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Gallery: Proud ‘father’ remembers the day he brought his baby gorilla home for the first time

15:46 19 December 2012

Former Zoo Keeper Ron Smith of Ipswich who hand reared two gorillas while working at London Zoo in the 1970

Former Zoo Keeper Ron Smith of Ipswich who hand reared two gorillas while working at London Zoo in the 1970's

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RON’S eyes fill up when he thinks back to the day he and his wife Barbara left Salome - the gorilla they had hand-reared in their own home - to her new life.

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She was their baby, their pride and joy.

“We reared her from soon after she was born,” remembers Ron. “She was like our own child. She slept in a cot in our bedroom. It was exactly the same as having a human baby.”

Ron, 82, now lives in Ipswich, after a long career at London Zoo.

A widower, he lost Barbara four years ago, he keeps himself busy working as a volunteer befriender for Age UK, keeping up with his hobbies of drawing and painting, and, of course, he has his remarkable memories.

Born within the sound of Bow Bells, Ron’s a true cockney character with a twinkle in his eye – and he’s never lost the distinctive accent.

“I was born in 1930 and grew up in Camden Town. My father was a keeper at London Zoo so I spent a lot of time there with him as a kid.

“My father looked after two lowland gorillas – Mok, the male, and Monia, the female. The boss there insisted they were fed steak and port wine every day but they wouldn’t eat it.

“Dad tried to cook it and make it into a soup but they wouldn’t touch it. He took the port home for himself! Of course gorillas are vegetarian, but not much was known about them in those days.”

At 14 Ron left school and wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps.

“My dad said he wanted me to have a proper job so I took the Post Office examination and became a telegraph boy in the West End.”

When the flying bombs began to fall on London, Ron’s dad decided the West End was too dangerous.

“My dad said to me, ‘I’m not having you running around the West End with those things falling around’, so I left the Post Office and went to the zoo so that dad could keep an eye on me.”

Ron’s career at the zoo began as a plumber’s mate. After a couple of years he became a fitter.

After National Service – he served as a despatch rider in Malaya and Singapore – Ron returned to London Zoo to find Desmond Morris in charge of the keeping staff.

“He was a great boss but wasn’t famous then. He went on to do lots of television and wrote The Naked Ape. At that time I was offered a position as a junior keeper in the old cattle sheds in which wild dogs such as foxes, wolves and dingoes were housed on one side.

After a year at the old cattle sheds Ron got the job he always wanted – a keeper in the ape and monkey section.

“The work was much harder as the building was very antiquated. We had to jump four feet to get in and out of every cage.

“The animals were fed through a sliding door with the animal on the other side. You had to fill up a scoop of food, slide the door open fast, throw in the food and close the door very quickly before the animal could escape or get hold of you.”

In those days the zoo put on a chimps tea party every day at 4.30pm. It was not something Ron ever felt truly comfortable with.

Guy the gorilla came to London Zoo in 1947 and remains one of its most famous inhabitants.

“He came to us from France on November 5 so we called him Guy. He was probably the most popular animal in the house.

“At first we would go in with him and play but eventually the play became too rough so it had to stop. When he was in his outside cage he would be pelted with choc ices, sweets and fruits by the visitors. At his biggest he weighed 42 stone. In the wild gorillas would weigh about 30 to 35 stone.”

In the mid 1970s Guy was introduced to a female called Lomie in a bid to find him a mate.

“He played with her but he wasn’t really very interested,” he said. “I think it was all too late for him.”

Lomie was taken to Bristol Zoo where she successfully mated with a male gorilla called Samson.

Ron said: “It was later confirmed that Lomie was pregnant and she returned to London. She was again introduced to Guy but though they were allowed together during the day they were separated at night.”

One morning in 1976, after a thunderstorm the night before, Ron walked in the ape house to find Lomie had delivered her baby – Salome.

“She had cleaned her up and was holding her close to her chest so all seemed OK,” recalled Ron. “But gorillas learn by example and Lomie had never seen other gorillas mothering their young.

“She didn’t know what to do and after a few days we noticed a few abrasions on the baby’s arms. Lomie was treating her as a toy. Then we noticed she wasn’t really feeding her properly.”

By then Ron was second in command at the Ape House and it was decided he should hand-rear Salome.

“So I took her home,” said Ron. “We never had children of our own so my wife was really happy. But as we had not been fortunate enough to have our own babies, we were somewhat working in the dark

“Baby gorillas weigh about half the weight of a human baby at birth.

“As we were keeping her in our home, we needed nappies. The regular size kept falling off so eventually we discovered premature baby nappies which did the job.

“We would put her down at midnight with her feed and got up in turns during the night for further feeds.

“Salome was no trouble at all. During the day she would play quite well in her play pen. We fed her on SMA milk, the same as mothers were given in hospital, and progressed to baby food. We bought a carry cot and a play pen and she had a toy Noddy to play with.

“Our pet cat even took to her – despite having her tail pulled when she strode around the top of the play pen.

“She used to sleep in the carry cot in our bedroom in our flat in Cricklewood and we would take turns to get up and feed her during the night.”

At the time Ron and his wife were the subject of a number of newspaper stories – clippings of which he has kept to this day.

“After the initial fuss had died down we kept it fairly quiet. We had to have a licence to keep her.

“She was the first gorilla ever born in London Zoo so I had to take her to work with me every day.

“I didn’t get a holiday that year but it was worth it. I spent most days playing with her in her cage.

“As Salome grew we tried her on solid food like banana and baby food which she enjoyed.

“After her crawling stage she began to knuckle walk just like the adult gorillas. She was often taken to see her mother and Guy. Lomie showed slight interest but there wasn’t really any bonding between them.”

After just over a year it was decided Salome should be with other gorillas of her own age at Jersey Zoo.

“We kept her for a year, in which time she had grown into a fine, strong young animal,” said Ron. “She became very close to us, and we to her.

“We took her on the ship to Jersey. We had a cabin to ourselves, because it wasn’t thought right to let the other passengers know there was a gorilla on board, and she was quite happy.

“My wife had made a little jacket to enable me to carry Salome on my back, and she was silent all the way. When we arrived in Jersey we crept up to the deck to disembark. But as we did so, Salome suddenly gave out a great yell and everyone turned to look. ‘Oh look, a monkey’, they cried – and we were mobbed. The zoo had sent a car so we were able to escape the crowds quite quickly.

“My wife and I stayed in Jersey for a week to see Salome settled in. On our last day, two very sad people made their way to the ship to return to London. I know my wife was in tears and I was not far from it.

“We loved her, you see.”

Tomorrow: When Ron was reunited with his ‘baby’ - including video footage and more photos

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