A Farewell To Massa

Posted: March 31, 2000

Nobody calls it the Philadelphia Zoological Garden. It's simply The Zoo. And an historic one at that - America's first. Millions have visited the West Philadelphia institution since the first guests passed through the gatehouses in 1874. Most have left with fond memories, whether of Josephine the elephant, Peggy the rhino, Bamboo and Massa the gorillas, the majestic Siberian tigers or any of the thousands of other animals that have amazed and delighted generations.

Massa is gone, but the friends he made during his half-century stay at the Philadelphia Zoo will never forget him.

The death of the world-famous gorilla from a stroke, just hours after his 54th birthday party on Sunday, affected his friends at the zoo like a death in the family.

"We are saddened by this loss of our most beloved resident," said a dejected William J. Donaldson, president and executive director of the Philadelphia Zoo.

"Each day that Massa remained with us was a miracle, since he had more than tripled the average gorilla's life span. We are grateful that he passed away peacefully."

Massa, who was the world's oldest gorilla in captivity, died shortly before midnight Sunday after being stricken in his private quarters at the Rare Mammal House.

In terms of popularity, Massa was in every sense the top banana at the Philadelphia Zoo. He was listed in the "Guinness Book of World Records" for longevity in captive gorillas.

He celebrated his most recent birthday with a modified fruit sundae made of vanilla ice cream, bananas, apples, oranges, grapes and strawberries, topped off with whipped cream. More than 500 people attended the gala.

"The aging process just caught up with the old fellow," said zoo spokeswoman Deborah Derrickson. "We're all very sad. He was an institution here, and he will be missed. I had a personal attachment to Massa, as did most zoo staff members.

"Few African Lowland gorillas in captivity live past their 25th birthday," Derrickson said. "Massa, however, lived some 29 years longer than statistics said he was supposed to."

In human terms, Massa was between 85 and 100 years of age. At his death, he had a total of three teeth, all front canine, and tipped the scale at a lightweight 175 pounds, far under his 350-pound fighting weight.

World War II was still raging when Superintendent of Animal Services Bill Maloney first met Massa, and the two remained friendly up until his death. Maloney best remembers Massa as a study in sheer physical power.

"He was a powerful fellow in his day, lifting his entire body on two fingers," said Maloney. "When he threw himself against his cage, you heard thunder."

At his physical peak, Massa had a 6-foot arm spread, even though he was considered short for a male African Lowland gorilla because of a bout with rickets in early childhood.

But the illness did not affect his brain. Massa was very perceptive.

"He liked uniforms because people in uniforms delivered dinner," said Maloney. "He would climb to the top of his cage and scope out people in uniform."

And fun-loving? Massa was as much fun as the legendary barrel of monkeys.

"Oh, he was mischievous. He loved to splash water at people from a pan in his cage," Maloney said. He delighted in tormenting the late Bamboo by splashing him with water when the two great apes shared adjoining cages.

Massa will not lie in the cold ground. His body will be studied by science. Because of his unique longevity, scientists plan to pore over his brain, his heart and other vital organs to search still-unanswered questions on primate aging.

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