Lions, Tigers, and Whatsitbears…

Given that the Smithsonian’s National Zoo currently houses only three species of bears (don’t get me wrong—they’re really great bears!), it’s crazy to think that in the early 1900s the zoo had one of the largest collections of bears in the country. In his book published in 1930, Dr. William Mann—the zoo’s director from 1925 until 1956—listed twenty-one different species/subspecies of bears (170 individual bears total) that had lived in Rock Creek Park’s “Bear Row” since 1890.

list of bears
List of bears at the National Zoo from 1890 to 1929. From William Mann’s Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo (1930).

As you can imagine, housing so many bears can create quite a space conundrum. In the early 1930s, when zookeepers noticed that two particular bears—Snowy, a male polar bear and Ramona, a female Kodiak bear—seemed friendly towards each other, they were placed in the same enclosure (along with Snowy’s female polar bear friend, Marion). To the zoo’s surprise, Ramona became pregnant and gave birth in February 1935. One cub lived fifteen days and the other died a few days later, but the zoo was now aware, and quite giddy, that the two could breed successfully. This mix was simply unheard of . . . but more on that a bit later.

Snowy and Ramona were reunited after the birth. The genetic experiment recommenced with all scientific eyes on DC.

The local press has some fun with the “modern saga of The Three Bears.” Dubbed a polygamist by the Washington Post, Snowy the polar bear had apparently become irritable when Ramona was moved to a private enclosure with her cubs. Marian, the polar female, felt scorned by her crabby male friend, who ignored her. The drama was mostly kept to a minimum when the threesome was reunited. The Post informed its readership of the latest in the rare soap opera unfolding in Rock Creek Park.

WaPo headlines

Exactly a year later, in February 1936, Ramona gave birth to four cubs. (She had been separated from the other adult bears a few months earlier so that the keepers could more closely monitor her and better attend to the needs any cubs. The vet staff wanted to take every precaution necessary.) The first of their kind, three of the yellowish-white hybrid bears—two males named Taku and Fridgee, and a female named Pokodiak—lived to be healthy adult bears; the fourth had died a few weeks after birth.

At the time of their birth, there were no other confirmed instances of hybrid Kodiak-polar bears in either the wild or in captivity. Other hybrid bears existed: A black bear–European brown bear hybrid was born at the London Zoo in the 1850s but did not live to maturity; a European brown bear–polar bear hybrid was born at a zoo in Stuttgart, Germany in 1876 and did live to adulthood. A Kodiak and a polar bear, however, had not proven to be a successful breeding pair. In the wild, it could have happened, but their habitat ranges were far enough apart that it would have been an extremely rare occurrence. Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis) would be more likely to mate with polar bears because they can be found in northern Canada, closer to the polar bear range. Kodiak bears (Ursus arctos middendorffi) have a much more limited habitat range on Kodiak Island in southwest Alaska.

It was as unnatural, Dr. Mann said, as if two mules had produced offspring. —Washington Post, January 8, 1949

At three months of age the “three little Whatsit bears” were introduced to the public. The cubs delighted the District. Camera crews risked falling into the bear pit to get a good photo. The Washington Post described the combined 42 pounds of fluff as “plump and wooly like Chow puppies.” Over the next several months, the cubs were treated to a diet of cod-liver oil, fruits, vegetables, and meat juice to ensure that they remained as healthy as possible. The local paper noted that they were treated just as well as human babies.

SNZ-hybrid-bears_NatGeo_Jun1937

Snowy and Ramona again reunited after spending two and a half years apart. (By this time, Marion was placed in a separate enclosure.) Another male cub, Willie, was born in February 1939. As the first litter of cubs were three years old at this point, their playful antics and the birth of Willie certainly played a role in the zoo breaking the three-million-visitor mark that year. DC was bear crazy way before the pandas arrived!

