This is another animal story about Roy when he worked at the prestigious Bronx Zoo in NYC. The story is based upon actual events.
Roy and The Rambunctious Silverback
“Get the people out of the building and lock the doors! Rambo’s got Bill!”
Roy was eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the Great Ape food preparation room when Mickey, the head keeper, barged in with a scowl on his face. He brushed by Roy, threw some fruit into a bucket, and rushed out.
Roy almost choked trying to swallow the last bite of his sandwich as he raced upstairs to the public viewing area. It was a half hour before closing time so there were only a handful of visitors present, and they were watching the baby chimps at the far end of the building. Roy calmly ushered them out without letting them know what had happened, locked the doors, and then ran back to the access corridor between the bared cage fronts and the glassed viewing area. Mickey was already there in front of the gorilla cage looking through the bars at Rambo and Bill.
Roy felt lucky to have this summer job at the City Zoo while he attended a near by college. Hired as a substitute keeper, he worked in a different area of the zoo every few weeks depending upon which keeper was on vacation. This was his third week at the Ape House where there were exhibits of chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. It was his favorite assignment so far.
Mickey and Roy stood together in front of Rambo’s cage and witnessed something that few people have ever seen. In the back upper corner of the gorilla cage Rambo sat with his huge, hairy arm around Bill, the new keeper. Rambo, the zoo’s rambunctious young silverback was evidently enjoying his new companion. The same could not be said for Bill, who was securely held against Rambo’s huge body, his eyes wide with terror. He said nothing but he didn’t have to because the expression on his face said it all “Help me! I’m scared! Get me outta here!”
Mickey was understandably angry, but not at Rambo. There was no doubt, by the expression on his face, that he blamed Bill for the situation. Nevertheless, he tried to act calmly so as not to agitate Rambo. Roy took the cue and stood quietly waiting for orders.
Meanwhile, Rambo seemed relaxed and content. He leaned back against the tiled wall and hugged poor Bill against his massive body. Rambo casually picked his nose while he watched Mickey and Roy, no doubt curious as to what they would do next.
Mickey talked softly to Rambo while he pushed a banana and an orange through the bars of the cage. Rambo watched Mickey intently but was not interested in fruit. He knew he would get some later anyway, and a few pieces of fruit were not worth giving up his new playmate. He gave poor Bill a playful poke in the ribs with the knuckle of his index finger. It could not have hurt much but Bill shut his eyes and let out a pitiful moan anyway.
Mickey warned Bill not to move or scream. “I’m going to get Rambo to let you go, but whatever you do, don’t scream or struggle. Do you hear me Bill?” The frightened keeper nodded his head.
Mickey continued to engage Rambo with friendly talk. “Come on big boy, let Bill go and come over here for a treat.” The gorilla’s eyes calmly shifted from Mickey to Roy and back again to Mickey.
Roy imagined what the gorilla was thinking at that moment. “No deal guys, I’m having fun. This is a welcome change to my boring existence in this damn cage.”
As Mickey continued to occupy the gorilla’s attention, Roy tried to figure out what had caused this crisis. Bill must have been cleaning Rambo’s cage and forgot to lock the door of the adjoining transfer cage, in which the gorilla waited. Rambo probably discovered the unlocked door, opened it, and rushed in to give poor Bill the surprise of his life. Bill must have been scared out of his wits when the 400lb. gorilla charged across the cage and grabbed him like a child handling a Raggedy-Ann doll.
Bill should have been more careful. Mickey taught all the zookeepers to double-check every door, latch, and lock so such accidents would not happen. Roy always followed Mickey’s instructions to the letter and even triple checked every lock. Bill had really screwed up, and now was paying the price for his carelessness.
While they watched, Rambo got up and shuffled heavily over to the other side of his cage, dragging Bill along by a leg. As he pushed his playmate into the corner and nonchalantly sat down next to him, Bill groaned and lost control of his bladder and bowels. The dark stain became obvious on Bill’s trousers. Rambo must have noticed also because he took a sniff and then gave a soft grunt, as if to say “Humans are really not much different from apes after all.” At least that was what Roy imagined Rambo was thinking.
Mickey must have alerted the administration building because other keepers were rushing into the building, including the Curator of Collections. Mickey motioned them back away from the front of the cage and out of sight so the crowd of onlookers would not agitate Rambo. Roy knew that generally, gorillas are the most gentle of all primates unless they are agitated, and then anything might happen.
Mickey had been Rambo’s keeper since the gorilla arrived at the zoo as a three year old, and so he had an amicable relationship with the powerful ape. Although he occasionally entered the cage with Oka, one of the zoo’s female gorillas, to share a watermelon, he dared not do that with the big male who occasionally lived up to his macho name. Rambo was not a vicious animal but he liked to display his strength and dominance, and he could be rough.
