot leave with your $10,000 purchase? Reed was indeed informed that a ban on the export of white tigers had been implemented before he could leave the country. After getting the U.S. Ambassador involved, however, the anxious Reed and his white enchantress made it out of India in time.
On December 5, 1960, the royal Mohini was officially presented to President Dwight Eisenhower on the White House lawn, according to funder Kluge, as a “as a gift to the children of America.” In a humorous exchange during the ceremony, Eisenhower told Reed that Mohini wasn’t as white as the tiger he saw in India. After Reed explained that Mohini was a bit dirty from her 10-day, 8,000-mile journey, the smirking president asked who was going to bathe her. Reed replied, “Happily, she does that herself.”
If she were human, she’d be a moviestar. —Theodore Reed, Director of the National Zoo
President Eisenhower meets Mohini at the White House:
Mohini was an instant celebrity at the zoo. Not only was the First Kitty gorgeous, she was also the only white tiger residing in any zoo worldwide at the time. Reed was not shy about expressing his immediate desire for more white tigers, but given that Mohini was barely two years old, breeding her would have to wait a bit.
(SNZ trivia tidbit: A few months after Mohini arrived, Ambika the elephant would begin her 47-day journey from India aboard the S.S. Steel Architect “as a gift from the children of India and the Maharajah of Mysore to the children of America.” Ambika celebrated her 71st birthday at SNZ in August 2018!)
The white color of these Bengal tigers is due to a genetic condition that nearly eliminates pigment in the normally orange fur; ergo, white tigers are not their own subspecies—all white tigers carry orange genes. When a tiger inherits two copies of the recessive gene for the paler coloration, the result is a white tiger. However, this means that to produce more white tigers, much inbreeding is involved, which then leads to various health issues, physical defects, and premature deaths. This story is certainly no different.
Mohini was such a popular animal at SNZ that the Friends of the National Zoo used her likeness for its logo before the pandas arrived in 1972. Friends of the National Zoo logo on a recruitment letter, circa 1960s. Courtesy of Kara Arundel.
The breeding of Mohini became more of a reality with the arrival of Samson on January 5, 1963 (the same year that Ham the chimp arrived at SNZ). Samson, purchased from a zoo in India, was orange in appearance but carried the recessive gene. In fact, he was both a half-brother and uncle of Mohini. Samson was placed in the same enclosure as the royal lady, and acts of mating were reported in the local newspaper. Fingers were crossed—most tightly by Reed—for the first white tiger cubs ever born outside of India.
Mohini ultimately had two litters of cubs with Samson. The first arrived on January 6, 1964, with one white cub and two orange cubs. It was such a big deal that the birth was broadcast on national TV. When the lion house was reopened to the public six weeks after the birth, there were long lines of people eagerly awaiting a peek at history. The Smithsonian annual report that year noted that some visitors arrived at the lion house in the morning and stayed until closing time. (Sadly, two of the cubs, Ramani, the female orange and Rajkumar, the white male, died of feline distemper in August 1965.)
Mohini’s second litter with Samson arrived two years later than the first, on February 5, 1966. One of cubs was stillborn and the other a female orange named Kesari. Although there was initial disappointment that the surviving cub was not white, Kesari thrived and went on to have many cubs of her own at the Cincinnati Zoo, including a litter of four white cubs in 1976, all of which were cross-eyed. (Over 70 white tigers have been born at the Cincinnati Zoo, which is where Siegfried and Roy purchased the white tigers for their performances. Cincinnati’s last white tiger, Popsy, died in 2018.)
Sadly, Samson contracted a degenerative kidney ailment and passed away in November of that year at age eleven. The surviving male orange cub from Mohini’s first litter, Ramana, became her mate after Samson’s death. (As Washington Post puts it, “Ramana is Mohini’s son, cousin and half-nephew, and he hardly knows her” [29 Nov 1966: C1].) It was not surprising, given that Ramana was so young when he was reintroduced to his mother, that keepers did not witness any mating between the two tigers.
