Video/Gallery: The emotional moment a former zoo keeper from Ipswich visited Bristol Zoo to meet the gorilla he had hand reared nearly 40 years ago
11:26 21 December 2012
IT was the reunion he never imagined would happen.
Ron Smith choked back tears as he saw his beloved gorilla – who he had reared from birth with the help of his wife – for this first time in 20 years.
Ron and Salome’s incredible story starts back in 1976.
The 82-year-old, who now lives in Whitton, was a keeper at London Zoo, and second in command at the Ape House, when female gorilla Lomie gave birth to Salome – the first ever gorilla to be born at the zoo.
Having never seen other gorillas mothering their young, Lomie did not know how to treat her newborn and concerns were raised when she started using her as a toy.
When keepers discovered she wasn’t feeding her youngster properly either, it was agreed that Ron would take Salome home and rear her with wife Barbara for the first year of her life.
She was taken into the zoo during the day but at night she would sleep not in the gorilla enclosure but in a cot in Ron’s bedroom. It was an unconventional life but one which the animal-loving couple, who had no children of their own, thrived on.
The time of caring for her soon came to an end – and their parting, as Ron recalls – was harder than he ever thought it would be.
Despite looking after her brother a year later, it was their first and better behaved gorilla Salome who left an indelible mark on their hearts.
Two decades have passed since Ron saw Salome, who he affectionately still refers to as “my baby”.
Now 36 years old, the mother-of-three is living at Bristol Zoo – where she was relocated around 20 years ago.
It was after Ron sent a poignant letter to The Star, outlining his amazing tale, that we decided it was time to reunite the pair – and to see if Salome would recognise the man who played such a pivotal role in her young life.
It was an early start setting off for Bristol Zoo – staff had recommended arriving for the animal’s breakfast time at 9am, the only point in the day they could guarantee the gorillas would be outside.
Despite leaving Ipswich bleary-eyed at 4am, Ron masked any signs of tiredness as he talked excitedly on the way, revealing how he was looking forward to the visit, and how he has received regular updates on Salome’s progress.
As we entered Bristol city centre at around 9am and began to pick up the signs pointing to the zoo, Ron began whistling and humming in nervous anticipation.
He admitted he did not expect the animal to recognise him, particularly as “gorillas don’t tend to look at you directly”, but was so looking forward to seeing her once again.
On our arrival, we were greeted by the zoo’s PR team who led us to the gorilla enclosure, dubbed Gorilla Island. Waiting by the landscaped area was a team of zookeepers to greet Ron.
Astounded by the reception, Ron’s new burst of energy spilled out as he recalled happy memories of his and Salome’s time together, and showed them his treasured photographs.
It was around five minutes before he then turned his attention to the family of seven western lowland gorillas, who were busy picking up the pieces of carrots, oranges and pineapple which had been thrown to them.
Ron’s eyes darted around the enclosure. “Where is she?” he asked. One of the zookeepers responded: “She’s hiding behind that bush,” before calling out “Salome.”
The large ape with human-like eyes emerged from behind some undergrowth, with her year-old son Kukena clinging to her leg.
As the large ape he had so lovingly reared for a year came into view, Ron’s eyes lit up.
Salome looked over at the crowd gathered before her, with her adopted father at the front calling out her nicknames “Sali” and “Lome”.
She stared at Ron. His eyes began to water as she remained still, her eyes focused on her surrogate father for a few magical seconds, before walking away.
The former zookeeper stood transfixed as he watched Salome playing the role of the attentive mother.
He modestly shunned compliments by the zoo staff that the gorilla had learned her parenting skills from him and his wife – but it was clear he was proud they had done a good job.
John Partridge, senior curator of animals of Bristol Zoo, said it was thanks to her adopted parents that Salome was now an integral part of the group.
“I was really excited to meet Ron,” he said. “I first met him in 1976 because Salome’s mother came here to begin a breeding programme. Salome’s mum then went back to London where she gave birth to Salome.
“Salome is a brilliant mother and that is all down to this guy. The proof is there as she has had babies, rears them herself and is a strong member of the family. All that is down to how she was reared.”
We stood and watched the gorillas for half-an-hour as they interacted with each other, played, and showed off to spectators. Salome though remained the responsible adult, as she sat in a shelter and enjoyed a lengthy breakfast, while keeping a close eye on mischievous Kukena.
Ron recalled: “We reared her from soon after she was born. It was like our own child. She slept in a cot in our bedroom.”
He added: “She looks really well. It’s so nice to see her. I am choked.”
For the zoo staff who work with the apes every day, it was an honour to meet the man who brought up Salome.
Catherine Phillips, who handles the zoo’s PR, said: “Everyone’s got a lot of affection for her. She teaches the other gorillas how to be a mother.”
Lynsey Bugg, assistant curator of mammals, added: “I do not think she [Salome] necessarily knew who he was but there was a definite recognition of familiarity. I think it is wonderful.
“He’s done such a good job. She’s an amazing animal in terms of teaching other members of the group about mothering. To see the man who made it all possible is just magical. The whole team have loved having Ron here and will continue to keep in touch with him.”
As Ron left the area dabbing his eyes with a tissue, he called back to the other zookeepers, “look after my Sali for me”.
On the long journey back to Ipswich, Ron had a wistful smile and distant look.
He said the day would stay in his memory for a long time, before adding: “I am overwhelmed. It has been a wonderful day – the best.”