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Lincoln Park Zoo’s Bushman fondly remembered by girl who helped raise him

Bushman gorillhere about 1-2 years old CameroSouth Africabout year before he made journey Americis held by RobertHope far right circ1920's.

Bushman the gorilla, here about 1-2 years old in Cameroon South Africa and about a year before he made the journey to America is held by Roberta Hope, far right, circa 1920's. Other Hope sisters; Esther Hope, far left, holds another baby gorilla and her sister, Winifred Hope, center, holds a monkey called 'Minky.' Bushman is presently on display at the Field Museum and a popular Chicago attraction and legend. | Photo Courtesy Lincoln Park Zoo

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Updated: April 19, 2013 6:23AM



Before he became famous, Bushman the gorilla was simply Winifred Hope Smith’s beloved pet — “a sweet little guy” who wanted to be held and cuddled.

Smith and two of her sisters helped raise the Lincoln Park Zoo icon while they were growing up in west Africa in the late 1920s.

The gorilla later grew into a hulking, 550-pound star who attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors to the zoo every year, but that’s not how Smith recalls Bushman.

She remembers him as the affectionate, soft-furred youngster who came into her life when he was less than a year old and immediately stole her heart.

“He wanted us to hold him. When I’d put him down, he’d sit on my foot and grab my leg and go everywhere I did,” Smith said Saturday, smiling at the memory.

Smith, now 92, returned to Chicago this weekend with several family members to visit Bushman’s former zoo and to see his remains, which are on permanent display at the Field Museum.

During her stop at the zoo’s Regenstein Center for African Apes, Smith watched fascinated as one of the four male gorillas in an indoor enclosure scampered across a thick rope hanging between two artificial trees.

“It kind of reminds me of the old days,” she said. Smith was the daughter of Christian missionaries and spent much of her girlhood living with her family in Cameroon.

When she was about 9 years old, Bushman came to live with the family — actually in a cage outside their home — while his owner tried to find a buyer for him.

He stayed with the family for more than a year, until 1930, when the young gorilla was sold to the zoo.

For Smith and her older sisters, virtually every day began the same way — rushing outside to release the young gorilla from his cage for a day of play and adventure.

“He spent the day with us. We took him everywhere,” she said, laughing. “It was an awful lot of fun.”

Even though he was seldom allowed inside Smith’s house because of her mother’s objections, Bushman thrived on the attention he received.

“He probably thought we were his mother or his sisters,” she said. “He was very fond of us.”

Smith was saddened when the gorilla was shipped to Lincoln Park Zoo, though she never forgot her childhood companion.

She visited him once in the late 1940s at the zoo — where he was a star attraction —but was upset to see him locked up by himself behind bars in an otherwise empty cage.

“I loved him so much and I hated it when I saw him boxed up inside a cage,” she said, adding wistfully: “He was such a sweet little guy.”

She walked close to the cage to “say hello” and saw her old friend looking intently back at her, Smith recalled, though she doubts he remembered her.

“I couldn’t tell whether he was interested, whether he wanted to be friends or not,” she said, pausing as she recalled the visit, which came not long before his 1951 death. “He acted interested, but I’m not sure.”

During her Saturday visit, zoo officials highlighted how scientific understanding of gorillas has changed dramatically — prompting radically different treatment for them in captivity.

The zoo — now home to 22 apes, including 12 gorillas — are kept in groups because they are social animals, said Stephen Ross, director of the zoo’s Fisher Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes.

The animals are housed in indoor-outdoor enclosures, with artificial trees, ropes and ledges to play or climb on, all part of a new understanding that gorillas “like choices,” Ross said.

“We want to give them the choice to decide if they want to go outside or stay in,” Ross said.

Some of the gorillas even play on computers now, lining up symbols in a pre-determined order. When they succeed, they are given a treat, often a blueberry or some other delicacy.

Azizi, 10, is the reigning champ, lining up nine symbols in the correct order, Ross said.

“That provides great enrichment for them,” Ross said. Smith, who uses a wheelchair to get around, was enthralled with the close-up views of the gorillas in their enclosures.

“They have so much here for them to play on,” she said, watching as two young male gorillas in one enclosure wrestled playfully on a ledge about 12 feet off the ground. “I wish Bushman would have had all that.”

Though her former pet died more than 60 years ago, some zoo visitors still remember the famous gorilla.

“People still ask me about him, like I knew him,” Ross said.



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