I joke a lot about the frequency of my visits to the Bronx Zoo, claiming to have been practically raised there, and knowing the animals on a first name basis. However, visiting twice in less than a week recently was unusual, even for me.
Because of shifting schedules we ended up going just before Easter with my sister’s family, and right after it to bring two of my daughter’s friends. When picking one of the girl’s up, the couple watching her said that “The oldest gorilla in the Bronx Zoo just died,” adding “He was a really big guy.” My heart leapt into my throat because I knew the oldest gorilla was not a “guy.”
Aside: I am continually amazed at how many people assume all the adult Gorillas in the Bronx and other zoos are male. The mind boggling size and power of a true silverback is not something anyone could mistake easily.
Once I got her safely to the car, I did a quick internet search on my phone and confirmed my fear. Pattycake had died after a lengthy battle with coronary troubles on Easter Sunday at age forty. A long run for a gorilla, but as with any passing, all too short.
I don’t for one minute believe she ever recognized me, or that we had any special bond, but she was an important part of my zoo experience for years.
I remember newspaper photos and sightings of the tiny gorilla with the broken arm in 1973-1974, cared for by keepers, when my folks would bring me to the zoo when I was a little tyke myself.
I remember thinking it was cool in 1983 when she came back full time to the Bronx Zoo from Central Park when I was a teenager.
I remember, being oddly proud of her in my mid twenties when she was all over the press again after giving birth to the twins, Ngoma and Tambo, in 1995. I even bought the FAO Schwartz stuffed versions of her, them and their dad Timmy.
I remember being happy for her family specifically and all of them in general, just before I reached thirty, seeing the gorillas looking both contented and excited in the huge new Congo Gorilla Forest when it opened in 1999.
And I remember the joys of “introducing” my own family to her and her every growing group of offspring in the years that followed.
I went a lot and I saw her a lot. Again, I don’t believe we had any magical connection, but she was the one female gorilla I could recognize on sight whenever I went, without ever having to check the name guide plaques. Seeing her always made the visit better, and making eye contact would make it extra special.
And now she‘s gone.
Sometimes on winter visits, especially if traffic or other unexpected delays limit time available, we may skip the Congo Gorilla Forest. A vast majority of the animals aren’t on display when it’s cold, and the kids are usually focused on other “must see” exhibits. The gorillas themselves are in an indoor living space even larger than the giant outdoor area where they spend their summers. There’s a tiny room where they can come in and watch the people visiting the zoo, only if they so choose. This renders the sighting of any gorilla, never mind a specific one, a shot in the dark.
The day I found out, though, regardless of what the three girls had on their agenda, I needed to go to Pattycake’s old home. We passed though the viewing area quickly, as the only gorillas in the view room were hiding behind a tree, and my daughter and her friends had other locations higher on their priority list. In a later part of Congo Gorilla Forest, the girls did enjoy some bench rest (which I tend to discourage in areas with no animals) while I wandered around for a bit.
The oversize viewing room for the vast outdoor gorilla area always seems silent and uninhabited in the winter months, especially compared to its normal jam packed state when the apes have the run of the tree filled hills in the summer. This time, as I silently looked over the plaques for the names of Pattycake’s children and grandchildren, it seemed far emptier.
In the past forty years we never met, and we only occasionally saw each other through glass. She was one of about a score of apes living in one of my favorite places on earth, and I was one of over two million faces a year to pass through her home.
But I’ve still lost an emotional tie to the Bronx Zoo that has always made it a special place in my life.
And I had to say something about it, because I’m still really going to miss her.