In celebration of Michael’s birthday (the late signing silverback gorilla), we’d like to reprint an article first published by Dr. Anthony Rose, our Director of Conservation, in the Winter 2001 Gorilla Journal.
Before coming to the Gorilla Foundation as a small child, Michael witnessed his family being killed by poachers in Africa. He was thus an orphan survivor of the ongoing “bushmeat crisis.” We recently cofounded a small sanctuary in Cameroon for gorilla orphans, and named it the “Michael Sanctuary” (see African Update archives). The following article illustrates just how inspirational Michael’s life has been, and continues to be, to our mission of saving and protecting gorillas.
Michael and Me — by Tony Rose
Michael was three years old when he met Penny Patterson and Ron Cohn. He had come all the way from Cameroon to California and, by good fortune, was assigned to the communication research laboratory at Stanford University where Penny and Ron were doing their graduate studies, teaching American Sign Language to great apes. Michael joined Koko, who soon became his sisterly compatriot. He was the first and only silverback gorilla to learn to communicate words with humans.
For 24 years Michael signed his thoughts and dreams, his likes and dislikes, his deep sensitivities to Koko, Penny and Ron. He took up painting, made friends with a young gorilla named Ndume and enjoyed classical music. Yet all the while Michael seemed slightly aloof. Over the years he began to flex and posture and rumble when strangers came to his home. It was as if he were warning us to keep our distance, as if he were remembering something about other strangers long ago.
Then one morning Michael woke in a state of extreme distress. Penny sat calmly with him while Ron set up the video. They talked. 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 seemed to be remembering and describing 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 cruel arms carried him off while his mother lay dead in the bush.
Who To Trust?
Imagine witnessing your mother and father being shot, killed and butchered by poachers. Try to experience the pain and anguish. What would it be like, at age three, to be captured by the killers, taken from your rainforest 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, held in barren isolation cages for weeks on three continents? How would you feel about the people who did this to you, to your family, to your life?
Then imagine meeting two people who seemed different from the rest. Consider how you would experience their overtures of friendship. Would you trust them? Could you forget what the others of their kind had done? Might they betray you, abandon you, hurt you or kill you? Might they too be taken from you?
As the years passed, Michael came to trust his adopted parents, Penny and Ron, and slowly accepted those caretakers who came and stayed and earned his friendship. Some humans seemed safe to him. Most did not. His muscular body stiffened, his hair raised, and his fists and jaw clenched at the appearance of newcomers. He keenly watched the interplay of each visitor with his more easy-going sister, Koko, taking measurement.
I brought a long strand of brightly colored cloth from Cameroon as a gift for Koko and Michael. Koko played tug-of-war with me gently for a while, then Michael asked for 3that blue want.2 I tore off a three-foot section and stuck an end through the fence into his enclosure. He took it between thumb and forefinger, crumpled the end into his fist, stared into my eyes and yanked. I let go, just escaping a harsh skin burn, and watched the rest of the cloth trail slowly into his enclosure. Had I held on, my hand surely would have been broken, smashed against the fence. Michael watched me rub my palm, and I watched him sniff, taste and tangle the cloth around his hands and arms. In barely a minute, he dropped it and came closer to the fence to watch me. Then he asked Penny to 3give that2 – he wanted me to come into the enclosure with him.
He held onto the fence, and I stared at his huge fingers. I wanted to join him. My pulse quickened as I imagined him holding my hand fully enclosed in his palm, his warm breath and musky aroma soaking into my pores, his leathery skin and coarse hair rubbing against my smooth face and arms, the enormous metal-hard muscles of his chest and arms engulfing my shoulders and torso. It would be a surrender. Giving myself back to the primordial ancestor. Resting in the safety of that father-protector we all dream of – encompassed, enthralled, surrounded by a dark and mysterious past.
To commune with Michael would be the test of a lifetime, of an evolution we both sensed in our bones, a regression to that eternal Eden from which man and ape ascended and continue to ascend. We are brother beings, Michael and I, evolving as leaves on the same branch, harkening back in our eyes and our fingertips to the moment when one walked out of the forest and the other stayed. Might we spark some genetic recognition, ignite the atoms of our common DNA, expose the infrastructure of kinship, if we were to touch, to breathe the same air, to press body to body? Would he recognize my yearning for communion, accept my faith in our heritage, withhold his capacity to crush and allow me to live, despite those men who destroyed his first family?
I sat down in front of the door to his enclosure and tried to tell him that I would love to join him but could not. He seemed to understand. Michael ambled over to the crushed blue cloth, picked it up, and pushed it through the other side of the fence into Koko1s enclosure. He then moved off to the far corner of his outdoor area and turned his back to our potential friendship. “I’ll be back, Michael…another time…” I said softly.
The Touch of the Giant
There will not be another time. Michael died on April 19, 2000. Today we grieve. Yes, we grieve for Penny, Ron, Koko, Ndume and all those beings who were privileged by Michael1s friendship, his trust and his life. Their loss is great. They watched him suffer a lifetime of fear and ambivalence; shared his moments of genius and faith. They will recognize the emptiness where Michael stood, day after day, for the rest of their lives.
And we also grieve for ourselves – we who longed but never knew the touch of the giant. Our emptiness is enormous, for it is a void well known but never filled. And we grieve for those billions of people and apes who, like Michael and me, have lost our connection with our original family and our original homeland. We are all, after all, exiles from Eden – drawn by desire and desperation, by cruelty and ignorance, into an alien world not of our own making. Michael the gorilla lived and died remembering how the world was created. Now he has been released from longing. Michael, the gorilla who talks, has gone Home.