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Timmy (gorilla) - Wikipedia
In this 2011 Tribute, for National Geographic’s editorial news publication, I chronicled the epic life and noted the passing of an iconic gorilla named Timmy. I actually knew myself before he would become the subject of federal court case and perhaps with a broken heart?
I was in high school and an intern at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo where this uber-famous great ape spent the bulk of his adult life. This was at a time when zoo keepers were still largely unschooled and certainly weren’t formerly trained in exotic animal husbandry and welfare much less the nuances of romantic endeavors among lowland gorillas. But he before he found himself famous he was adored by the people in Cleveland. He was a very handsome specimen, if you will and I think that profoundly influenced the misplace compassion held by the citizens of Cleveland and animal rights activists around the world. How could such a handsome bloke not be a virile bloke?
But time would tell and the adored silverback gorilla would literally go from a locally known ‘presumed dud to widely known stud’ on his journey that began in the wilds of the Republic of Cameroon and took him to the Memphis Zoo and eventually the Cleveland, Bronx and Louisville zoos. And I saw him at both the Bronx and later and Louisville and the facilities were most impressive great ape holding centers.
But back to the question of whether any species should think or not think about sex? My guess is that less is more for any member of the animal kingdom, including humans. And in the case of commonly cared for zoo animal species, courtship and sexual signaling are often hardwired ritualized behaviors. “Keep it simple stupid” is clearly a mantra that has helped wildlife procreate for thousands of years and adding thought to sex could easily confuse things.
But in captivity there are some challenges. For the most part, as long as a grizzly bear or llama or dingo born in human care knows what it is and can recognize its own species, it is usually quite proficient at sex.
Sex “goes wrong” or awry when a captive-born animal is inadvertently or unavoidably imprinted on another species like a human and grows up confused thinking it is something it is not, just like me trying to imposter Michael Jordan. I just can’t pull it off. Although, the biggest challenges may be dealing with species with the most elaborate courtship rituals, as I suggest captive wildlife seem to either have it “going on", or they have nothing “going on”.
In the case of gorillas, one zoo and primate expert said, “The environment has to be just right, which means having structures for [gorillas] to climb on to exhibit natural behavior.” BBC - “How Do You Get Gorillas To Mate”
Cleveland, which is my hometown, is unlike the metropolises of New York and LA or even Mumbai because the dating scene is really somewhat dismal. Given Cleveland’s size and location, I guess that is no surprise. But ironically, the same is true for dating among primates at zoos in Cleveland and New York. Although Cleveland used to and may still have one of the largest primate collections in North America, it may not be best suited for the single and available nonhuman primate either. Hence, they care for bachelor males.
In a meeting with head veterinarian Dr. Robert Cook on the Bronx Zoo campus (Wildlife Conservation Society headquarters) many years after Timmy established himself as a leading lothario in New York City, Dr. Cook expressed to me the often forgotten notion that the media market in the Big Apple is substantially larger than for Cleveland— once nicknamed the plum. So sensitivity surrounding any animal welfare issue at the Bronx Zoo magnifies the amount of attention compared to what would found in the in Cleveland, Ohio.
To give you an idea of just how celebrated Timmy was in Cleveland, for weeks I had unsolicited fact checkers call me out on missing a specific date in my recounting of this highly sensationalized romantic saga unfolding for an “incompatible” pair of great apes. God forbid pop culture writers missed a detail chronicling the trials and tribulations of the Brangelina super couple!
I was a rookie zoo keeper at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo when Timmy made national headlines for not being the lady-killer that his demeanor and physical stature might suggest he could be. So as mentioned he was deployed on breeding service to the Bronx Zoo with much protest from Clevelanders, and animal rights activists. The activists asserted that conservation breeding efforts did not warrant separating Timmy from his “soulmate” Kate and a federal law suit was filed.
But he was ultimately moved for the greater good of the captive gorilla gene pool (assurance DNA) and “romantic enrichment”. It was Kate his companion that turned out to be reproductively disabled and not Timmy who was accused of being reproductively compromised. After learning that he was sexually able and reproductively sound he was given a green light and exported on breeding loan to New York City with no idea how much fun he was going to have.
”It's somewhat idealistic and romantic," says John Gwynne, the Wildlife Conservation Society's director for design, "but this city is about options, and we're trying to give the gorillas options" for an article in New York Magazine when the story broke.
What made not be commonly known is that Timmy had lived on hard artificial surfaces for most of his adult life, making it difficult to acclimate him to the “Great Outdoors”, but he turned out to be quite the primate paramour even while living a reclusive lifestyle largely indoors. Despite his fear of venturing outside, as that would mean ambulating on natural substrates (e.g. grass) in the Big apple’s spacious Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit, he managed to court and secure receptive females to mate with.
”It's somewhat idealistic and romantic," says John Gwynne, the Wildlife Conservation Society's director for design, "but this city is about options, and we're trying to give the gorillas options" —New York Magazine
As a note, the Cleveland Zoo has long specialized in caring for bachelor gorillas in a cooperative effort with other zoological facilities to accommodate a surplus of males in captivity.
Famous Great Apes (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_gorilla)
Excerpted from a Cleveland Metroparks Zoo Press Release on Timmy:
“Timmy, a western lowland gorilla, suffered from chronic medical problems in recent years including heart disease (cardiomyopathy), heart arrhythmia (atrial fibrillation) and osteoarthritis according to Louisville Zoo veterinarian Dr. Roy Burns. Timmy, 52, had been receiving treatment for these conditions for several months, and was responding well at first. His condition deteriorated over the last few weeks and the decision was made to euthanize him. He was the oldest male gorilla in North America.
Timmy became the subject of an intense controversy in 1991 when a court case was filed by an activist group who sought to block Timmy's impending transfer to the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The plaintiffs contended that taking Timmy away from his infertile female companion would be detrimental to his health. The Zoo's position was that Timmy's wild born status made his genes extremely valuable to the captive population. He had never produced offspring and the Zoo thought the move to a more natural social setting with several breeding-age female companions might improve his chances.
A federal court judge approved the transfer and Timmy left Cleveland for the Bronx on November 1, 1991. Any fears about Timmy's health were erased when he began to sire offspring in his new home. Timmy fathered 13 offspring - eight male and five female gorilla babies - at the Bronx Zoo between 1992 and 2004 when he was transferred to Louisville.”