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Baby Gorillas Grow to be Gargantuan

Aug 2, 2008
I often wish I could have seen the big gorilla's that brought fame to the San Diego Zoo in l930-40s era.

The famous pair, Mbongo and Ngagi, was the envy of the zoo world and the first animals to be honored after their deaths with a statue in the California zoological attraction.

Born in the Belgian Congo, they reigned for a decade as the zoo's biggest draw. The public flocked to see them, having earlier been made aware of their capture by the famous wildlife photographers Osa and Martin Johnson.

Awarded to our zoo in 1931, the rare eastern lowland gorillas were the largest gorillas yet to be imported into this country, quite unlike the small-size creatures customarily captured in those days.

The arrival of the gorillas proved to be a turning point in the San Diego Zoo's history and stature. "It lifted us from the category of being just another small-town zoo to prominence," the zoo's research associate, Ken Stott, Jr., wrote in a 1981 ZOONOOZ magazine tribute.

The young pair made national headlines in l930-31 after being captured by the Johnsons, who were photographing gorillas in the forested mountains of eastern Belgian Congo, an area now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The actual capture sequence had been a highlight in the film, "Congorilla," which for years played to audiences throughout the world.

The Johnsons had to obtain permits from King Leopold to bring the pair to this country for study purposes. But every zoo and circus with enough cash on hand reportedly submitted a bid for the young rarities.

At decision time, the San Diego Zoo (actually the low bidder) was selected. The Johnsons had rationalized that the rare animals had a better chance at longevity in an open-air cage environment like ours, where they would be made available to scientists for study.

Our zoo, even though small then, enjoyed a reputation for excellence. The general curator of the Bronx Zoo at that time was quoted as saying: "The San Diego Zoo is the only zoo in the world that is run for the benefit of the animals, not the public."

Money had to be raised for a new exhibit to house the young primates. Construction was completed in record time and the frisky juveniles, four- to five-years old, arrived weighing roughly 120 and 150 pounds each.

Their fame seemed to have grown with their size. The pair recorded a combined weight gain of 350 pounds the first four years in San Diego.

Attendance soared as visitors made their way daily to the gorillas' new home to observe their every move. Records showed that more people asked for the gorillas than any other animal exhibited in those days.

The little ape buddies played together through the adolescent years, running, wrestling, boxing and climbing for hours on end.

Zoo manager Belle Benchley, a dedicated observer, wrote that Mbongo, a contraction of Alumbongo, his original home, proved to be the most affectionate, and always the clown. "He showed all his emotions and was quickly upset, scared and angered," she noted. "But Ngagi ('gorilla' in local dialect) was more serious and was always the dominant animal throughout their life. In play, Mbongo was usually the aggressor and showed a surprising agility and skill at handling his big cage-mate as they got older."

Mrs. Benchley further wrote, in a 1936 update on the two crowd-pleasing youngsters: "Mbongo has become rather sly about getting the lion's share of treats by assuming a great interest in some other part of the cage until Ngagi, becoming fearful that he is missing something, wanders over that way.

When Mbongo leads him further away, Ngagi becomes actually so engrossed in the mystery that he fails to see Mbongo's stealthy return. Mbongo silently opens his big, red mouth and permits you to stuff your fruit or food into it. He shuts it quickly and walks away with the greatest air of unconcern you can imagine, chewing most surreptitiously. In spite of his suspicions, Ngagi never quite catches on to what has happened."

Ngagi was visibly upset when he and his ape pal were separated after Mbongo injured his right foot in 1938 and had to have a part of it amputated. But aside from a slightly awkward gait, his health and personality did not seem to be affected in any way.

When Mbongo was weighed on June 1, 1941, he scaled 618 pounds and stood 5 feet, 7 inches, with a 69-inch chest and not-so-svelte 72-inch waist, according to zoo reports. In an attempt to weigh him just before his death in March, 1942, the platform scales fluctuated from 645 pounds to nearly 670 pounds.

Mbongo's death came as a blow to everyone and created more personal feelings of sorrow than with the loss of any other animal, Mrs. Benchley said at the time. After a brief illness, he had succumbed to a fungus (or possibly San Joaquin Valley fever) which spread rapidly and destroyed his lungs.

The Guinness Book of Animal Facts listed him as: "The heaviest gorilla ever held in captivity," topping the St. Louis Zoo's gorilla, "Phil," whose weight was estimated at 615 pounds

The Ringling Bros. Circus' famous gorilla, "Gargantua," weighed over 500 pounds when he died.

A trimmer Ngagi weighed 636 pounds shortly before his sudden death in January 1944. An autopsy revealed coronary thrombosis throughout the great ape's arterial system

The majestic bronze busts of the two just inside the main entrance remain favorites of visitors and among the most photographed subjects in the San Diego Zoo.
About the Author
Bill Seaton is a prize-winning author and lecturer who has served nearly 25 years as public relations director of the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld and the California State Lottery. To learn more about the San Diego resident's books, blogs and awards, visit Bill Seaton.
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