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The Epic Life of an Iconic Gorilla– “Timmy” Remembered (1959-2011)

Contributing Editor Jordan Schaul remembers a zoo icon he knew personally.

Timmy (Courtesy of the Louisville Zoo)

I learned late Tuesday that a gentle giant had passed away at the Louisville Zoo Timmy was the oldest male gorilla in North America. He was once the subject of controversy, but adored by people across the nation and perhaps around the world.

I first became acquainted with Timmy as a very young zoo visitor in the early 70s and then briefly as a seasonal animal keeper in the early 90s.  Later, I was privileged to work with the oldest of his 13 offspring–Okpara–a male born at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Bronx Zoo  in 1993 and raised in Cleveland.

Timmy was wild born in Cameroon in 1959 and made his first public appearance in front of the American public at the Memphis Zoo  in 1960.  At just under 5 years of age he was relocated to what is now the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo. He would spend the next quarter of a century paired with a handful of female gorillas in residence at the Northeastern Ohio facility. For most of his tenure in Cleveland, Timmy showed little to no interest in female companions and failed to sire any offspring.

The silverback finally courted Kate–an infertile cage-mate. The relationship blossomed, but the romance with Kate was not to be long-lived.  Their “love affair” ended amid controversy when Timmy was loaned to the Bronx Zoo to breed with reproductively viable females. 

Moving him to the Bronx Zoo to “pass” on his genes–deemed valuable to the captive population of lowland gorillas–was not met with unanimous approval. The sentiment of some members of the public was that a separation from Kate for the sake of gorilla conservation was more than unfair to the two gorillas who had developed an apparently strong bond and “loving” relationship.

Housed indoors with humble accommodations for much of his life, Timmy lived in enclosures built for an earlier era–when great ape husbandry was focused on keeping the animals alive. 

Long after Timmy’s departure for Cleveland in the 60’s, the Memphis Zoo built Primate Canyon which includes a gorilla habitat and exhibits for 9 other species of primates.   After Timmy left Cleveland for the Bronx Zoo in the 90’s, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo created an outdoor gorilla exhibit. The outdoor enclosure leads inside to what was Timmy’s original indoor habitat in the Zoo’s Primate, Cat, and Aquatics Building. The exhibit currently houses two bachelor gorillas.  I can recall visiting with Timmy’s primary keeper, the late Billy Seamen. Billy used to prepare Timmy’s dinner while listening to classical music.  I always wondered if Timmy had an affinity for it– the music–that is. I know he liked his dinner.

In more recent years, advances in preventive medicine and great ape husbandry programs afforded Timmy the luxury of residing in posh gorilla habitats that were fully furnished and heavily enriched. At both the Bronx Zoo’s award-winning Congo Gorilla Forest and the Louisville Zoo’s award-winning Gorilla Forest Timmy had options for everything from substrates to females. These state-of-the-art facilities allowed Timmy to live just as you’d imagine–like royalty–or at least royalty for a gorilla.  

Most of us thought of Timmy as a celebrity and ultimately an ambassador for lowland gorillas worldwide. He will be missed.

Comments

  1. pamela smith
    hudson, ohio
    September 20, 1:55 pm

    I too, knew Timmy. Thank you for your story. It was a sad time for Cleveland and the Timmy Story. I followed him up to New York. He had fathered many children and a set of twins. His relationship with Kate was very contraversial. She had a tubal pregnancy and was unable to have offspring. I observed her with Timmy. It was loving. I found out from the Bronz Zoo, that Timmy was getting older and needed a more sedate environment. He was sent to Louisville Zoo. This is an award winning habitat. I went on an adventure to Louisville to find my old friend .I went behind the scenes to visit with Timmy. It was like revisiting an old friend. He was 48 at the time. I too, felt a deep sadness within Timmy. He liked to sit on cement. Habits from his years at Cleveland Zoo. I am retiring next year and would like to write a children’s book about my experience with “The oldest gorilla, caught in captivity, in the United States, Timmy.” He deserved a better life. We have a lot to learn.

  2. Dia Knight
    akron ohio
    May 28, 8:59 pm

    I saw Timmy in the Cleveland Zoo in the nineties….he was so unhappy he turned his back on people…when he would turn for just a moment I saw eyes with such a sadness it haunts me to this day….I have thought of him often through the years…

  3. erik
    cleveland
    March 4, 2012, 9:59 pm

    That would mean Timmy was moved in 1983. Growing up in Old Brooklyn I spent my summers at the zoo, and still have a membership. That said your wrong Timmy was with us til the early 90’s.

  4. Leslye M. Huff
    East Cleveland, Ohio
    January 6, 2012, 10:39 pm

    Your article about Timmy the gorilla, though somewhat touching, is factually in error about the time he spent in Cleveland, Ohio. My two sons and I visited Timmy regularly at the Cleveland zoo – We were all convinced that Timmy understood our benign attempts to communicate with him. He had such a proud demeaner. I have several photos of Timmy that include my younger son as he and his brother attempted to comfort Timmy when he endured the incessant glass-banging cruelty of many children & a few adults who seemed to think it was appropriate to torture a caged animal with al manner of taunts. Mostly, timmy would simply turn his back and move to the furtherest corner of the glassed cage. My sons were born in 1974 & 1978 respectively. My younger son was 5 years old or more when Timmy was moved from the Cleveland zoo & separated from his companion. I caution you to do adequate research before you write articles of this kind, because to many the facts are important.