John Daniel, the civilized gorilla


It wasn't so long ago that, if the price was right, you could buy an ape. Plucked from Africa and sent to Europe and America, apes often changed hands several times for large sums of money before expiring after only a few weeks, months, or years. Writing of the attempts of the Bronx Zoo to keep gorillas at the dawn of the 20th century, for instance, William Hornaday doubted whether it would ever be possible to successfully house gorillas for more than a few weeks. When you got news of a gorilla arriving at the zoo, you made haste to see it.

Only some of the apes were housed in zoos, however. Many were kept by private collectors or trained to perform before audiences. The various chimpanzees named "Consul" were one example, but there were famous gorillas, too. One was John Daniel, "the civilized gorilla."

John had arrived in France in 1918. He was very young, just captured in Gabon, and he was soon purchased by Major Rupert Penny of London. It was there that John would settle and be taught "good manners." At first he was kept in a heated cage in the vicinity of people, but he could not bear to be left alone at night. His owners, particularly the mistress of the house Alyse Cunningham, took it upon themselves to properly socialize John, and he soon had the run of the house. According to Cunningham;

His table manners were really very good. He always sat at the table, and whenever a meal was ready, would pull his own chair up to his place. He did not care to eat a great quantity, but he especially liked to drink water out of a tumbler. I always gave him some butter with his breakfast, but he seldom liked bread. Sometimes he would take a whole crust or round of toast when you least expected him to and eat it all. He always took afternoon tea -- of which he was very fond -- and a thin piece of bread with plenty of jam; and he always liked coffee after dinner. He was the least greedy of all the animals I ever have seen. He never would snatch anything, and always ate very slowly. He always drank a lot of water, which he would get himself whenever he wanted it, by turning on a tap. Strange to say he always turned off the water when he had finished drinking. He seemed to thrive on water, and this never prevented his taking his milk as well.

John seemed to think that every one was delighted to see him, and he used to throw up the window whenever he was permitted.


It seems that John quickly became too much of a handful to keep at home, though. In 1921, his owners arranged for him to go to a park in Florida that would be a more suitable environment for their dear boy. According to Cunningham, though, they found out after the contract had been signed that they had been duped and John died in New York city in April of that year.

What Cunningham neglected to report was that John had been sold to the Ringling Brothers Circus for a substantial sum. It was shortly after his arrival in New York (often attributed to a broken heart) that John Daniel died.

This is not the end of John Daniel's story, however. Gorillas were a rare commodity, and the question after his death was "Who is to have the body of John Daniel?" The circus had an arrangement with the American Museum of Natural History that specimens of interest would be given over the the museum when the animals died. In fact, anatomist William K. Gregory had the foresight to put in a special bid for John Daniel in case of the worst, which quickly came to pass.

It was the AMNH staff that would have the dubious honor of dissecting the famous gorilla, and the magazine Natural History noted that the skin of John Daniel would be mounted at the museum. (Whether the remains of John Daniel can still be seen on display, I do not know. I will have to make inquiries the next time I visit the museum.) The Medical Herald took some macabre glee in the proceedings;

A Note On Our Ancestry? -- John Daniel, gorilla, recently dead and neatly cut up, is studied by neurologists, orthopedists, dentists, dermatologists and others. More than a dozen surgeons dissect the body after the skin had been stuffed. They say the brain and vermiform appendix are about the same as in the man. They might have added that like many millions of men, the gorilla used his brain about as much as he did his vermiform appendix!

The remains of John appeared in academic journals, as well, but I have to wonder if John might have met a different fate. It was not just the circus that was interested in him; the ethologist and psychologist Robert Yerkes was trying to obtain great apes to study around this time, and was interested in John. He did not have the money to purchase him, as he had spent almost everything he had ($2,000) on a male bonobo (Chim) and a female chimpanzee (Panzee) from a private collector a few years earlier. A friend of Yerkes and ape-collector from Cuba, Madam Abreu, had bid for John, but even with her wealth she could not match the money offered by the circus.

Like "Consul," John also lent his name to a successor. In 1923 Miss Cunningham obtained another gorilla named Sultan, who was billed as John Daniel II. He went on tour throughout America and Europe with the help of Ringling Brothers, but under the close supervision of his owner. He died in 1927.

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It surprises me that people were perfectly content to let their great apes expire instead of figuring out ways to let them live longer. Of course John Daniel didn't eat much- human food is completely inappropriate for a gorilla- and that almost certainly contributed to his short lifespan.

Synapse; Most people simply did not know how to properly care for apes. Beyond the poor dietary choices, these tropical animals were often kept in cold, wet places like London. Little was known about them in the wild, and even less about keeping them alive in captivity, and a combination of long journeys across the sea, separation from social groups, poor diet, colder climates, etc. all combined to cause the deaths of many of these animals.

Hello -

Interesting piece. Believe it or not, I am writing a history of the primate trade in colonial Gabon, and want to know much more about this case. I suspect I know who brought the chimp from Gabon, but would love to get in touch with you to learn more about this case...

By Jeremy Rich (not verified) on 07 Oct 2009 #permalink

This is quite an amazing story. I didn´t know anything until I found an old photo of him and decided to look him up on the internet. He´s quite adorable but looks quite sad.
Thanks, now I know why this photo has his name on it and learned something in the process.

By Guðlaug (not verified) on 07 Aug 2011 #permalink

Hi, Just had this breought to my attention, My Mother was his keeper, she went to the zoo most days and had a tea party with him in a cage, there is a photo of this somewhere, because i have seen it. Have been trying to get hold of it. He also lived with her. He died of a broken heart because he was separated from her, not his owner.

By geraldine (not verified) on 28 Jan 2012 #permalink