The successful births of the four healthy cubs may have surprised the genetics world, but, according to Dr. Mann, an amazing twenty-three Kodiak-polar cubs were born over the next twenty years. Only four, sadly, lived to adulthood.

at the zoo
Washington Post, March 22, 1942

The biggest surprise (and presumed impossibility) of all occurred when Pokodiak and Willie produced a healthy male cub in 1950 (the other five in the litter did not survive). Believed to be sterile, this second-generation hybrid cub gave the genetics world something to scratch their heads and talk about—not only because he was a second-generation hybrid but also because his parents were brother and sister (although as you might remember from Mohini’s story, inbreeding was not uncommon in zoos back then).

not-logical headline
Washington Post, January 5, 1950

It shouldn’t have been born at all. It violates all the laws of zoology and biology, of Mendel and Darwin, of.… It violates the laws of everything.” —Zoo Director Dr. William Mann in the Washington Post, January 27, 1950

In the history of second-generation hybrid bears at the National Zoo (1950–1976), two of fourteen cubs survived. The first “miracle” cub born in 1950—aptly named “Gene,” short for genetics—became quite a celebrity at the zoo. An estimated 30,000 visitors attended Gene’s first day on exhibit as an adorable, wobbly three-month-old. He even shared an enclosure with another celebrity bear of the same age—Smokey, the National Parks spokesbear. They got along very well—they liked to wrestle, one larger but the other faster, according to Dr. Mann. That year, with a total of forty bears calling DC home, the National Zoo’s attendance reached an amazing 3.4 million visitors.

Gene

Gene cub
Photo of Gene with keeper Ellsworth Henry. Washington Post, June 4, 1950.
Children Watch Hybrid Bears at National Zoological Park
Children watch hybrid bears at the National Zoo during the 1950s. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives
2ndGen-bears_NatGeo
Frances and Elizabeth, second-generation hybrid bears, receiving nourishment from Nancy Miller at six weeks of age. In her 1970 National Geographic article, “White Tiger in My House,” Elizabeth Reed noted that she hand-reared four hybrid bears during her husband’s tenure as zoo director (which began in 1956). Photo from William Mann, “Wild Animals in My Life,” National Geographic, April 1957.

The Kodiak-polar bear era at the National Zoo ended when the last hybrid bear, Pokodiak, passed away in 1974 at 38 years of age. (Unfortunately I could not track down where Gene’s path led him in adulthood.) The Smithsonian Annual Report noted that the hybrid bears were famous for their scientific uniqueness and wowed audiences with their massive size. (Kodiak bears are larger than grizzly bears. Male bear Willie was nearly 1,400 pounds!)

With climate change a grim reality, the hybridization of bears will become more common in the Arctic regions of North America, as a shared habitat becomes more frequent. In 2006, the occurrence of the grizzly-polar bear hybrid in the wild was confirmed by DNA testing near Sachs Harbour on Banks Island in the Canadian Arctic. Confirmed hybrids have since risen to eight—and all descending from the same adventurous female polar bear.

To end on a happy note, head over to the National Zoo and say hello to the fabulous giant pandas, sloth bears, and Andean bears (and all the other wonderful animals as well!) as spring rapidly approaches.

Sources

Altshuler, Melvin. “Zoo’s Who’s Whos’ News.” Washington Post, September 27, 1950: B1.

“Bear-Faced Remarks.” Washington Post, July 23, 1957: A1.

Brinkley, Bill. “Genetic Wonder of Wonders, Hybrid Cub of Hybrid Bears May Be Seen at Zoo.” Washington Post, January 27, 1950.

Brinkley, Bill. “Hybrid Bears Have Babies, Baffling All.” Washington Post, January 5, 1950: 7.

Brinkley, Bill. “Poster Bear Smokey Joins Zoo Star List: Move Over, Gene.” Washington Post, June 17, 1950: 1.

