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Beating a dead gorilla? A history lesson

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

In any event, I predict that the negative fuss about the stuffed Knut will die down, and that the people of Berlin will eventually — maybe in a generation or two — come to love the stuffed Knut almost as much as the live Knut. That’s what happened to Bobo. Sort of.

After being on display for all of the 1970s and 1980s, Bobo began to fall from favor in the 1990s. He was sent north for a time to a museum in Anacortes, the city where he’d been raised as a young gorilla by the Lowman family. But he came back for a popular MOHAI exhibit of local baby boomer culture called “Seattle Hits.” After that, however, Bobo went into storage at the museum’s climate-controlled warehouse in the Rainier Valley.

And that was where I first saw Bobo, in a crate, after I joined the staff of MOHAI back in 1999 to help raise money and raise the museum’s profile.

I’d inquired about his whereabouts not long after interviewing for the job. Bobo, I was told, didn’t look so good anymore. His fur was bedraggled. His skin had faded. A few of his toes had broken off. And nobody wanted to get near him because he’d been dipped in arsenic as part of the taxidermy process in 1968.

But, I was also told, nearly every day at least one museum visitor, and sometimes several, would ask to see Bobo. Hmm. I spoke with MOHAI executive director Leonard Garfield. We agreed that not every museum can boast of something so memorable that visitors ask about it every day. Our conversation continued. Other than for conservation purposes, we said, the Louvre has seldom put away Mona Lisa, American Gothic is a sure-fire thing at the Art Institute, and so on. The vague outlines of a plan began to form.

At Garfield’s urging, the staff began an effort to bring back Bobo. MOHAI was in transition then; Garfield had been on the job about a year, money for programming and exhibits was tight, and we could feel a collective demand for the museum to bring back all the corny local stuff that had been put away during the 1990s. During that heady decade, MOHAI had mounted several ambitious exhibits and programs that pushed the envelope of what a local history museum is expected to do and had brought in new audiences. But MOHAI had also closeted away some of the iconic objects and programs that had been part of the museum’s unique Seattle vibe for decades — Bobo, the periscope, the cable car, Christmas Around the World — and alienated a sizable part of the old audience in the process.

Part of the charm of a local history museum with an appreciation for its own history is the sense it can give return visitors that some things never change, that some inanimate objects are touchstones for connecting with your civic and personal past, decade after decade. Again, ask anyone who grew up in Seattle in the 1960s or 1970s. That sense as you grew taller that Bobo began to shrink. Those memories of coming on a field trip with a school group and jockeying for your turn to look through the MOHAI periscope that come flooding back as you, now adult-sized, crouch down to peer through the lens. The comforting shock of generational advance you feel when you lift up your own child for a better look at the Alki Landing diorama that you once strained on tippy-toes to see.

It was with this in mind that Bobo became a symbol of sorts for MOHAI reconnecting with its past. Bobo didn’t fit in the main MOHAI galleries anymore —those were now devoted to specific themes like salmon and the 1880s — so exhibit manager Mark Gleason found a special new place for him in the lower hallway past the library and began turning it into an all-new display. It wasn’t exactly front and center, but it was dignified and perfect.

Meanwhile, corpus Bobo was in terrible shape. A quick look at the Bobo file showed that his original “work” had been done by a taxidermy company called Klineburger. They were still in the white pages, and one phone call had me in touch with Kent Klineburger, who had helped his dad with the job back in 1968. It didn’t take much for the generous Klineburgers to agree to fix up Bobo free of charge.

Bobo’s initial return to MOHAI was low-key, his crate being moved in the back of a truck from the warehouse on Rainier Avenue to the museum exhibit shop at Montlake, where the Klineburgers would work their magic and where Gleason would work his.

As it turns out, taxidermy requires periodic maintenance, and the good folks of Klineburger used a vacuum cleaner, shampoo and a sort of shoe polish to bring Bobo back to, er, life.

In any case, when the new Bobo exhibit (dubbed “Gorilla In Our Midst” by Garfield) was unveiled one Saturday morning in July 2000, it was cause for celebration, or at least for a publicity stunt. We hired Stan Boreson to sing and play his accordion, and the self-styled “King of Scandinavian Comedy” even composed new lyrics to an old standby, “Bring Back Our Bobo To Us,” for the occasion, and led a procession of excited visitors from the MOHAI lobby down to the new Bobo display.

Gleason and his team had outdone themselves. A dozen vintage photographs showed Bobo as a tiny gorilla with the Lowman family, and in several iconic poses at the zoo. Elements of Bobo’s layette, including a tiny onesie and an old Evenflo bottle, gave a sense of the scale of Bobo as baby. A TV played Bobo home movies, generously donated to MOHAI by Sue Pedersen, Bobo’s human “sister.” Later, we’d add a big red button that, when pressed, would play a recording of Bill Cosby’s familiar voice riffing on Bobo and Fifi while the crowd at Mister Kelly’s in Chicago burst into laughter.

Celebrating Bobo each July became a tradition during my time at MOHAI, as it had been at the Woodland Park Zoo when Bobo was alive. We’d usually have a big cake from Borracchini’s and sing “Happy Birthday,” and would choose a theme to give the event added PR traction.

In 2001, for what would have been Bobo’s 50th birthday, we hosted a gathering of Seattle sports team mascots to honor their symbolic godfather. Hadn’t Bobo preceded the Sonics’ Squatch, the Mariner Moose, and the Seahawks’ Blitz as the city’s original animal mascot? Anyway, we at MOHAI thought so.

In 2003, MOHAI was hosting the Smithsonian American presidency exhibit, so we had a “Bedtime for Bobo” party and invited people to come in their pajamas and bathrobes. For “Happy Birthday” we sang along to the steamy Marilyn Monroe recording of “Happy Birthday Mr. President” from 1962.

For that year’s party we also rented the iconic 1951 Ronald Reagan film “Bedtime for Bonzo” and let it play on Bobo’s TV instead of the usual home movies. At that juncture I remembered that the late Bill Lowman had actually wanted a chimpanzee before he bought Bobo, also in 1951. Reagan’s character in the film reminded me of what Lowman had attempted — to raise a wild primate in a human household. I have no proof, but it sure seems that Lowman must have been inspired by the film.

Depending on the success of the publicity stunt, the MOHAI front desk would usually get at least one phone call within a day or two after the Bobo birthday party, and it would always get forwarded to me. The caller, much like the Germans now mourning and demanding better treatment than taxidermy for Knut, would ask that MOHAI give Bobo a decent burial at last. “Part of me agrees with you,” I would tell the caller, “but Bobo, better than anything in MOHAI’s collection, represents so much about how Seattle has changed since 1951, and that’s a story we must never lose sight of.”

As I warmed up, I’d shift further into professorial mode and tell these callers that were Bobo alive today, he would never become taxidermy when he died — that his very transformation from living creature to inanimate display object was a relic of times gone by. Yes, I’d say, we could look back at how Bobo had been treated then, how we would treat him now, and see societal progress.

And I still believe this, which I guess puts Seattle ahead of Berlin on some kind of spectrum of cultural evolution. Maybe this is because we’ve had more than our share of strange cases of human and animal interaction here, including Bobo, of course, but also Namu, one of the first killer whales in captivity, who died in Elliott Bay in 1966 a year after he was captured; Ivan the gorilla, who lived for three decades at the B & I store in Tacoma before being moved to the zoo in Atlanta (where he still resides); the live-via-news-helicopter Makah whale hunt; and even the bestiality ranch in Enumclaw.

Meanwhile, I just can’t bring myself to check if the protagonists in any of these other stories have their own Facebook pages yet.

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