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Copyright Andy Martello, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Twenty-Six Years Ago Today

I've talked about this before. I may as well repost the whole story.
Well, the edited version of the story.

By Andy Martello

Having worked for circuses I have had many exciting encounters with animals. However my first truly hands-on experience with animals came when I was a young boy, years before my future career as an entertainer.

It was the spring of 1980. I was in the final stages of a cold that had kept me out of school for a couple of days. On this day my Mom had called the school to excuse my younger brother as well.

As we both sat around the house questioning why we were home we saw Dad rustling about with an old map. The only other time I'd seen this map was years before when we'd taken a trip to the Milwaukee Zoo. I only remembered 3 things from that trip; the map, where we went, and Samson the Gorilla. Samson was the largest Lowland Gorilla in captivity and was quite the spectacle to behold.

Mom & Dad told us to get dressed and meet them at the car. They wouldn't say where we were going. During the long drive I asked if we were heading to the zoo. I explained my theory about the map and they laughed at the prospect of a map that only led to the Milwaukee Zoo. Sure enough, the zoo was our destination.

Mom suggested that we see everything once, then in our remaining time go back to our favorite spots. This proved to be a great idea, giving us a chance to fully enjoy everything we saw.

During our first tour we'd encountered the mighty Samson, still mugging for cameras, still demanding attention from the crowd, still massive in size. Since our last visit, he'd been put on a strict diet making him a svelte 550 pounds as opposed to the 600+ he was before.

Dad was most taken with Samson. He admired the size and grace that such an animal possessed & would often comment about how dainty Samson was when eating, taking the time to pull out one grape from the large pile of food & eating it as if it were a delightful bonbon. We were all in awe of the gorilla.

The day became increasingly warmer and my cold had all but disappeared. Towards the day's end Dad went back to the gorillas while Mom took us back for one last penguin visit.

Closing time approached all too quickly. We expected to find Dad reading a book in an empty gorilla house. What we found was Dad chatting away with one of the zoo's animal handlers, a middle-aged Italian man.

Dad introduced us to the man, Samson's personal caretaker since the gorilla was a baby. He had fantastic stories and information that you couldn't get from the signs on the walls.

As closing time approached, the handler took a quick look around the and whispered to Dad, "Are you alone?" Dad nodded. The man then whispered something in Italian meaning, "come here". We followed Dad and the handler not knowing what was happening. Upon turning the corner the handler noticed a young couple at a different exhibit. In a hurry he called to them, "Come on folks, you don't want to miss this." We came to a locked door which the handler opened.

The other side of the door was a small white room, barely big enough for all the people. The room became even smaller when we bore witness to the largest Lowland Gorilla in captivity. Samson the Gorilla was now standing a few feet away behind a wall of white bars.

Everything in the room crashed to a halt. Nobody was breathing, moving or even blinking we were so awestruck at the sight of him. Samson was THERE and the only thing separating us from his grasp were those metal bars.

The handler explained that "Sammy" couldn't get his arms through the bars and it was safe for us to get a little closer. We kept our distance. He told us about Samson's private sleeping quarters, the oranges specially imported from overseas for him to eat - we got the "exclusive tour". It was hard to hear the handler's voice, my heart was beating so loudly. This was amazing.

None of us could believe what we were privy to, and it was all because Dad struck up a conversation with a total stranger. The handler was petting the fingers of the great ape through the bars.

At that moment he asked if anyone had any food. The mere mention of food caused Samson to let out a thunderous roar, an unforgettable bellow that suggested a perverse sense of power and strength. As we trembled with fear, Samson spit out a pile of empty sunflower seeds he'd been storing in his cheeks. The discarded shells flopped to the ground. The trainer, unfazed, yelled, "Sammy! Be nice! Stop showing off!" He explained Samson was posturing for our benefit.

After a brief search Mom found in her purse a package of Blammo bubble gum, an awful sugarless gum. It was nonetheless, a food stuff that made Samson very happy. Samson saw the gum and began screeching and roaring, throwing his body against the bars. The trainer took the gum and scolded him the way a parent would a toddler, "Now Sammy, if you don't be nice you won't get your treat." Sammy sat down and became quite coy and pleasant. The trainer took pieces of gum and fed them directly into Samson's mouth.

After the first few pieces were gobbled up I was handed half a stick of gum. "Here ya go. Go on and feed him if you want." I froze in disbelief. "It is OK, he can't get at you," said the trainer. Dad said, "Go on, son. Its alright", as if HE would know!

The handler gave me instructions of how to feed a gorilla, "Move slowly without putting your fingers through the bars. When Samson opens his mouth place the gum on his lips and DON'T put your hand into his mouth," he said.

I crept towards Samson, looking directly into his eyes, shaking uncontrollably. The trainer was quiet and encouraging. When I got my hand a few inches from Samson's mouth, he darted towards the bars and grunted loudly, frightening everyone. I dropped the gum and attempted to run behind my Dad's legs. Dad was trying to hide behind Mom.

"Sammy! Stop it," snapped the handler, "He knew you were scared. He was just joking with you." Great, a gorilla with a sense of humor. The man insisted I try again. I bent over to pick up the gum. Finding the gum on the floor I'd noticed Samson's foot. His foot was the size of my head. If I hadn't absorbed the enormity of this creature yet, I surely gained the proper perspective then.