Cook, Robert. “‘Gene’—The Hybrid Bear.” Journal of Heredity 41:2 (February 1950): 34. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.jhered.a106078

“Coy Trio of Hybrid Bear Cubs Keeps Crowd Waiting at Debut.” Washington Post, May 6, 1936: 1.

“Gene Wows 30,000 at District Zoo: Baby Bear Packs D.C. Zoo.” Washington Post, March 13, 1950: 1.

Grove, Lee. “Bare Fact: Bears Weren’t Born To Be Cuddled by Us Bipeds.” Washington Post, August 15, 1950: B1.

“Hybrid Bear Cubs Grow Fatter Daily With Constant Care.” Washington Post, July 27, 1936: X9.

“Hybrid Bears.” Hybrid and Mutant Animals website. http://messybeast.com/genetics/hybrid-bears.htm

Kelly BP, Whiteley A, Tallmon D. “The Arctic melting pot.” Nature 468:7326 (December 2010): 891.

Mann, William M. Wild Animals In and Out of the Zoo. Volume 6 of the Smithsonian Scientific Series. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution, 1930.

Mann, William M. “Wild Animals in My Life.” National Geographic (April 1957), 497–524.

“Offspring of ‘Ramona, ‘Snowy,’ Called Biological Rarities.” Washington Post, February 25, 1936: 13.

“Polar Bear Snowy Papa of 2 Hybrids; Kadiak Is Mama.” Washington Post, February 15, 1939: 1.

Pongracz JD, Paetkau D, Branigan M, Richardson E. “Recent hybridization between a polar bear and grizzly bears in the Canadian Arctic.” Arctic 70:2 (2017): 151. https://doi.org/10.14430/arctic4643

Sampson, Paul. “Suggestion for Fun: Take Your Family to the Zoo,” Washington Post, July 3, 1953: 17.

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Reports, 1950–1974.

“Stork Hovers Over Bear Den As Even Zoo Has ‘Triangle’: Kadiak Goes to ‘Hospital,’ Leaving Polar Pair to Scorn Each Other.” Washington Post, January 27, 1936: 11.

Ursid hybrid. https://www.revolvy.com/page/Ursid-hybrid

“Zoo to Revive Story of 3 Bears In a Modern Triangle Setting.” Washington Post, October 18, 1936: M1.

Maneuvering Moats for Marshmallows: The Great Polar Bear Escape of ’69

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.

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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.

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Polar bears begging for treats in their moated enclosure at the Brookfield Zoo. Photo: http://circusnospin.blogspot.com/2011/07/ghost-exhibits-brookfield-zoos-polar_21.html

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.

Brookfield-bear-escape-1969_ChiTrubune
A photo of the damaged cash register accompanied the front-page headline story in the Chicago Tribune, July 18, 1969.

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.”

marshmallow-caper-book

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.

Da Bears 1, Humans 1.

Sources

“Brookfield Zoo (Chicago Zoological Park).” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Edited by Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman. Chicago: Chicago Historical Society, 2005. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/172.html

Deuchler, Douglas, and Carla W. Owens. Brookfield Zoo and the Chicago Zoological Society. Images of America Series. Chicago: Arcadia Publishing, 2009.

Krizmis, Patricia. “After Deluge, 7 Bears Find Way to Marshmallow ‘Eden’.” Chicago Tribune (July 18, 1969): 1:

“Polar Bears at Illinois Zoo Swim Moat, Devour Snack Stand Sweets.” Washington Post (July 19, 1969): A3.

“Polar Bears Swim Zoo Moat to Feast on Marshmallows.” New York Times (July 18, 1969): 35.

“Zoo Escapes Funny in Retrospect.” Bangor Daily News (November 21, 1992), https://archive.bangordailynews.com/1992/11/21/great-zoo-escapes-funny-in-retrospect/

 

Hippo Hippo Burnin’ Love

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.

Scientific name: [Hippopotamus amphibius]
Arusha, Joe Smith, and baby, February 1973. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives
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!

