Published: March 7, 2019

Bushman the Gorilla

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Two young girls look up at a taxidermied gorilla in a glass display case. The gorilla’s head is angled such that it appears to be making eye contact with the children. A digital rail, a screen on a stand, is positioned in front of the case. In the background, large-scale photographs of objects are affixed to the wall.

As you walk through the doors at our East Entrance, you may notice a western lowland gorilla seemingly standing guard. He’s pretty hard to miss. 

Bushman was the first gorilla to live in Chicago, spending most of his life at Lincoln Park Zoo. At the time, he was perhaps the most famous gorilla in the world: the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (now the Association of Zoos and Aquariums) deemed him “the most outstanding and most valuable single animal of its kind in any zoo.” An estimated 100 million people came to see this great ape over the course of his life. 

Bushman sparked an interest in wildlife for many, including Chicagoans who hadn’t traveled far from home and certainly had never seen a gorilla before. After making an impact on zoo-goers for over two decades, Bushman now helps us teach about gorillas and protecting these magnificent animals. 

He arrived at the Field in 1951, but his story starts well before that.

An unusual upbringing

In 1928, a group of American missionaries found a young gorilla in Cameroon, Africa. Accounts of his discovery vary. Some say he wandered out of the forest on his own; others claim local hunters captured him after wounding or killing his mother. 

The missionaries looked after the young gorilla. Their children especially enjoyed the ape’s company, teaching him to do tricks like brush his hair and ride in their toy car. 

A child holds the baby gorilla in Cameroon.

Lincoln Park Zoo

The young gorilla gets a bath in Cameroon.

When the missionaries’ time in Cameroon came to an end, the gorilla couldn’t return to the wild. Dr. Johnson, a reverend in the camp, sold him to animal collector Jules L. Buck, who, in turn, offered the gorilla to Lincoln Park Zoo. In 1930, Buck’s team transported the young ape over 6,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean to Chicago.

Becoming Bushman

At Lincoln Park Zoo, celebrated zookeeper Eddie Robinson took on the young gorilla’s care and gave him the name of Bushman. As Bushman settled in, Robinson and other zookeepers grew fond of him as they wrestled, raced, and even played football.

Bushman the gorilla sits on a bench in his cage at the Lincoln Park Zoo.

Despite his calm and affectionate nature, the great ape was truly imposing in size. As an adult, he stood 6’2” tall and weighed 565 pounds.

Chicago Park District

Zoologists and biologists took an immediate interest in Bushman. At the time, the biology of gorillas was still a mystery to zoo caretakers, and Robinson kept a watchful eye over Bushman. Over time, the gorilla became even more of a rarity; when Bushman reached six years old, he’d lived longer than most gorillas typically survived in human care. The quality of his care provided an early model for other zoos. 

It wasn't long before Bushman earned a place in Chicagoans' hearts. Although pop culture—King Kong comics and films—depicted gorillas as savage and dangerous animals, Bushman was universally adored. Some fans went so far as to wear the same clothes to the zoo every time they visited, hoping that he would recognize them. A Bushmanite Society even sprang up. 

During World War II, Bushman became a symbol of strength for Chicago-born soldiers, and the United Service Organization awarded him a citation as a thank-you for boosting morale. Allegedly, Bushman even received an unusual gift: a tire from Adolf Hitler’s car. 

Passing and preservation

Bushman died of a heart illness at the age of 22 on New Year’s Day, 1951. Thousands of mourners brought flowers to his empty exhibit.

Following his death, Lincoln Park Zoo transferred the gorilla’s remains to the Field Museum. Taxidermists and artists carefully preserved the specimen, ensuring that it would last for future visitors. Though Bushman returned to Lincoln Park Zoo to be placed on display for a short time, the Field became his permanent home.

Thanks to archival documents, images, and even film, we have a good idea of how the specimen was originally preserved in 1951. Bushman’s very lifelike appearance is partly the result of a skin replication process that taxidermist Leon Walters invented right here at the Field.

Along with Walters, taxidermists Joseph Krstolich and Frank Wonder shaped a hollow form that would make Bushman’s body and pose as realistic as possible. For this, they drew on methods devised by Carl Akeley, including creating a plaster cast from a detailed clay model.

Paying extra attention to the gorilla’s hands, feet, and head, Leon Walters used synthetic resins to carefully replicate and preserve the details often lost in modeling skin and hair.

John Bayalis

Taxidermists Frank Wonder (left) and Leon Walters (right) put the finishing touches on Bushman, grooming the fur with brushes.

John Bayalis

In 2016, object conservators took a very close look at Bushman—up to the microscopic level, examining skin, individual hairs, resins used to create the skin, and flecks of paint from previous repairs. Their goal was to assess the condition of the original taxidermy and make any needed repairs before moving the specimen to its current location at our East Entrance. This work, led by Shelley Reisman Paine, Lisa Goldberg, and Tom Gnoske, involved a fascinating look at the art and science of taxidermy.

Two women, using magnifying glasses, gloves, and paintbrushes, closely examine and perform conservation treatment on a taxidermied gorilla specimen. The gorilla stands on a platform with a protective covering, and various conservation tools and materials are placed nearby.

Conservators Shelley Reisman Paine (left) and Lisa Goldberg (right) inspect skin at areas of fur loss. They used reversible pigments to visually reintegrate the fur.

John Weinstein

Conservators also used microphotography and modern analytical technology to identify hair, skin, the resins Walters used to replicate skin, and materials used to create the plaster form. After analyzing damages caused by time, exposure, and previous restoration materials, they made repairs that included inpainting skin where there was a significant loss of fur. Conservators continue to monitor Bushman to protect the taxidermy over time.

Bushman’s legacy

Much has changed since Bushman arrived in Chicago. While hunting was widely accepted in Bushman’s time, today environmental changes and poaching threaten great apes—our closest relatives.

Institutions that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, like Lincoln Park Zoo, don’t collect animals from the wild. Rather, they work collaboratively with Species Survival Plan Programs to breed and transfer animals among accredited institutions.

Lincoln Park Zoo continues its work to protect and advocate on behalf of gorillas. And now at the museum, Bushman is a reminder of how our collective interest in gorillas began, and how much work we have left to do.

Behind the scenes at the Field, other primate specimens are some of the most heavily used in research among our collections. Scientists from around the world come to study them, often doing morphological research—looking at a variety of anatomical traits and features to see how species are related, and to understand how and why they differ from one another. And pathology research helps us better understand how diseases spread between humans and other primates.

Collecting has changed since the mid-1900s, but the historical specimens we do have help us track how primates have lived over time, both in the wild and in captivity. Today, many Field Museum researchers collaborate with scientists in Africa. We work together to observe and document the immense diversity of life there—important evidence for protecting threatened ecosystems. Bushman’s unique story is one of many that enriches our understanding of the natural world and our place in it.

Contributors

Thanks to the following for their contributions to this article:

Sara Anderson, Web & Digital Communications intern and Niagara University student

Larry Heaney, Tom Gnoske, and Adam Ferguson of the Field Museum

Shelley Reisman Paine and Lisa Goldberg, independent object conservators

Lincoln Park Zoo