Beating a dead gorilla? A history lesson

We once thought little of stuffing Bobo for display, but now we'd give him a decent burial. That's a mark of cultural progress. Sort of. 

Bobo the gorilla, Seattle, ca. 1955

Bobo the gorilla, Seattle, ca. 1955 Courtesy Woodland Park Zoo, via HistoryLink

Bobo the gorilla, Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), Seattle, Washington

Bobo the gorilla, Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI), Seattle, Washington Joe Mabel, via Wikimedia

Seattle has once again shown itself to be decades ahead of the rest of the world in a, for now, somewhat obscure tributary to more mainstream culture. This time it’s not pop music or coffee, or even tax-free online shopping or big-box retailing, that our city can use to point out its ground-breaking leadership. This time it’s how to memorialize a popular zoo animal.

It was front page news around the world in March when a polar bear named Knut died at the Berlin Zoo. As a New York Times article makes clear, Knut was a special bear who captured the hearts and minds of the volks in his hometown and those of just about anyone else who caught sight of the fluffy little guy in print or on the Web. Knut was so beloved, in fact, that the zoo has decided to preserve him as taxidermy.

Wait a minute, you say, who in their right mind could propose such a thing, this being 2011 and all? Surely more humane (or just plain more tasteful) heads will prevail; surely a don’t-stuff-Knut Facebook page will be established; and surely the zoo will back off of its plans and recognize the will of the people. Kind of like when Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live.

Not surprisingly, there has been a fairly vocal outcry against stuffing Knut; a Facebook page has been established; and a few protests have been staged with living, breathing people who are not, for the moment, checking their Facebook pages. Kind of like in Egypt earlier in the year.

But from my seat here in the capital of grunge, designer coffee, online shopping, and shrink-wrapped 12-packs of everything, I urge the people of Germany to slow down, take a step back, and think about this from the long-term view of history. Here in Seattle, we’ve been there and done that, and our city is a richer place because of it. Sort of.

It was front page news around Seattle in February 1968 when Bobo the gorilla died at Woodland Park Zoo. Bobo, like Knut, had been essentially raised by humans and had been a popular attraction at the zoo for most of his nearly 15 years there. On Bobo’s birthday each year, he’d be given a huge cake that he’d smash to bits and gobble down before an adoring crowd. As Bobo matured, he was eventually paired with a mate named Fifi, with whom it was hoped he’d create a family.

Ask anyone who was here in the 1950s: Like Knut, Bobo was beloved in his hometown and was about the biggest celebrity Seattle could muster in those pre-World’s Fair years. Bobo had his fair share of national publicity, too — appearing in magazines and newsreels and even making his way into a routine in Bill Cosby’s act and into the final track on his second album (Cosby poked fun at Bobo and Fifi’s, shall we say, fertility issues). Bobo was so popular at Woodland Park, the gorilla habitat there until very recently displayed a small sign paying tribute to him, describing the zoo’s subsequent expansion of its award-winning gorilla program as “Bobo’s legacy.”

So when Bobo turned up as taxidermy at the Museum of History & Industry (MOHAI) in September 1968, it probably wasn’t a surprise to too many people (though it wasn't, either, front page news). Even without Facebook, it did cause a stir: People were thrilled to have the old boy back, and he (it?) was one of the most popular displays at MOHAI for most of the next 25 years before he was unceremoniously put in storage.

Despite a few well-researched articles in the Seattle Weekly and The Stranger over the years about, among other things, the mysterious disappearance of Bobo’s skull, it still remains unclear who actually called for Bobo to be turned into taxidermy. One theory is that the zoo and MOHAI were more directly connected then — both institutions are in the middle of what are essentially public parks, and both had much less private support and private infrastructure in those years. From this perspective, Bobo was basically transferred from one park to another, like a picnic table or swingset.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, May 2, 5:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Bobo, huh? Once again Seattle tries to play catch-up to Tacoma. Ivan at the B and I Circus Store is obviously the gorilla Puget Sound loved best.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, May 2, 10:39 a.m. Inappropriate

I do miss that periscope. How appropriate it would be to reinstall it when MOHAI moves into the old Naval Armory next year!

Posted Mon, May 2, 10:57 a.m. Inappropriate

I guess what's being said here is that Seattle is more culturally advanced than Berlin because the art of taxidermy is considered less 'tasteful' here. Ever been to the bar called Smith on 'trendy' Capitol Hill? It opened up about 4 years ago, and it's got lots of taxidermy on its walls. It seems fairly successful, as it's often packed. Maybe someone needs to tell these people that they aren't fitting in properly with Seattle's 'advanced' ways?

If Seattle or Berlin should want to 'honor' a beloved mascot in the same way that the Russians 'honor' Lenin and the Chinese 'honor' Mao, what's wrong with that?

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