I approached Samson and inched closer. As the gum neared his lips Samson stuck out his bottom lip like a pouting child. I placed the gum on the bottom lip and he slowly curled his lip back, easing the gum into his mouth. Samson eased away from the bars and I backed up towards my family, smiling from ear to ear.

The handler said it was time for us to leave, confessing he really shouldn't have brought us there. We were all extremely thankful for the experience and stayed there thanking him. The other couple shook the man's hand and dashed off.

Once out of sight, the trainer interrupted our chatter, "Ok, they're gone...LET'S GO!" We were confused. Was there MORE to see? It seemed impossible the trip could somehow improve. We followed once again.

The time spent talking about sleeping quarters & imported oranges made more sense as he took us to see those exact things. He intended to give us tactile proof of every detail of Samson's life. He wanted us to see everything.

He showed us photos of Samson from various segments of his life. We saw where Samson’s meals were prepared and we were each given two of the special oranges to take home with us. "Try 'em when you get home. They're simply the best you'll ever eat," he told us. We stuffed the oranges into our pockets.

The handler took us down a staircase and around a corner. Once at the bottom he switched on a light, revealing Samson's bachelor pad, the private sleeping quarters. Samson was waiting for our arrival. We saw a large hammock, an assortment of toys & a tire swing, but it was nearly impossible to take any attention away from Samson.

The handler threw oranges towards Samson. Samson caught them and devoured them immediately, the juice splattering against his jaws. Handing some oranges to my brother, Matt, asking him toss a few towards the gorilla. "He can get his arms through these bars, so just toss 'em from here,' he said. Some oranges made it to their destination, but most of them fell short, being thrown with a little less strength than my brother's pitching arm would allow. Who could blame him? Who wants to chance upsetting a gorilla by pelting him oranges?

The trainer retrieved the errant oranges and fed them to Samson. Soon thereafter things quieted in the room. We noticed Samson was very focused on the hands of my brother, who had taken his souvenir oranges from his pocket. Samson was very deliberately looking at Matt's hands, then up to Matt's face, and back again to the hands, suggesting those oranges belonged to HIM and Matt should part with them immediately.

The man, noticing what was going on , stepped into Samson's sight line and told Matt to put one of the oranges back in his pocket. He took the remaining orange from my brother and gave it to the gorilla, explaining that there was "no more, Sammy." After that final orange was eaten, the man urged us back upstairs.

We thanked him profusely for the special tour. He simply shrugged our gratitude off as if to say, "t'weren't nothin'."

I have no idea what his conversation with my Dad was like prior to our adventure and I still can't imagine why were so lucky on that spring day. Dad explained he merely told the man how much we liked the zoo and Samson. As near as we could figure, the handler took a liking to Dad just for being Italian. Whatever the reason, we were treated to a most unforgettable day.

We went home talking a mile a minute the entire time. Once home we enjoyed the delicious flavor of Samson's oranges and relived the experience with each bite. I left one orange on the kitchen table with the intention of bringing it to school for "show and tell."

The orange never made it into the fridge nor to school. It was shuffled around from table to counter. As the days past the orange went forgotten by me entirely. One day my Mother presented me with a smaller, hardened orange, asking me if I wanted to put it some place safe. Somehow the orange didn't rot or get moldy at all. It simply shrunk and ossified, becoming a perfect souvenir. The orange is completely in tact and remains in my possession.

In 1981 Samson the Gorilla died. I never got the name of the trainer and have always meant to find out if he still worked at the zoo, hoping to thank him again. A bronze statue of Samson sits at the Milwaukee Zoo and his remains are on exhibit in a Milwaukee museum. Of course, no statue or display can compare to the beauty of the actual creature and nothing can compete with memories I have of that day.

Update: Since the initial writing of this story I've some to learn that Samson's caretaker was Mr. Sam LaMalfa.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW! What an incredible story. I was just a kid when I saw Samson, but I'll never forget the experience. Thanks for sharing this story.

11:30 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't know if you've seen this yet, but this was in the Journal-Sentinel today.

Sam LaMalfa was the caretaker.

1:31 PM

Blogger Andy Land said...

Thanks for the link.

I have in fact learned about Sam LaMalfa. There are a few Samson-related posts throughout the history of this blog and I'm hopeful that someday soon, Sam & I will get to meet in person again.


1:58 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice story! The other day I went to the Milwaukee museum with my camp, I go to in the summer. I'm only 12, but I would've loved to meet Samson in person, even though he's a gorilla. He seems like a nice animal. I told my dad that when I'm older I want to go around the world and take pictures of all kinds of animals. Mostly the rainforest, and Africa. I think the rainforest is in Africa, I don't know. :) got to go. Again, love the story.

10:43 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I spent the first 12 years of my life in Milwaukee and visited Samson many times. He was always the star. Thanks for the great story and for kind of "bringing him back" even for just a few minutes. Thanks.

3:56 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your great story! It brought back alot of memories for me! I loved just looking at him when I was a kid. I could not take my eyes off him. I also remember a couple of nightmares too. He will always be loved and missed!

9:54 PM


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