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Arusha with baby Susan in 1976. After weaning, Susan was sent to Singapore Zoo as a symbol of friendship between the U.S. and Singapore. Photo: Smithsonian Institution Archives

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.

How can you really top the love story of Happy’s parents? Given his regular love letters to the famous Fiona at the Cincinnati Zoo, Timothy the hippo in San Antonio is certainly trying! Stay tuned. . . .

Sources

“Baby Hippo Is a Double Surprise at Zoo.” Washington Post, June 2, 1959: A5.

Campbell, Mary A. “Hippo Hooray!” Washington Post, April 22, 1981. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1981/04/22/hippo-hooray/4d8d516b-7d47-4065-9fc3-8f7f9b73c35b/

Casey, Phil. “Estela (Maybe) Is an Impressive Infant.” Washington Post, May 24, 1967: B1.

Oman, Anne H. “Hippo Day: Just One Long Bath.” Washington Post, November 9, 1979. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/11/09/hippo-day-just-one-long-bath/c6afc903-b573-4b54-98e7-2d9ebdf71bc5/

Roby, Marguerite. “Goody Goody Gumdrops.” Smithsonian Archives blog, September 25, 2012. https://siarchives.si.edu/blog/goody-goody-gumdrops

Ruane, Michael E. “Zoo’s Hippo Must Hit the Road; Elephant Program Expanding; Keeper Already Feeling Huge Loss.” Washington Post, August 3, 2008: C1.

Ruane, Michael E. “For Happy the Hippo, Moving from Washington to Milwaukee Has Been a Pleasure.” Washington Post, November 12, 2009. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/11/11/AR2009111115683.html

Smithsonian Institution. 1955 Annual Report. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1955smit

Smithsonian Institution. 1957 Annual Report. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1957smit

Smithsonian Institution. 1959 Annual Report. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/annualreportofbo1959smit

Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Pygmy hippo fact sheet. https://web.archive.org/web/20071114022909/http://nationalzoo.si.edu/Animals/AfricanSavanna/factpygmyhippo.cfm

Thomson, Peggy. Keepers and Creatures at the National Zoo. New York: HarperCollins, 1988.

“Zoo Gives Hippo to Japan and Gets Rare Lions.” Smithsonian Torch, November 1976. https://siarchives.si.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/torch/Torch%201976/SIA_000371_1976_10.pdf

“Zoo’s Female Hippopotamus Dies at 52.” Washington Post, August 26, 2004: B3. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A33720-2004Aug25.html

Bimbo’s Miraculous Reunion 

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.

Photo-Bimbo-Gibbon-1952
A photo of a gibbon that appeared in the April 24, 1952 edition of the Washington Post. The gibbon was part of a shipment of animals from Thailand purchased by the National Zoo. Was it Bimbo?

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?

Thailand-map

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

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Bimbo hugs and kisses the Wells children. Photo: National Geographic

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.

Bimbo
A paragraph that appeared in the July 3, 1953 edition of the Washington Post.

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.

Sources

“Arlington Family, Former Pet Reunited by Picture in Post.” Washington Post (June 15, 1953), p. 15.

“Kenneth and Margaretta Wells, and Bimbo.” Presbyterian Historical Society blog, March 9, 2017. https://www.history.pcusa.org/blog/2017/03/kenneth-and-margaretta-wells-and-bimbo

Sampson, Paul. “Suggestion for Fun: Take Your Family to the Zoo.” Washington Post (July 3, 1953): 17.

Wells, Margaretta Burr. “The Ape with Friends in Washington.” National Geographic (July 1953), pp. 61–74.

“Zoo Receives Birds, Animals From Thailand.” Washington Post (April 24, 1952): 3.

A Conversation with Kara Arundel, Author of “Raising America’s Zoo”

raisingamericaszooFor 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.

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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.

nyherald-arundel

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Record of 1955 gorilla arrival, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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.