Just when it was looking grim that Mohini and Ramana would ever mate, two little surprises (to everyone, even her keepers) arrived on April 13, 1969—one orange male cub and one white female cub. The former lived only 48 hours due to birth defects, but the white cub named Rewati became the prized cub that the zoo had anxiously awaited for several years. Mohini’s keepers observed the mother like a hawk, and after a bit of nervous, obsessive licking behavior by Mohini, the keepers pulled the cub from her mother. Rewati, a cross-eyed white cat (a common defect in white tigers), was hand-reared by Theodore Reed’s wife, Elizabeth (at the time anonymously due to privacy concerns), in their suburban Maryland home. (Elizabeth wrote about her experiences with the cub in the April 1970 issue of National Geographic.) Once she became too rambunctious for human care, Rewati was returned to the zoo, along with an orange cub that was purchased to be her playmate. (What fun it would have been to watch them romp around!)
At the time of Rewati’s birth, there were still very few white tigers outside of India (and only around 30 known in the world). There were six at the zoo in Bristol, England, and one new acquisition at the zoo in Miami. But the National Zoo still had a monopoly on white tiger births in the United States.
That designation was about to end, however. Mohini did give birth to another litter on March 8, 1970, this time a litter of four cubs, two of which were white. In a tragic accident, after 48 hours Mohini crushed and killed three of the cubs while in labor with a fifth (stillborn) cub. The surviving cub, a white male named Moni was hand-reared, again by Elizabeth Reed.
Her name is Rewati, and she is flighty and cross-eyed. She used to walk in circles, but she cut that out. One of her brothers, Moni, used to walk in circles too, and act kind of funny. He finally died, apparently from the stress of being a white tiger and vastly inbred.
—Phil Casey, “The Great White Hope.” Washington Post, March 19, 1973
Sadly, Moni died unexpectedly of a neurological disorder at just 16 months old. The Reeds were crushed. Dr. Reed, however, was still determined to mate his matriarch and produce more cubs. A male named Poona arrived on a six-month loan from Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, but Mohini did not become pregnant.
In 1974, the old and decrepit 1891 lion house at SNZ was bulldozed, and the big cats were shipped to other zoos temporarily until their new (current) digs were built (Ramana and Kesari were sent to Cincinnati, and Mohini and Rewati went to Brookfield Zoo in Chicago). They returned to SNZ in May 1976. Still no cubs. Mohini was becoming a senior cat at that point.
Mohini did not give birth again after Moni’s litter. She lived until 20 years of age, which is a very long life for a big cat; she was humanely euthanized after experiencing complications of old age on April 2, 1979. (Apparently the skins and skulls of Mohini and Moni are in the Smithsonian’s possession, but are not on display.) Theodore Reed “mourned his queen the late Mohini Rewa.” At the time of her death, two of her white grandchildren, Priya and Bharat, lived at SNZ through the 1990s, and the last white tiger at the National Zoo, Panghur Ban (known as “Taj”), a great grandson of Mohini, died in 2002 at the age of eighteen.
Mohini started the white tiger legacy in the United States, and her bloodlines still exist in zoos and sanctuaries today. (In fact, every white tiger descends from her father, Mohan.) A 2011 population of white tigers at accredited zoos numbered 55, but I have not been able to locate a more recent count. In 2012, the Species Survival Plan smartly instructed zoos to cease the breeding of white tigers, as the inbreeding had become out of control (PDF). (Inbreeding was not uncommon in zoos before the founding of the Species Survival Plan in 1981.) Many of the white tigers found in zoos are rescues from the illegal exotic pet trade. You can find one such tiger, Luther, at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston.
Majestically beautiful, however long as they roam in captivity, their beauty will never disappear.
While researching the history of the Smithsonian’s National Zoo, I have discovered that it had a few celebrity residents that were not giant pandas. I have already introduced you to Smokey Bear, but while Smokey called the zoo home, another celebrity, also with a New Mexico connection, became his neighbor on Connecticut Avenue in 1963—Ham, the first chimpanzee in space.
When Ham arrived at the National Zoo, he was a retiree at only six years old, but those first six years of his life were quite an adventure. Born in 1957, Ham was captured by trappers in present-day Cameroon, West Africa, and brought to the (now-defunct) Rare Bird Farm in Miami, Florida. In 1959 he was purchased by the U.S. Air Force and transferred to Holloman Air Force Base in Alamogordo, New Mexico, to become a participant in space flight research. Ham joined about 40 other chimpanzees who were already part of the program. As yet unnamed, the chimp was referred to as #65 during his training. (The chimps were not given names so that humans did not become as attached to them in case of a tragedy during testing.)
