Out of all the beloved apes in history, these may be the most important.
Last week one of the most beloved zoo gorillas in the world, Pattycake, died at the age of 40 at the Bronx Zoo in New York City. The first gorilla ever born in New York, Pattycake was a star and a familiar name for millions of children over the past few decades. In the zoo world and elsewhere in science, there are some gorillas we remember best for their talents or dispositions. Which leads us to today’s top 5 list – the most famous apes in history:
5 – Bubbles – Sometimes you don’t have to be particularly talented, but just hang out with talented people to get noticed. Bubbles became a household name as the Kong of Pop’s sidekick chimp. As Michael Jackson’s beloved friend, he would tour around the world and frequently appear in the media. Oddly enough few ever heard about how Bubbles grew up and became too aggressive to live with Jackson. Even more odd is that the chimp later attempted suicide. Fortunately, Bubbles survived those difficult days and today lives in a sanctuary in Florida.
4 – Pierre Brassau – You’ve probably never heard of the short-lived career of chimp impressionist Pierre Brassau. In 1964 a Swedish journalist decided to mess with the art world by presenting a series of avant-guard impressionist paintings by this up and coming artist. Brassau’s paintings actually generated some praise among Swedish art critics until someone finally said it looked like the work of an ape. Still known today in some circles as a talented primate-artist, by 1969 he retired from art and moved to a zoo in the UK.
3 – Flo – Mother to a long line of chimpanzees who became essential in Jane Goodall’s work, she was key in attracting more chimps to the camp. In a famous moment captured in the film Jane Goodall’s Wild Chimpanzees, Flo allowed her infant daughter to reach out and touch Goodall on the head. This was the sign that the legendary primatologist had been accepted by the group.
2 – Ham – The first chimp launched into space by the American space program in 1961, Ham paved the way for humans to go into space. During the journey that lasted 6 minutes and 39 seconds, he pulled some levers and showed for the first time that tasks can be performed while in orbit. He then splashed back down on earth and only suffered a bruised nose. Sadly, they never used his name in public until after the mission was a success. Prior to that he was always known at number 65 out of fear that if he didn’t survive the mission, the press would have a cute name of a dead animal that could disillusion people about space exploration.
1 – Koko – Being one of the most prolific gorillas when it comes to language still deserves a lot of respect if we’re making a list of the all-time best. Being able to understand 2,000 words from the English language and sign 1,000 words makes Koko one of the coolest primates around. When I was a kid in the 80’s, I remember posters of Koko at school, as she became famous for her language skills as well as for her love of kittens who she kept as pets. In 1998 she once again made history by participating in an online chat through the then dominant America Online. I wonder if she’s on twitter?
Photo: Katy Silberger / flickr