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Nick Arundel visits the outdoor gorilla exhibit during the Friends of the National Zoo’s 50th anniversary celebration in 2008.

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.

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Moke hitching a ride on Mandara’s back in July 2018. Read about this event on the SNZ website: https://nationalzoo.si.edu/animals/news/gorillastory-moke-and-mandara

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 karacarundel@gmail.com.


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!

Jack Hanna’s Circus Stunt

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.

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Jack Hanna doing what he did best—entertaining. Photo: Columbus Zoo

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.”

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Enrico Wallenda performing above the tiger enclosure at the Columbus Zoo, May 1982. Photo: Columbus Dispatch

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.)

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Jack Hanna cradles twin baby gorillas, Mac and Mosuba. Photo from Jack Hanna’s Facebook page.

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.”

Sources

Columbus Zoo website. https://columbuszoo.org/home/about

“Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.” Ohio History Central. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Columbus_Zoo_and_Aquarium

Cox, Billy. “Chasing the Ghost.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. http://chasingtheghost.heraldtribune.com/

Ellis, Mark. “Walk leaves tigers empty.” Columbus Dispatch, May 16, 1982: A1.

Gray, Kathy Lynn. “Jack Hanna: Zoo’s master planner and builder to celebrate 35 years.” Columbus Dispatch, September 15, 2013. https://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2013/09/15/master-plans-master-builder.html

“The Flying Wallendas.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flying_Wallendas

Hanna, Jack. Jungle Jack: My Wild Life. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Hood, Marshall. “Salesman in a Safari Suit.” Columbus Dispatch, June 6, 1982: G1.

“John Switzer: Reporting on Jack Hanna was never boring.” http://gatehousenews.com/jackhanna/john-switzer-reporting-jack-hanna-never-boring/

Mohini

Mohini Rewa, “First Kitty”

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.

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Photo of Mohini in the 1961 Smithsonian Annual Report.

(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.

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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.)

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Mohini with cub Kesari, 1966. Source: The Smithsonian Torch (https://torch.si.edu/2018/02/feb-5-1966/)

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!)

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Photo of Rewati in 1969 Smithsonian Annual Report.

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.

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Photo of Moni in the 1970 Smithsonian Annual Report.

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.

Scientific name: Panthera tigris
Mohini in 1973. Photo: SIA Acc. 11-009, Smithsonian Institution Archives
Scientific name: Panthera tigris
Mohini’s daughter, Rewati, in 1973. Photo: SIA Acc. 11-009, Smithsonian Institution Archives

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.

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Photo of Taj from the zoo’s website.

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.

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Luther at Franklin Park Zoo in Boston. Photo: Linda Knippers

Majestically beautiful, however long as they roam in captivity, their beauty will never disappear.

Sources

All About White Tigers. http://allaboutwhitetigers.com/

“Captive White Tigers.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Captive_white_tigers

Casey, Phil. “3 Kittens, One All-White and Rare, Born to Zoo’s Exclusive White Tiger.” Washington Post, January 8, 1964: D1.

Casey, Phil. “Cautious Ike and Hungry Tiger Meet.” Washington Post, December 6, 1960: A1.

Casey, Phil. “The Great White Hope.” Washington Post, March 19, 1973: B1.

Casey, Phil. “‘Mohini’ Crushes Three Cubs.” Washington Post, March 12, 1970: C1.

Casey, Phil. “Mohini’s Saga: Her Cub Is Taken Away.” Washington Post, April 23, 1969: E4.

Casey, Phil. “Rare White Tiger Cub Is a She and a Shock.” Washington Post, April 15, 1969: D1.

Casey, Phil. “Zoo Sends for Boy to Do the Late Sampson’s Job.” Washington Post, November 29, 1966: C1.

“Death of a White Tiger.” Washington Post, July 9, 1971: B1

“Debut of Mohini’s Three Little Kittens.” Washington Post, January 13, 1964: A3.