Animals—mostly dogs, monkeys, and chimpanzees—had been used by Americans and Russians to test the effects of prolonged weightlessness for more than a decade before Ham arrived at Holloman. Many of these trial runs led to injury or death. In June 1948, a rhesus macaque named Albert I was launched into space in a V-2 rocket over White Sands, NM, but died during flight. In September 1951, Yorick became the first monkey to survive a space flight (but succumbed a few hours after the event at Holloman AFB). In May 1952, two Philippine macaques named Patricia and Mike survived a flight of 36 miles above earth, which was too short to be considered a space flight, but it was a successful mission. I particularly highlight this pair because Patricia and Mike “retired” to the National Zoo in 1954; Patricia died two years later, and Mike died in 1967—both of natural causes. The same year that Ham arrived at Holloman AFB (1959), a rhesus macaque named Sam completed a successful 53-mile flight in the Little Joe 2 rocket as part of Project Mercury, the same program for which Ham trained. Now it was #65’s turn to make history.
During their training at Holloman, the basic job of the chimpanzees was to make sure humans could survive the rigors of space flight. The training, under the direction of a neuroscientist, involved pulling levers in a specific sequence after receiving colored light cues. If the correct lever was not pulled after five seconds, the chimps were subjected to a light shock on bottom of their feet. The correct response earned them a treat of banana pellets. The entire training duration was spent strapped in a special contoured chair (or “couch”) while wearing a nylon suit and diaper. The same tasks were to be performed during the actual flight to make sure humans could perform such tasks while under the stress of orbit. The chimps, like humans, were also exposed to g-forces and microgravity to simulate space flight.
Over time, chimpanzees were weeded out of the program (down to 18 and then to 6) as physically or mentally unfit, but two-year-old Ham’s extreme intelligence and calm demeanor helped him complete the sixteen-month training and pass all (frequent) medical evaluations. (At the age of two, most chimpanzees would still be a nursing infant dependent on their mothers, so it’s important to keep in mind how young Ham was during this intense training.) “Ham, especially, was a very friendly fellow,” recounted one photographer for Life magazine. “Those were great assignments, shooting the early years with NASA. You really got the sense that these were incredibly smart ‘people’ just working their tails off to do something that had never been done before.”
Intelligent and normally docile, the chimpanzee is a primate of sufficient size and sapience to provide a reasonable facsimile of human behavior. Its average response time to a given physical stimulus is .7 of a second, compared with man’s average .5 second. Having the same organ placement and internal suspension as man, plus a long medical research background, the chimpanzee chosen to ride the Redstone and perform a lever-pulling chore throughout the mission should not only test out the life-support systems but prove that levers could be pulled during launch, weightlessness, and reentry. —NASA, This New Ocean: A History of Project Mercury
(For an excellent collection of photos of Ham during his training period, see Burgess 2014.)
Ham, now three years old and 37 pounds, was ultimately chosen over the remaining six chimps to take part in the Mercury-Redstone (MR-2) flight from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on January 31, 1961. He was not selected until the day of launch, as NASA’s Space Task Group, with the assistance of veterinarians, wanted to choose the most mentally and physically fit chimp on that day.
After Ham had already been strapped in the capsule for five hours on the launchpad, the actual flight lasted over 16 minutes (with over 6 minutes of weightlessness) and traveled 127 miles above the earth at a peak of 5,857 miles per hour. Ultimately, it is amazing that Ham survived, as the flight did not go as planned. There was a partial loss of pressure, although Ham’s spacesuit kept him safe, among other mishaps. Through those 16 minutes, Ham still performed his lever-pulling tasks as he was trained to do, proving that under extreme stress he (and ultimately humans) could think and react normally. When returning back to Earth the capsule was blown off course and ended up landing in the ocean 130 miles from its target location. It took another several hours for the capsule to be recovered. (Other events occurred during the flight and landing that put Ham’s life in severe danger. For a detailed account, see Burgess 2014.)
The original flight plan called for an altitude of 115 miles and speeds ranging up to 4,400 mph. However, due to technical problems, the spacecraft carrying Ham reached an altitude of 157 miles and a speed of 5,857 mph and landed 422 miles downrange rather than the anticipated 290 miles. —NASA, A Brief History of Animals in Space
When Ham was finally rescued, he was reported to be in good condition, wearing a “grin” and vocalizing lightly (which more than anything probably meant that he was confused and afraid, not necessarily happy). He was examined right away, and the veterinarian determined that he was only fatigued and dehydrated, while sporting a slight bruise on his nose. He immediately devoured an apple, so clearly his appetite was unaffected. According to officials who were with him post-flight, Ham did not show any visible signs of extreme displeasure until he was met with hoards of media flashing cameras in his face.
