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Gorillas in our Midst

Being a celebrity gorilla isn't easy. But with the help of a posh new African-style habitat, a new flame, and his family, the Bronx Zoo's Timmy is getting his life together.

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He could have just bought a Harley -- after all, he's got the opposable thumbs. Four of them, virtually. Vroom, vroom, vroom, vroom. Or he could have dated some pretty young thing, grown a ponytail, taken up heli-snowboarding or maybe Tae-Bo. But instead, when Timmy turned 40 earlier this year, he headed off any impending mid-life crisis in a way fellow New Yorkers should appreciate: He got fab new digs. Timmy (his real name) is about to move into splendid living quarters that are sure to be the envy of the 340 other gorillas currently residing elsewhere in North America. The $43 million, 50,000-square-foot space includes what zoo officials describe as "private bedrooms" and a "penthouse" (actually enclosed alcoves off the main habitat), plus lots of rope-and-urethane vines on which their "tough clients" can swing toward solitude. And it's roomy enough to accommodate not just Timmy but eighteen of his friends, rivals, children -- even current and former lovers (okay: Triska, Holli, Huerfanita, Pattycake, Tunuka, and Paki; these are invasive times).

"It's somewhat idealistic and romantic," says John Gwynne, the Wildlife Conservation Society's director for design, "but this city is about options, and we're trying to give the gorillas options."

The Congo Gorilla Forest, opening June 24 at the Bronx Zoo, is a landmark achievement for the WCS, and sure to be a huge draw. (In terms of gorilla consciousness-raising, its only real competition this summer is Disney's Tarzan, and the WCS rain forest has at least one distinct advantage: no Phil Collins songs.) With its fluid design and cunning interactive and educational exhibits (visitors can choose which WCS program their $3 entrance fee is donated to), Congo Gorilla Forest moves persuasively in two directions: back toward the conservationists and scientists in central Africa who are working to save endangered wildlife, and out toward the zoo visitor, who in all likelihood has never seen gorillas in such unconfined yet intimate quarters.

And not just gorillas. Also okapis, red river hogs, Wolf's and DeBrazza's monkeys, mandrills, pythons, hornbills, various fishes and insects, and, while supplies last, some incongruous and rather alarmed-looking squirrels, chipmunks, and starlings, who even before the new tenants had completely moved in were looking a tad baffled -- Equatorial rain forest? But we just got off the Cross-Bronx! Do you remember any signs for Ghana? They might as well be wearing tiny lapel buttons that say eat me -- i'm indigenous.

At six and a half acres, the project represents a significant chunk of revitalized city real estate, a great, trendy new neighborhood in the Bronx: ConGo, anyone? But it also marks a watershed moment in the life of Timmy, an amiable Western lowland gorilla (G. gorilla gorilla). Born in Cameroon in 1959, Timmy moved in the early sixties to Memphis and then to Cleveland. He lived there until 1991, when the lure of a more swinging gorilla singles scene in the Bronx proved irresistible.

In Cleveland, Timmy's dismal social life was a litany of heartbreak. Yogi had found him too young; Emmy, too old. And Kate -- well, that was a close and loving relationship, but any hope of progeny was undone by Kate's blocked fallopian tubes. So Timmy (was) moved on. His eastward-bound caravan was met by animal-rights activists in full protest mode (the chief grievance -- sundered lovers wrenched from one another's long, hairy arms, etc. -- overlooked the fact that gorillas are not monogamous). Controversy gave way to voyeurism as Timmy hit the Big Apple and instantly became tabloid fodder. The entire city knew why he was here -- to bonk as many females of his species as he possibly could -- and that had to be tough for a shy guy from Cleveland who happened to weigh 430 pounds. The fishbowl component was even evident in a May 1992 zoo press release: "Timmy, the lowland gorilla on loan from Cleveland's Metroparks Zoo, has been observed mating for the first time since arriving at the Bronx Zoo, New York Zoological Society officials announced this afternoon." Who can blame Timmy for wanting to draw the curtain, or at least withdraw into some shrubbery? Beginning now, he can do it in style.


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