“Disenchanted India Stops Export of White Tigers after City Gets One.” Washington Post, December 4, 1960: A1.

Geremia, Ramon. “White Tiger’s Cubs Awaited at the Zoo.” Washington Post, January 5, 1964: A3.

Hailey, Jean R. “Cub Born to White Tiger.” Washington Post, February 6, 1966: B1.

Kutner, Max. “America Has a Tiger Problem And No One’s Sure How to Solve It.” Smithsonian Magazine (February 2015), https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/america-has-tiger-problem-and-no-ones-sure-how-solve-it-180953974/

Landers, Jackson. “Why White Tigers Should Go Extinct.” Slate (December 13, 2002), https://slate.com/technology/2012/12/white-tiger-controversy-zoos-shouldnt-raise-these-inbred-ecologically-irrelevant-animals.html

Martin, Judith. “Kings of the Jungle Are Pride of the Hill.” Washington Post, May 26, 1976: B2.

“Master Development Plan to Rebuild National Zoo Officially Unveiled.” The Smithsonian Torch, May-June 1973, p. 1. https://siarchives.si.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/torch/Torch%201973/SIA_000371_1973_05.pdf

Moran, Nancy. “Zoo’s Hopes for a White Tiger Cub Fizzle.” Washington Post, March 1, 1966: B1.

Reed, Elizabeth C. “White Tiger in My House.” National Geographic (April 1970), pp. 482–491.

Reed, Theodore H. “Enchantress: Queen of An Indian Palace Rare White Tigress Comes to Washington.” National Geographic (May 1961), pp. 628–641. (accessed at https://archive.nationalgeographic.com/?iid=53561#folio=628)

Rovner, Sandy. “A Star Is Dead.” Washington Post, April 3, 1979: B1. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/lifestyle/1979/04/03/a-star-is-dead/2d3182c8-d77b-46a3-8c2e-96431de60a9f/

“Samson Arrives at Washington Zoo.” Washington Post, January 6, 1963: A3.

Shu-Jin Luo and Xiao Xu. “Save the White Tigers.” Scientific American, October 16, 2014 (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/save-the-white-tigers/).

Secrest, Meryle. “Rare Tigers Born at Zoo.” Washington Post, March 10, 1970: B1.

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1961, p. 133, 136. https://ia802606.us.archive.org/10/items/annualreportofbo1961smit/annualreportofbo1961smit.pdf

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1963, p. 107. https://ia601406.us.archive.org/2/items/annualreportofbo1963smit/annualreportofbo1963smit.pdf

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1964, p. 111. https://ia802604.us.archive.org/1/items/annualreportofbo1964smit/annualreportofbo1964smit.pdf

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1966, p. 156. https://ia800300.us.archive.org/21/items/smithsonianyear1966smit/smithsonianyear1966smit.pdf

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1967, p. 161. https://ia800306.us.archive.org/29/items/smithsonianyear1967smit/smithsonianyear1967smit.pdf

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1969, pp. 247–248. https://ia801401.us.archive.org/19/items/smithsonianyear1969smit/smithsonianyear1969smit.pdf

Smithsonian Institution. Annual Report of the Board of Regents of the Smithsonian Institution 1970, pp. 58–59. https://ia800302.us.archive.org/11/items/smithsonianyear7071smit/smithsonianyear7071smit.pdf

Smithsonian Institution Archives. Chronology. https://siarchives.si.edu/history/this-day-smithsonian-history/december-4

“White Tiger Loses Mate; Plaque Will Designate Zoo’s Vanishing Species.” The Smithsonian Torch, December 1966, p. 2 (https://siarchives.si.edu/sites/default/files/pdfs/torch/Torch%201966/SIA_000371_1966_12.pdf)

“White Tiger to Meet Ike on Monday.” Washington Post, December 3, 1960: A10.

“White Tiger’s Cub Dies of Distemper, Second Ill.” Washington Post, August 25, 1965: A1.