Ham, seated in his special “biopack couch” and prepared for flight on January 31, 1961. Photo: NASA
Launch of the Mercury-Redstone 2 on January 31, 1961. Photo: NASA
After becoming the first chimpanzee in space, the extremely brave #65 was officially given the name Ham, an acronym for “Holloman Aero Medical,” the facility where he completed his training. The success of the test flight paved the way for the launch of Freedom 7 a few months later (May 5, 1961), the historic flight that made Alan Shepard the first American in space.
The celebrity “hamming” it up.
Ham adorning the cover of Life magazine, February 1961.
After spending a few days under further medical examination, Ham was flown back to Holloman AFB, where he would spend the next two years undergoing testing for any residual effects from his experience in space. He was finally cleared to retire in 1963 as a six-year-old hero. (It was rumored that NASA wanted to train him for a second flight, but when he was presented with the couch again he fought to avoid being strapped in.)
Arriving at the National Zoo on April 5, it doesn’t appear that he was greeted with the same local fanfare as Smokey Bear, which might come as a surprise given his celebrity status and the national importance of the Space Race during the Cold War. He joined four other chimpanzees at the zoo but lived in a separate 10′ x 14′ enclosure. According to the 1963 Smithsonian Annual Report, “He seems to have adjusted nicely to his comparatively quiet routine in the Zoo’s ape quarters.” A 1964 story in the Washington Post, however, paints the chimp as living a lonely life. An eight-year-old girl had written a letter to the editor lamenting Ham’s living conditions and requesting that Ham be given a mate: “He was so lonesome looking, he made me cry.” The reporter interviewed the zoo’s director, who stated that they tried to place a female (next-door neighbor, Maggie) with Ham, but he did not respond in the way that the zoo was hoping (meaning he did not mate with her.) The zoo planned to place another female, Lulu, a three-year-old, with Ham once she became sexually mature; however, Ham never had any offspring while at the National Zoo, so that arrangement seems to have “failed” as well. After 17 years in DC, he was transferred to the North Carolina Zoo in 1980, where he lived the rest of his life with other chimps.
Sadly, it doesn’t sound like Ham lived a very stimulated and satisfying life at the National Zoo. Of course, we need to remember how different zoo habitats and animal welfare missions were during the 1960s as opposed to now. We also do not really know how much the years of training and the traumatic space experience had on him. Additionally, after spending his life in the company of humans, he might not have related to other chimpanzees as well. I can only imagine what measures the current primate keepers would have undergone to ensure this amazing, intelligent chimp had lived a happy, healthy, fulfilling life in DC.
Ham passed away at the North Carolina Zoo on January 19, 1983, at the age of 26, of an enlarged heart and liver failure. After the Air Force performed examinations on it, his skeleton was preserved and is on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. The rest of his remains are buried beneath a plaque memorializing him at the International Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
The immense stress that Ham and the rest of the “Air Force chimps” endured did not go unnoticed. In an obituary to Ham the Washington Post notes that “It was not known whether the chimpanzee would survive the shocks and rigors of the [space] trip. And it was widely supposed that even if he did survive, he would have been severely impaired emotionally—rendering him a simpering idiot—scared out of his wits. There was much criticism of the mission on this cruel account.” Buzz Aldrin, encouraging retirement for the space chimps, stated that the astronauts owe an “enormous debt” to the space chimpanzees. “They, and their descendants, have served us in so many ways—initially as substitute humans in space research. Now it is time to repay this debt by giving [them] the peaceful and permanent retirement they deserve.”
The plight of the space chimps spurred Dr. Carole Noon into action. With the backing of Dr. Jane Goodall, and after years of legal battles with the Air Force, Noon established the sanctuary Save the Chimps in 1997 to serve as a peaceful retirement home for the Air Force animals. Initially awarded 21 chimps, her sanctuary has served as a home for hundreds of others. As Dr. Noon once said, “They have bravely served their country. They are heroes and veterans.” Check out the sanctuary’s story at https://www.savethechimps.org/.
Historic footage of Ham:
Blakeslee, Alton. “Chimp Healthy After Space Ride.” Washington Post, February 2, 1961: A6.