A Friend of the Zoo Remembers a Zoo Icon
The great gorilla has been gone since 1951, but visitors still come to Lincoln Park Zoo looking for Bushman. They ask caregivers about the famous ape, recalling a time when he was featured in “Life” magazine and amazed crowds who’d never seen an animal as imposing and wild.
While guests still pay tribute to Bushman, it’s rare for a visitor to have known him personally. But that was the case with Winifred Hope Smith, a 92-year-old who made the visit to Chicago’s free zoo from Ohio this March. Smith had helped raise Bushman along with her family when she was a little girl in Cameroon, a long time ago. Now she’d come to pay the great gorilla one last tribute.
A Far-Flung Childhood
Smith’s family was a missionary family living in Elat village in the south of Cameroon. Of five sisters, she was the only one born in the United States. “I felt very robbed about that until they had to start getting birth certificates,” she joked.
When Smith was around 8 years old, an American arrived with a baby gorilla. The man’s name was Julius Buck, and he’d been commissioned to bring gorillas back to the United States—an approach that’s no longer practiced today. As Smith remembered it, Buck left the gorilla with her father for safekeeping as he continued his expeditions around the region.
Bushman spent his nights in an enclosure outdoors and days with the family…including Smith, who was eager to give him the attention he needed. “He wanted to be held all the time,” she recalled. “If I put him down, he’d hold my foot as I walked around. Mother wasn’t happy with him being in the house, but he came in, although he wasn’t allowed to stay there.”
Bushman lived with the family for roughly a year, eating what they did, growing bigger as he matured. In 1930, the young gorilla made the big trip overseas. He ended up at Lincoln Park Zoo, moving into what’s now the Helen Brach Primate House. Bushman arrived to the acclaim of a city—and a country—for whom a live gorilla was still a rarity. He left behind a girl who was sad to see him go. “I felt terrible when he left,” Smith remembered.
The pair did see one another again. Smith returned to the United States at 11, moving around between Indiana, South Carolina and later Tennessee’s Maryville College. In the 1940s, she made a trip to Chicago to visit the gorilla she’d known as a baby—one who’d since become a celebrity.
It wasn’t the best visit. Zoos today have a much deeper understanding of gorillas’ needs, providing them with naturalistic settings, nutritious diets and robust social groups. But while Bushman enjoyed care that was appropriate for the time, he still lived alone in a cage. “I felt a lot of affection for him when I visited,” she remembered. “I wasn’t sure if he wanted to be friends or not, though. I couldn’t tell if he recognized me.”
Smith’s visit to Regenstein Center for African Apes (RCAA) in March was a totally different experience. It was a family affair: she came accompanied by her daughter, Linda Hall, nephew Edward Guthmann, granddaughter Selita and great-grandaughter Nevaeh. The group saw Kwan’s family group and the zoo’s new gorilla bachelor troop, marveling at the immersive habitats and rich social behaviors on display. “It wasn’t like this,” Smith said, remembering her earlier encounter.
More had changed than the housing for gorillas. As Steve Ross, Ph.D., director of the Lester E. Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes, shared, “Gorillas haven’t been moved from Africa to North America since 1975. Soon there won’t be any more African-born gorillas in zoos. All of RCAA’s gorillas were born right here in United States.”
Smith enjoyed her visit, following the gorillas as they browsed and played in their exhibits. She saw new mom Bana snuggling with baby Patty, an interaction that may have conjured memories from 80 years past. She finished her Chicago visit the next day with a trip to the Field Museum, stopping in for a little time with an old friend.
A Final Farewell
Sadly, Winifred Hope Smith passed away soon after her trip to Chicago. We offer our deepest sympathies to her family, including two children, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Beyond that, though, we offer a deep appreciation for the chance to connect with a vital part of Lincoln Park Zoo’s history.
Zoos have changed a lot since Bushman’s arrival. Animals no longer arrive from Africa. But the dedication Smith showed to a little gorilla in her care is echoed in the full-time commitment of today’s professional caregivers. Even across the decades, animals can inspire us…something the visitors looking for Bushman know well.
by James Seidler • Published July 3, 2013
Return to Cameroun
An excerpt from a documentary made by Smith's nephew, Edward Guthmann, chronicling his family's experience in—and return to—Cameroon.