Having worked for circuses, I've had many exciting encounters with
animals. However my first truly hands-on experience with animals came
when I was a young boy, years before my future career as an

It was the spring of 1980. I was in the final
stages of a cold that kept me out of school for a couple of days. On
this day my Mom had called the school to excuse my younger brother as

As we both sat around the house questioning why we were
home, we saw Dad rustling about with an old map. The only other time Id
seen this map was years before when wed taken a trip to the Milwaukee
Zoo. I only remembered 3 things from that trip; the map, where we went,
and Samson the Gorilla. Samson was the largest Lowland Gorilla in
captivity and was quite the spectacle to behold.

Mom & Dad
told us to get dressed and meet them at the car. They wouldnt say where
we were going. During the long drive I asked if we were heading to the
zoo. I explained my theory about the map and they laughed at the
prospect of a map that only led to the Milwaukee Zoo. Sure enough, the
zoo was our destination.

Mom suggested that we see everything
once, then in our remaining time go back to our favorite spots. This
proved to be a great idea, giving us a chance to fully enjoy everything
we saw.

During our first tour wed encountered the mighty Samson, still mugging
for cameras, still demanding attention from the crowd, still massive in
size. Since our last visit, hed been put on a strict diet making him a
svelte 550 pounds as opposed to the 650+ he was before.

was most taken with Samson. He admired the size and grace that such an
animal possessed & would often comment about how dainty Samson was
when eating, taking the time to pull out one grape from the large pile
of food & eating it as if it were a delightful bonbon. We were all
in awe of the gorilla.

The day became increasingly warmer and my
cold had all but disappeared. Towards the days end Dad went back to the
gorillas while Mom took us back for one last penguin visit.

time approached all too quickly. We expected to find Dad reading a book
in an empty gorilla house. What we found was Dad chatting away with one
of the zoos animal handlers, a middle-aged Italian man.

introduced us to the man, Samsons personal caretaker since the gorilla
was a baby. He had fantastic stories and information that you couldnt
get from the signs on the walls.

As closing time approached,
the handler took a quick look around the and whispered to Dad, Are you
alone? Dad nodded. The man then whispered something in Italian meaning,
come here. We followed Dad and the handler, not knowing what was
happening. Upon turning the corner the handler noticed a young couple
at a different exhibit. In a hurry he called to them, Come on folks,
you dont want to miss this. We came to a locked door which the handler

The other side of the door was a small white room,
barely big enough for all the people. The room became even smaller when
we bore witness to the largest Lowland Gorilla in captivity. Samson the
Gorilla was now standing a few feet away behind a wall of white bars.

in the room crashed to a halt. Nobody was breathing, moving or even
blinking we were so awestruck at the sight of him. Samson was THERE and
the only thing separating us from his grasp were those metal bars.

handler explained that Sammy couldnt get his arms through the bars and
it was safe for us to get a little closer. We kept our distance. He
told us about Samsons private sleeping quarters, the oranges specially
imported from overseas for him to eat - we got the exclusive tour." It
was hard to hear the handlers voice, my heart was beating so loudly.
This was amazing.

None of us could believe what we were privy
to, and it was all because Dad struck up a conversation with a total
stranger. The handler was petting the fingers of the great ape through
the bars.

At that moment, he asked if anyone had any food. The
mere mention of food caused Samson to let out a thunderous roar, an
unforgettable bellow that suggested a perverse sense of power and
strength. As we trembled with fear, Samson spit out a pile of empty
sunflower seeds hed been storing in his cheeks. The discarded shells
flopped to the ground. The trainer, unfazed, yelled, Sammy! Be nice!
Stop showing off! He explained Samson was posturing for our benefit.

Least it Was Sugarless!After a brief search Mom found in her purse a
package of Blammo bubble gum, an awful gum. It was nonetheless, a food
stuff that made Samson very happy. Samson saw the gum and began
screeching and roaring, throwing his body against the bars. The trainer
took the gum and scolded him the way a parent would a toddler, Now
Sammy, if you dont be nice you wont get your treat. Sammy sat down and
became quite coy and pleasant. The trainer took pieces of gum and fed
them directly into Samsons mouth.

After the first few pieces
were gobbled up I was handed half a stick of gum. Here ya go. Go on and
feed him if you want. I froze in disbelief. It is OK, he cant get at
you, said the trainer. Dad said, Go on, son. Its alright," as if HE
would know!

The handler gave me instructions of how to feed a
gorilla, Move slowly without putting your fingers through the bars.
When Samson opens his mouth place the gum on his lips and DONT put your
hand into his mouth, he said.

