Memories of Samson the Gorilla

Nearly three decades after his death, Samson is still the most famous gorilla associated with the Milwaukee County Zoo. He even made the Guinness book of “Animal Facts and Feats” for his remarkable 652-pound peak weight. So meet the man who put Samson on a diet: Sam LaMalfa. First as a zookeeper and then as a supervisor, LaMalfa cared for Samson the gorilla from 1973 until 1981, when Samson died…of a heart attack. Today zoos know more about what makes a healthy gorilla. But even back in 1973 LaMalfa knew enough to put Samson on a diet.

Zoological Society members: For a story on the Zoo’s current six gorillas, see your October 2009 Alive magazine or click here. For an interview with the Zoo’s current gorilla keeper, click here.

Here’s a 2009 interview with LaMalfa, who retired from the Zoo in 1995. Today he gives tours of the Zoo for the Zoological Society of Milwaukee.

How did Samson get to be so famous?

Look at the headlines. The Milwaukee Journal (now the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) wrote about Samson often, especially in the popular Zooperstars column by the late Alicia Armstrong. Here are just a few headline examples:
Dec. 4, 1975: The Ape That Makes Milwaukee Famous
1977:  Gorilla Is Hale & Hearty
May 11, 1978: Weight Watcher: Samson’s rations are cut if his figure balloons
Jan. 10, 1980: A Tale of two Sams: Zoo’s famous ape thinks he’s his keeper’s brother

Samson the gorilla

Tipping the scales at well over 600 pounds, Samson the gorilla was quite overweight in 1970. (Photo by Milwaukee County Park Commission)

Why did you put Samson on a diet?

He was looking paunchy. I watched his weight and put him on a diet in 1973, when I began caring for him full time. I knew 652 pounds was far too much. Gorillas are supposed to have a belly, but not that much.

Samson at his peak weight

Samson’s weight is also evident in this 1969 photo by Sam LaMalfa.

How do gorillas get overweight?

Because of their diet in the wild, gorillas have to eat frequently. When you’re big, you have to eat a lot. In the wild they eat a lot of plant life. If they get too much fruit in captivity, they can pack it on. In the early days, Samson would get meat. We would boil a little hamburger meat and give it to him in the back holding area. He wouldn’t eat a lot of it. In the wild they eat termites, which give them a little protein, but they are mostly vegetarian. And they’re very good conservationists. If they strip one banana plant, they won’t strip the one next to it.

How did you come up with a diet?

I talked to Zoo Director George Speidel about it. He basically went along with it. I started cutting Samson back a little. I took away an item here and there. He was fed a loaf of bread, and I cut that back by two-thirds. Eventually the gorillas didn’t get bread at all [it’s not something they would eat in the wild]. And then it would be a banana here, an apple and an orange there. He would get six bananas at a time. So I would cut back to five. He would get six oranges at a time; eventually I cut that back to four. He’d get lettuce and celery. I cut back a little on the commercial monkey chow. I was winging this with the diet. Over the months, I watched him and made sure I wasn’t taking away too much too fast. There was nobody there to direct me. Nobody knew what diet was best. Then Alicia Armstrong wrote articles about it. He eventually dropped more than 100 pounds. I think he was comfortable at his new weight. He weighed about 530 pounds when he died years later.


Samson prepares to eat grapes and other food put on the scale that sat in his exhibit. (Photo by Milwaukee County Zoo)

Did Zoo visitors like to watch Samson eat?

Oh, yes. His feeding time at 3 p.m. was a daily event. Many times we would use the platform he was weighed on as a feeding platform. I would make a design, like a centerpiece, with his food. In the center would be the bread, and maybe a half a can of pineapple stacked atop the bread and a stalk of celery sticking out of the hole of the pineapple. Monkey chow pellets surrounded all this. It was mainly for the visitors. The gorilla didn’t care.

Edith Scott holding Samson

Edith Scott, a Milwaukee County Zoo employee, held baby Samson in this 1951 photo while Sambo reached up for attention. (Photo by Milwaukee County Park Commission)

Samson lived at the Zoo for more than 30 years. What was his life like?

Samson came here as a baby with another baby gorilla called Sambo, brought from Africa. When Sambo and Samson came in to the Washington Park Zoo Oct. 15, 1950, they both caught colds. The staff had to fight tooth and nail to save them. They were babies, and Milwaukee watched them grow. When the Zoo moved to its current location on Blue Mound Road, the Primate House was the first building to be opened. They came to the current location on Oct. 2, 1959, and Sambo died one month later, Nov. 2, 1959; he was estimated to be 10 years old and 350 pounds. There’s no definitive answer as to why he died. (I was in the Navy at the time. I didn’t start working at the Zoo till March 1964.) Samson was alone the next 16 years, from the time Sambo died till I put Terra in with him, in 1975.

