How Guy the gorilla became the star of London Zoo

By Richard Warry
BBC News

  • Published
Guy the gorillaImage source, Getty Images

Footage of the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, Harambe, who was shot on Saturday after a child fell into his enclosure, left some viewers convinced that he was trying to protect the boy. The idea that gorillas can be gentle is not a new one - Guy the gorilla, one of the stars of London Zoo for three decades was renowned for his amiable temperament... even if he looked a bit grumpy.

If heart failure while undergoing treatment for bad teeth hadn't claimed him in his early thirties, one of London's most famous residents might have turned 70 on 30 May.

Nobody knows when Guy the gorilla was actually born, but the authorities at London Zoo gave him an official birthday, and every year Regent's Park was deluged with birthday cards.

The lowland gorilla, captured as an infant in Cameroon, arrived at the zoo from the Paris Zoo in exchange for a tiger on Bonfire Night 1947 - hence the name - and spent his first night clinging on to a tin hot water bottle.

The zoo's record with gorillas had been poor. It had exhibited seven young gorillas between 1887 and 1908, but none survived more than few months. Before Guy's arrival London had been without a gorilla for several years.

"In 1947, people were still suffering from the privations and associated rationing of wartime, even though the conflict had been over for more than two years," says Russell Tofts, of the Bartlett Society, which studies methods of keeping wild animals.

"A zoo offered escapism from all this for the citizens of London and beyond, and it was important for zoo bosses to ensure there was always something new and exciting worth seeing there to entice people through the gates."

Guy rapidly became a star attraction - his celebrity as Britain's most famous animal eventually rivalled only by that of his close neighbour across the zoo, Chi-Chi the giant panda.

Gorillas, with their close relationship to humans, and with their disturbingly human-like appearance, had long exerted a fascination, but since their "discovery" by Europeans in the 1840s they had also been burdened by an image of savagery.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The other Guy the gorilla

Despite his morose appearance and the way he sometimes hurled himself around his small cage, Guy helped to correct that misconception. His 240kg bulk and immense power belied an exceptionally gentle disposition - he was noted for holding and carefully examining small songbirds that flew into his cage before letting them go.

"Gorillas don't have the same facial muscles as humans, so they can't smile, and that makes them look grumpy," says Tofts. "But they are gentle animals. Give something to an orangutan and it will take it apart and examine it to see how it operates, and give something to a chimpanzee and they will tear it about destructively."

The public loved him, and flocked to visit. In the late 1950s, the zoo attracted two-to-three million visitors a year. Today the figure is about half that.

Such was his fame that the mighty England cricketing all-rounder Ian Botham was dubbed Guy the gorilla as way to sum up his muscular approach to cricket - and life.

Decades after his death in 1978 Guy remains a tourist attraction - stuffed and on display at London's Natural History Museum.

There are few single animals that have played a greater role in helping to educate the public about natural history.

But was Guy's celebrity also a disturbing example of poor animal management? Certainly for a large part of his life he was kept in a barred cage, and far too close to human visitors, whose viruses posed a significant threat to his health.

The timing of Guy's arrival perfectly captured a growing sense of public engagement with nature, says Dr Andy Flack, an expert on zoos at the University of Bristol. This was partly due to the anthropomorphic representations of animal life portrayed in the classic Disney films of the 1930s and 1940s, such as Dumbo and Bambi, in which the stars were given recognisably human emotions.

"Animals became familiar to us in ways which perhaps they hadn't been before," says Flack. "As a great ape and thus among our closest living relatives, Guy was easily transformed into an object of affection and esteem.

"Guy was an important 'star' attraction who kept visitors coming through the gates."

London Zoo's animal celebrities:

Image source, ZSL

Obaysch: The first hippopotamus seen in the UK since prehistoric times created a sensation when he arrived at the zoo in the 1850s. His name comes from the island on the White Nile where he was captured when less than a year old. Sired three calves with a female named Adhela, who joined him at the zoo, but only one - named Guy Fawkes - survived into adulthood.

Image source, London Stereoscopic Company

Jumbo: The Victorian superstar who gave visitors rides around the zoo grounds. He arrived at the zoo via Germany and France after being captured in East Africa. He was eventually sold to the circus entrepreneur PT Barnum in 1882 for $10,000.

Image source, ZSL

Winnie: The bear thought to have inspired AA Milne to write the Winnie-the-Pooh stories. Came to the zoo in 1914 after being bought by a soldier in Winnipeg, Canada. She was so tame that she allowed visitors to feed her by hand.

Image source, Getty Images

Chi-Chi: Came to London Zoo in September 1958 after a spell in Russia, initially for a three-week visit, but became a star attraction. Like Guy she was stuffed after her death in 1972, and is exhibited at London's Natural History Museum.

Guy's celebrity paid dividends. "By portraying Guy as a kind of metropolitan children's pet the Zoological Society was able to attract them to the zoo," says Flack.

"Once there people could be educated about the other animals of the wild world."

Not everybody is a fan of anthropomorphising animals. The current orthodoxy among zookeepers and managers is that it obscures the reality of animal lives, presenting them as cuddly, harmless, and, in effect, existing for us.

Tim Brown, chairman of the Independent Zoo Enthusiasts Society, says: "Zoos now are pretty serious conservational vessels, and the public come along and partake of that ethos."

However, there are a growing number of writers who suggest that anthropomorphism is not all bad.

"It may, they suggest, be a way of helping us to understand that other animals have emotional worlds, like us," says Flack.

"If an animal can forge a meaningful connection with the public and if that connection can then be used to communicate powerful conservation messages, then great."

Image source, Natual History Museum
Image caption,
Guy is now on display at the Natural History Museum

However, Guy paid a price for his celebrity - and not just a lifetime of captivity.

Despite the fact that gorillas in the wild are social animals living in fairly large family groups, he was kept as a solitary gorilla for 25 years before being introduced to a mate - Lomie. They never produced offspring.

David Field, zoological director of the Zoological Society of London, says: "Things have changed quite significantly since Guy was here at the zoo, and we've learned so much about how we look after the animals.

"Our troop of Western lowland gorillas live in a family group with two youngsters, in a stimulating environment that provides lots of different enrichment and places for them to explore."

The final irony, Tofts points out, is that the great affection he inspired in the public helped kill him. The sweets, fruit pies, ice-creams, and bread and jam, given to him when he was young, led to the tooth decay for which he was being treated when he died under anaesthetic.

"I wouldn't say Guy was unhappy," says Tim Brown. "That is difficult to measure - but unhappy animals don't generally live long in captivity - and Guy lived for a long time."

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