I crept towards Samson, looking
directly into his eyes, shaking uncontrollably. The trainer was quiet
and encouraging. When I got my hand a few inches from Samsons mouth, he
darted towards the bars and grunted loudly, frightening everyone. I
dropped the gum and attempted to run behind my Dads legs. Dad was
trying to hide behind Mom!

Sammy! Stop it, snapped the handler,
He knew you were scared. He was just joking with you. Great, a gorilla
with a sense of humor! The man insisted I try again. I bent over to
pick up the gum. Finding the gum on the floor Id noticed Samsons foot.
His foot was the size of my head! If I hadnt absorbed the enormity of
this creature yet, I surely gained the proper perspective then.

approached Samson and inched closer. As the gum neared his lips Samson
stuck out his bottom lip like a pouting child. I placed the gum on the
bottom lip and he slowly curled his lip back, easing the gum into his
mouth. Samson eased away from the bars and I backed up towards my
family, smiling from ear to ear.

The handler said it was time
for us to leave, confessing he really shouldnt have brought us there.
We were all extremely thankful for the experience and stayed there
thanking him. The other couple shook the mans hand and dashed off.

out of sight, the trainer interrupted our chatter, Ok, theyre goneLETS
GO! We were confused. Was there MORE to see? It seemed impossible the
trip could somehow improve. We followed once again.

The time
spent talking about sleeping quarters & imported oranges made more
sense as he took us to see those exact things. He intended to give us
tactile proof of every detail of Samsons life. He wanted us to see

The Last Surviving Samson OrangeHe showed us photos
of Samson from various segments of his life. We saw where Samsons meals
were prepared and we were each given two of the special oranges to take
home with us. Try em when you get home. Theyre simply the best youll
ever eat, he told us. We stuffed the oranges into our pockets.

handler took us down a staircase and around a corner. Once at the
bottom he switched on a light, revealing Samsons bachelor pad, the
private sleeping quarters. Samson was waiting for our arrival. We saw a
large hammock, an assortment of toys & a tire swing, but it was
nearly impossible to take any attention away from Samson.

handler threw oranges towards Samson. Samson caught them and devoured
them immediately, the juice splattering against his jaws. Handing some
oranges to my brother, Matt, he asked him toss a few towards the
gorilla, He can get his arms through these bars, so just toss em from
here, he said. Some oranges made it to their destination, but most of
them fell short, being thrown with a little less strength than my
brothers pitching arm would allow. Who could blame him? Who wants to
chance upsetting a gorilla by pelting him oranges?

The trainer
retrieved the errant oranges and fed them to Samson. Soon thereafter
things quieted in the room. We noticed Samson was very focused on the
hands of my brother, who had taken his souvenir oranges from his
pocket. Samson was very deliberately looking at Matts hands, then up to
Matts face, and back again to the hands, suggesting those oranges
belonged to HIM and Matt should part with them immediately.

man, noticing what was going on , stepped into Samsons sight line and
told Matt to put one of the oranges back in his pocket. He took the
remaining orange from my brother and gave it to the gorilla, explaining
that there was no more, Sammy. After that final orange was eaten, the
man urged us back upstairs.

We thanked him profusely for the special tour. He simply shrugged our gratitude off as if to say, twerent nothin.

have no idea what his conversation with my Dad was like prior to our
adventure and I still cant imagine why were so lucky on that spring
day. Dad explained he merely told the man how much we liked the zoo and
Samson. As near as we could figure, the handler took a liking to Dad
just for being Italian. Whatever the reason, we were treated to a most
unforgettable day.

We went home talking a mile a minute the
entire time. Once home, we enjoyed the delicious flavor of Samsons
oranges and relived the experience with each bite. I left one orange on
the kitchen table with the intention of bringing it to school for show
and tell.

The orange never made it into the fridge nor to
school. It was shuffled around from table to counter. As the days past
the orange went forgotten by me entirely. One day my Mother presented
me with a smaller, hardened orange, asking me if I wanted to put it
some place safe. Somehow the orange didnt rot or get moldy at all. It
simply shrunk and ossified, becoming a perfect souvenir. The orange is
completely in tact and remains in my possession.

Andy Reunited
With SamsonIn November of 1981 Samson the Gorilla died. I never got the
name of the trainer and have always meant to find out if he still
worked at the zoo, hoping to thank him again. A bronze statue of Samson
sits at the Milwaukee Zoo and his remains are on exhibit at the
Milwaukee Public Museum. Of course, no statue or display can compare to
the beauty of the actual creature and nothing can compete with memories
I have of that day.