His skin was first stretched out in life by marshmallows. Those were the days when big gorillas translated into big bucks for zoos, and our beloved Samson, whose penchant for sweets was indulged too much, would eventually top 650 pounds. Even after he was put on a long-term diet, he would remain a vaudevillian bloated on junk food, a simian Jackie Gleason, good for yuks and clucks.
He arrived at the Washington Park Zoo in 1950, a year-old 12_-pound western lowland gorilla wrested from the African wilds of what was formerly French Cameroon. The Pabst Brewery footed the bill for his acquisition, and in 1958, he was trucked to the newly built Milwaukee County Zoo, where he would reign as a top local celebrity for decades.
Milwaukeean Pat Boomgard recalls Samson stomping around his cage, banging on the tempered glass. Chicago juggler Andy Martello treasures a shriveled orange (of the imported variety Samson adored) from a 1980 zoo tour. Lynnell Carleton was impressed when Samson peeled a single grape with his sausage-shaped fingers and popped it into his mouth. He mesmerized us, Sheboygan resident Susan Olsen recalls, “not because he was an animal but because he was a personality.”
Such a personality indeed that his dying brought frantic efforts to “save” him. He died on a November day in 1981, appropriately, after a sumptuous afternoon feeding. Thinking that he was choking, zookeepers inserted a rubber hose down his throat and tried to breathe life into him. Two men jumped up and down on his massive chest. In a last-ditch effort, veterinarians performed a tracheotomy. When it was clear it was to no avail, plaster was applied to his face for a “death mask” and a device was inserted into his body that collected 17 vials of sperm. A necropsy determined the cause of death to be a massive heart attack, very likely the result of his sweet tooth. He was 32.
Jan Rafert, the zoo’s current curator of primates and small mammals, can’t definitively confirm where Samson’s parts traveled next. But it is believed they chilled for several years at Gary Zehner Taxidermy in Waukesha while a fundraising effort was undertaken to restore the ape postmortem. During that time, Samson’s pelt suffered irreparable freezer burn. When the fundraising effort tanked, Samson was transported to the Milwaukee Public Museum, where taxidermists Wendy Christensen-Senk and Floyd Easterman thawed the beast.
By then, the epidermis was peeling away, so a “fleshing machine” was summoned to thin and salvage the weighty hide, which was dragged across the blade of the device. “I spent many hours bent over that machine,” says Christensen-Senk. “I damaged my fingernails to the point where I almost lost them.” Salt was applied to the hide’s fleshy side in an attempt to preserve the skin.
The ape’s skull went to a local dentist, who used it for seminars he conducted. In 1996, Samson’s bones were drilled with holes and re-assembled for display in the museum’s “A Sense of Wonder” exhibit. They have remained there since, keeping company with the bones of a Chinese shovel-tusk elephant and a humpback whale.
Three years ago, the salted and dried hide was moved to a dry-storage facility, where it remains today in a plastic bag behind locked doors. It has been made available for scientific study but so far has been left alone. And the 17 vials of gorilla sperm? Sadly, no offspring were ever produced. Which means there will never be another one quite like Samson. Perhaps that’s why nobody wanted to let him go.