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.

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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!