M’Kubwa (Eastern Lowland Gorilla Gorilla gorilla graueri) also known as “Mac” to his staff of doting keepers passed away quietly in May of 2004. He lived in the Gorilla Habitat at the Houston Zoo for almost twenty years. We still get the question “where’s the gorilla?” or “where is that building that was like a cave?” I cannot believe it has been seven years since he passed.
Here’s a bit of Mac’s background:
Mac was wild born and was captured near Tulakwa, which is 130 miles northwest of Bukavu, Congo (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) in 1953. His early records were not complete and he ended up at the Oklahoma City Zoo in 1963. At first he was identified as a Mountain Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla beringei). Dian Fossey, famed gorilla researcher who wrote “Gorillas in the Mist” (a film was made about her life starring Sigourney Weaver) heard about a mountain gorilla in captivity and came to the Oklahoma City Zoo to see him. She positively identified him as not a Mountain Gorilla but an Eastern Lowland Gorilla. However, he was still very unique since at the time of Mac’s death, he was 1 of only 3 Eastern Lowland Gorillas in captivity. All the other gorillas that you see in zoos are Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla). Mountain Gorillas have never been kept in captivity, as they can’t survive due to their fragile nature and specialized dietary needs. You’ll need to visit them in the wild!! See Primate Supervisor Lynn Killam’s blog about her trip to Rwanda to find out more about them.
Mac stayed at the Oklahoma City Zoo for 20 years and was housed with gorillas off and on. He really seemed to prefer to be alone; which is contrary to the natural history of gorillas since they live in groups in the wild and in captivity. So after 20 years, Mac came to the Houston Zoo in the mid 80’s and lived in the Gorilla Habitat for the remainder of his years. We too tried to give him companionship over the years and he ended up shared his exhibit with different species of monkeys and birds. He never did warm up to other gorillas but that probably had a lot to do with the early years of his life; he was most likely kept alone and never learned to properly socialize.
I knew Mac since I started at the zoo in 1990; I remember walking into the back of the gorilla habitat and being overcome by the smell. If you remember him, I’m sure you know what I am talking about; it is a heavy musky oniony odor. For most, it smelled like really bad sweaty body odor. For gorilla zoo keepers, however it is a wonderful smell and I really miss it (which I didn’t realize until I visited the gorillas at the Bronx Zoo in February).
Whenever anyone used to ask me what Mac was like, I would tell them that he was just a grumpy old man. It was no different the first time I met him, in fact it was the same way for probably 10 years. He was grumpy and didn’t want anything to do with me and told me so with angry grunts and a slap at the cage bars. He was very particular about many things including how you held his cup of juice for him in the morning and if you tilted it too much or not enough, he’d grunt at you to tell you, you were doing it wrong. He was also, very particular about where he wanted to make his nest. If you put hay across the exhibit, or in a different cage in the back, he’d carry the hay back to his favorite spot and make a very elaborate nest. HE WAS SO AWESOME!
He loved his veggies, carrots and sweet potatoes. I remember several times I would cut up his produce really small and spread it around so he’d have to spend a long time finding his food. Mac would go around and eat all the carrots and sweet potatoes first, then go around again and eat the rest of the fruits and veggies all the while giving me the evil eye as I watched him exercise and move around the exhibit! He didn’t like to share his food either; we’d have to make sure the monkeys wouldn’t get to his food (and vice versa). Most learned quickly to “stay away from the gorilla!” I have a vivid memory of one such monkey that learned the hard way. She had come down to the ground to steal a bite or two from Mac, and she didn’t notice Mac walking up to her (how you miss a 400lb gorilla, I have no idea) and Mac grunted and back swung his arm launching this 4lb monkey into the air and literally across the exhibit. It was the funniest thing I had ever seen but don’t worry, the monkey was just fine. She still continued to steal some food from Mac, but she was sneakier about it.
Insert Funny Story Here:
I have a funny story, I’d like to share. I was in jury duty and was selected for a panel and when I waiting to be called by the judge. A jury clerk came running; she was out of breath. She looked at her sheet, and looked at me and said “Are you Dena Strange?” My heart skipped a beat; I thought, I’m arrested, my car was crashed into, the house is on fire, my parents are dead, the world is ending…amazing what crosses your mind in two seconds. I stuttered and said yes. Then she said, “Why don’t you give that gorilla a bath? He smells really bad!” Okay, world is not ending, this woman while sorting the jury summons saw that I worked at the zoo, and ran across the street up a flight of stairs to ask me that! So, I explained to her that you can not give a 400lb gorilla a bath and that the smell is actually his own natural body odor. “But he smells really bad; there isn’t anything you can do?” No, this is what they smell like in the wild. She walked away very disappointed. I was, however, the star of that jury panel!
Mac did mellow out in his later years, not by much, but he was nicer to me and actually would greet me and let me groom his back on occasion. In February of 2003, we decided to celebrate Mac’s 50th birthday. We didn’t know his exact birthday, but knew he was born sometime in 1953. At that time he was the oldest living gorilla in captivity. We planned his party with the special events department and our primate staff. We held a private celebration with just staff and cake that morning before the zoo opened. Then for the guests, we decorated his exhibit (that was fun!), wrapped his food up to look like presents, did a few extra keeper chats and handed out cupcakes after everyone sang Happy Birthday to him! It really wasn’t that much and just like planning any party, you just hope someone shows up! So we were all really surprised at the number of Houstonians that came out that day to help us celebrate. We had a line wrapped around outside the gorilla habitat for hours! It was so amazing; I had no idea he had such an effect on anyone other than our staff. Needless to say, we ran out of cupcakes pretty quickly.
As he got older, however he did start to succumb to the effects of chronic oldage. He had some arthritis and congestive heart failure among other ailments, but he had a great team of staff including the vets and human doctors attending to his every symptom and trying to make his life more comfortable. One morning in May of 2004, however, Mac didn’t get out of his nest. He was responsive but not very interested in food; Mac was telling us it was time. After deliberating over it very carefully with many phone calls to all primate staff and zoo management we all decided that the best thing for Mac would be to humanely euthanize him.
Once again I was amazed by Houstonians, at the outpouring of sympathy we received; many came to the zoo to sign a giant sympathy card we had in front of the Gorilla Habitat and many more donated money to the zoo in his memory. It was truly remarkable. He was such an amazing animal and he is truly missed.
I feel very honored to have known M’Kubwa. And I really look forward to the expansion of The African Forest when they build the new Gorilla habitat. It will be good to have gorillas in Houston again!!
Let us know if you have any favorite memories of Mac in the comment section below.