Tony’s Journal: Wed. 1/30/02 (Grist 3)

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HERMOSA BEACH, Calif. (reprinted from, art. 3) Well — now that the bushmeat book is in the hands of publishers, I can move on to the next project. I reached Penny Patterson at the Gorilla Foundation research station in Northern California during lunch. She was with her primate friend Koko, and they were building snow gorillas.

“Koko loves this! I think she likes eating snow cones best,” Penny said.

I asked Penny to say hello to Koko for me. Just then I heard a crunch, and after a pause Penny explained that Koko was throwing snowballs at her. Clearly this was not the best time to talk about our writing project. But we did manage to agree that on Friday we would begin discussions with Ron Cohn about selecting photos for Michael’s Dream.

Penny and I are writing a photo-based story about Michael, the silverback who joined Koko as a youngster at Stanford more than two decades ago when Penny and Ron were in the early stages of their gorilla communication research program. Michael was a remarkable being, memorable as a fine artist, music aficionado, and the most loyal and protective friend to all who lived and worked with him.

Michael died a sudden death just after his 28th birthday, in April 2000. His heart gave out, as happens with many male gorillas in captivity in the prime of their lives. Michael was a superb example of the great silverback, with a picture-perfect muscular body. Nonetheless, all his life he felt threatened by unfamiliar humans. When strangers appeared in his territory, he put on fierce displays, banging walls and grunting in anger. We are convinced that he died because the fear instilled in him as a baby made him work too hard to protect his friends — Koko, Penny, and Ron. He did not want to lose them, the way he lost his first family in the forest. Michael was a bushmeat orphan.

One morning when Michael was still young he awoke in a state of extreme distress. Penny sat calmly with him while Ron set up the video. They talked in the gorilla language of signs and gestures, and a story unfolded. Michael told Penny of the dream that he had that night. It was the story of the morning in the rainforest when he had been captured and his family had been slaughtered. Michael remembered and described the horrid sound of gunshot, the cries of pain, the terror and trembling, the bright red blood, the shock, the struggle and submission as strong arms carried him off while his mother lay dead in the bush.

Imagine witnessing your mother and father being shot, killed, and butchered by poachers. What would it be like, at age three, to be captured by the killers, taken from your rain forest home, tied to a post in an alien village, stuffed in a metal box, bounced in darkness by car and airplane for days on end, and held in barren isolation cages for months? How would you feel about the people who did this to you, to your family, to your life?

Apple Chase
“Apple Chase”, by Michael.
Photo: Ron Cohn © 2001 Gorilla Foundation/

Michael overcame his inner terror enough to trust many people. On quiet days the great silverback could be seen relaxed and listening to Pavarotti singing favorite arias. He loved to play tag with human caregivers, and with his dog friend, Apple. Michael so enjoyed playing with Apple that he insisted on rendering his image on canvas. The painting “Apple Chase” captures the colors and movement that a sensitive silverback gorilla experiences, painted by the gorilla’s own hand.

I was lucky enough to visit Michael and be accepted by him. It was a profound experience to look into his dark eyes and imagine the memories he had. His is a heroic journey — from the rain forests of Africa to the redwoods of California, along the way overcoming profound childhood trauma, spanning the gap between species, and becoming the protector of a community of fellow souls.

I have told the story of Michael’s dream to hundreds of people in African villages — poachers, village elders, students. They were all deeply effected. One wise old man exclaimed, “We cannot eat such animals that have memories and feelings as we do.” There are millions of people who need to learn this lesson. We have work to do.

So — back to it. There are at least another two dozen “conversations with Michael” that I must sort through tonight. Miles to go before I sleep …