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Milwaukee's Menagerie: Samson the Gorilla

By Tim on Apr 29, 2015 2:09 PM

Samson and his adoring fans, courtesy of our Historic Photo Collection

It is time to finally acknowledge the 652 pound gorilla for which many have been waiting patiently. His name was Samson, probably the loneliest of the animals of Milwaukee. I’d hoped to bring somewhat of an upswing in tone after last week’s grisly case of Greely, but today we’ll look at the sad tale of Samson, the King of Milwaukee County Zoo.

Samson was brought to the Washington Park Zoo in 1950 as a baby, alongside another gorilla named Sambo. They were a gift to the zoo from the Pabst Brewing Company, who had purchased them for $10,000 (today that would be about $97,395). They were put into an enclosure originally intended for chimpanzees, and cheered upon their arrival by a crowd of 32,000. So quickly did Milwaukee take to the gorillas, that mere months later Schuster’s was selling Sambo and Samson toys for Christmas.  They would spend 9 years at the zoo’s Washington Park location, until they were moved to the newly opened Milwaukee County Zoo location in 1959.

Their new home was very different from the open-air cage they’d lived previously, as their new enclosure was a room almost entirely made of tiled surfaces, with one wall of thick glass windows. This major change was done in hopes that it would be healthier for the apes, allowing them to avoid being exposed to all the potential airborne diseases of zoo visitors. This was a major concern about Samson and Sambo, punctuated tragically by Sambo’s death from tuberculosis, shortly after moving to the new enclosure. 

Samson would then be a lone gorilla for sixteen years, living in his room of tile and glass. It should be unsurprising that the big guy ended up with a weight problem, at his heaviest tipping the scales at the aforementioned 652 pounds. Many who visited Samson would remember not only his immense size, but also his behavior: often slamming his arms against the glass in what many took to be aggression or anger (though he did, throughout his lifetime, manage to break 4 of those windows). Sam LaMalfa, one of Samson’s caregivers at the zoo, stated that it wasn’t anger that caused such behavior, but loneliness, an action done out of a need for attention and an attempt to connect with those who would stare in at him each day, but separated by that thick glass. 

Samson, mid-chew.

He was not always alone; of course, he had visits from zoo staff and would for a few years have a companion in the form of a female gorilla. Yet, she came after sixteen years of solitude, making it no surprise that they didn’t exactly ‘hit it off’ as the zoo hoped. By that time Samson was so ingrained in his solitary ways that the two could not even be fed together, as Samson did not wish to share his food. The lady gorilla, Terra, would eventually be sent down to Chicago in 1979, where she mated almost straight away with a gorilla named Frank. This returned Samson to his loneliness, though he’d only live until 1981.

Samson’s death would come from a heart attack on November 27, 1981, the day after Thanksgiving. Nowadays, you can visit both Samson’s skeleton and a full recreation of him at the Milwaukee Public Museum (his skin ended up unsuitable for taxidermy, unlike his former roommate Sambo who is mounted in a somewhat unnatural pose up on the third floor of the same museum). While many would call the lion the king of the beasts, Samson was truly the king of the Milwaukee Zoo for his lifetime. A rotund, sad king, but he was a king nonetheless.

It should be noted that much of what I find tragic about Samson’s life wouldn’t happen these days at the zoo. They know to let animals have access to fresh air, to private areas away from the eyes of the public, and especially to make sure that gorillas aren’t left alone. They wouldn’t have let Samson’s diet get so out of hand, and modern medical treatment would mean that any heart illness might be detected and treated.

For more information on Samson, check out the documentary Samson: Then & Now by MPTV or Darlene Winter's I Remember Samson, but don't forget to actually visit his surrogate and his skeleton at the Milwaukee Public Museum, too.

Next week, I promise we’ll pick things up a little, and we’ll talk about the little dog we all fell in love with – yes, that means Hank. Hank the Dog, next week on the blog. Join us again!

Donna Marie Lewis commented almost 6 years ago...
I was so sorry to hear about Samson the Gorilla. He was Milwaukee's Zoo main attraction for many years. I remember when I was a young girl at Ninth Street School, we would come to the Milwaukee County Zoo on Blue Mound Road just to the all the animals, including Samson. God bless the Milwaukee County Zoo Ms. Donna M. Lewis

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