Several times a day Rambo put on impressive displays of dominance by slapping his palms on his chest, charging around the cage, and pounding on its walls. In his outdoor habitat area he would race around and throw anything that was not bolted down. He acted much like a human in a cell, without companionship, and sexually frustrated.
Mickey continued to talk to Rambo, who was playing with Bill’s long hair, twisting it around his huge fingers. At that moment, Bill panicked and tried to escape. Roy was sure the gorilla did not intend to pull out a handful of Bill’s hair, but when Bill tried to break away, Rambo just held on and gave a yank; out it came as Bill screamed in agony. All the keepers froze, afraid of what might happen next. Rambo had the strength of ten men and could easily, although unintentionally, injure Bill. Fortunately, Rambo didn’t get excited or even bother to get up. He sat with his back against the wall with a huge hairy arm still draped around Bill’s shoulders. He sniffed the hair entwined in his fingers and flipped it away.
“Bill, you idiot. I told you not to move. Stay still.” Mickey spoke calmly to Bill but Roy knew he wanted to scream those words with all his might.
Mickey turned to Roy and told him to go around to the passageway behind Rambo’s cage and wait. He had a plan. If he could get Rambo to let go of Bill and go into the adjoining transfer cage, Roy was to close the heavy steel door between the cages. Roy and another keeper quietly positioned themselves behind Rambo’s cage next to the heavy sliding door, as instructed, and watched Mickey through a thick glass window while he tried to deal with Rambo.
Mickey calmly reached down and picked up a hose that lay at his feet. That move immediately got the gorilla’s attention because on occasion a high-pressure hose is needed to move a reluctant gorilla or adult male chimp from one area to another. The keepers never directly sprayed the apes but they did splash them a little if they had to.
Mickey pointed the hose nozzle at Rambo and motioned for him to move into the adjoining transfer cage. Rambo thought about this new development and then, obviously disappointed that his entertainment for the day was over, took one last look at Mickey, and let go of poor Bill. Rambo was smart; he knew exactly what Mickey wanted him to do. He got up and ambled over to the little glass window in the rear of his cage through which Roy peered.
Roy waved at Rambo and said, “Come on big guy, get in there.” He continued talking to the ape and motioning for him to enter the adjoining transfer cage. Roy imagined that Rambo was probably slightly annoyed and thought they were all “party poopers” because they spoiled his fun.
As Rambo reluctantly shuffled into the transfer cage and sat down next to its door, Roy, with the help of the other keeper, pushed the heavy sliding door closed with all their might. However, just before the door was completely closed, Rambo’s hand shot out and stopped it in its tracks. With what seemed to be a flick of his wrist, he easily slammed the two hundred pound door backward in its sliding channel, knocking both Roy and the other keeper against the wall.
Rambo’s strength was truly amazing and had he wanted to he could have quite easily torn Bill to pieces. Rambo came to the bars at the back of the transfer cage to see what he had done. Roy guessed that he was grinning at his little joke and that the big ape meant no harm; he was just bored with the daily routine and was looking for a little fun. Rambo sat down and watched Roy slide the door closed and lock it without interfering.
Roy took a banana from his pocket and held it out to Rambo. “Thank you big boy, for not hurting Bill. You had a break of routine today didn’t you? Looks like you enjoyed it. I can’t blame you for being bored. You really need a bigger and more interesting habitat area, and some female company don’t you?”
Of course Rambo did not understand Roy’s words but Roy hoped Rambo understood that he was sympathetic and cared about him. Roy searched Rambo’s face for some reaction to his words. Rambo calmly looked back at Roy for a while; he took a deep breath and then reached over for the banana. He gently took it from Roy’s hand and began peeling it with his lips. The excitement was over for the afternoon and soon dinner would soon be served to all the apes; Roy decided that he would give Rambo a special treat before he left for the day, maybe a big piece of cold watermelon.
As soon as Rambo was safely locked in the transfer cage, Mickey and the other keepers rushed into the main cage to help the shaken Bill to his feet. They escorted him out of the building into a waiting car and took him to the zoo infirmary. The Curator of Collections warned everyone not to breathe a word about what had happened. This was something the newspapers would love to print, but the zoo did not need that kind of publicity.
After all the excitement was over, Roy had the questionable honor of cleaning Rambo’s cage that, for the first time ever in zoo history, contained more than just gorilla urine and feces.
When Bill eventually recovered from his trauma and returned to work, he was transferred to the peaceful Children’s Zoo where he could not get into any more life-threatening situations again. For the longest while Bill always wore a hat, and Roy knew why.
That evening, during dinner with his mother Maggie, sister Millie, and me, Roy related his adventure with Rambo. After dinner, I got out my journal and faithfully recorded my son’s adventure adventure with the rambunctious silverback.