So tell us about Terra.

Tanga and Terra came to the Zoo in April 1960 as babies, much like Sambo and Samson. Tanga, the male, and Terra, the female, grew up together; they didn’t have contact with other gorillas. Tanga got rough and slapped her around. I separated them. So I went to George Speidel and suggested putting her in with Samson. I thought they would work well together. I knew both of their personalities. She was about 16 and Samson was about 26. Speidel was worried about the danger. At first, Speidel told me I was crazy. But I didn’t think it was right to assume Samson was going to hurt her just because Tanga did. Eventually Speidel got interested in the idea because it might end up with a baby gorilla.

How did you introduce the two gorillas in the spring of 1975?

Very carefully. Between two sections of a holding area off exhibit, we had a door built with a smaller door inside it that would slide. Because Terra was an average size female, and Samson was a giant, I thought, “Let’s use that to our advantage.” She could fit through the small door and he couldn’t. So she could escape if necessary. After we moved her into the cage, I gave her a chance to adjust to this for a few weeks. When I first left everything open so Samson could see her, I wish you could have seen the expression on his face. “It was like, Oh, my gosh, what is that that is sharing my bedroom?” 

Terra and Sam

Sam LaMalfa looks through the exhibit window at Terra, a female gorilla he introduced to Samson in 1975. (Photo by Dr. Edward Leone)

There were newspaper stories about their introduction. So the media were there?

Yes, this was a big event. When Samson and Terra got into the exhibit, they ran around the platform scale a few times. They then stopped and just looked at each other. For the next week, I’d feed him on the left, and one of the other keepers would feed her on the right. But he started getting nervous because he didn’t want to share. For 16 years he had had no competition at eating time. I went to George Speidel and said, “No more feeding together.” From that time on, I’d run her downstairs and feed her. When Samson and Terra were done eating, I would put her back upstairs. And then it worked. They lived together for more than four years.

Yet there were no babies?

No, and the media made a lot of Samson not being interested in breeding. These were some of the headlines:
Feb. 13, 1975: Samson Cordial to Terra, But He’s Not Going Ape
June 9, 1977: Samson’s love affair that never was

Samson with eyes that look disturbed

Samson looked scared the day before he died, says Sam LaMalfa. (Photo by Dr. Edward Leone)

What happened to Terra?

It was decided that she needed a new mate. So I took her to Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago in 1979. They had eight young gorillas, and that’s the reason they were having more success with breeding. They put Terra in with Frank the gorilla, and it was love at first sight. She got pregnant. [The 1981 Milwaukee Journal headline was: Guess Who’s Been Monkeying Around?] She wasn’t able to raise the baby, however, either because her milk quality was poor or she was inexperienced. The baby was Mandara. She needed 24-hour care for several months. So we brought Mandara back to the Milwaukee County Zoo and started the Mandara Moms program. Volunteers were trained to care for her. The program was a success because Mandara is now a great mom and has had several babies at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

And what about Samson?

Animals will not let you know outwardly if they’re feeling bad. So I did not realize Samson was ill the week he died. Looking back at a photo taken the day before he died, I can almost see some pain in his eyes. Samson died Nov. 27, 1981, the day after Thanksgiving. The Milwaukee Public Museum, which has a mount of Sambo, featured an exhibit called “Samson Remembered” in 2007 and 2008, and I provided plenty of material for the exhibit. The museum made a full-size model of Samson for that exhibit. I’m also a docent at the museum. A bronze sculpture of Samson’s head is on display near the Zoo’s gorilla exhibit in the Stearns Family Apes of Africa building.

What do people remember most about Samson?

Probably the biggest memory the Zoo public has of Samson is of him pounding windows. Often Samson could be seen slapping at several of the 10 windows at the front of his exhibit. People often thought he was angry or trying to break out, but it wasn’t really for those reasons. I truly believe Samson as a large silverback male gorilla would have been the dominant leader of a troop. Gorillas are very social animals. Because he was captive and by himself, I feel he responded to Zoo visitors by getting their attention. The reaction made him feel dominant and in control of his public. People jumping back and screaming became one of his favorite games, sort of like cat and mouse. I feel he knew what people’s reactions would be. It was predictable to him and he liked the outcome. Actually, Samson was a shy, gentle giant.

Text by Paula Brookmire