Thursday, July 15, 2010

Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo & Bobo the Gorilla

You are looking at a very old postcard of Woodland Park Zoo. It can be no older than dating back to 1899, which is when the zoo opened.

A developer/mill owner named Guy C. Phinney had a small collection of animals on his estate, which he sold to the City of Seattle for $5,000. And the city's assumption of the property's $95,000 mortgage. Seattle's skinflint mayor vetoed the deal, but the city council over-ruled the veto.

Thus began Woodland Park Zoo.

In 1902 a Boston park design company called Olmstead Brothers were hired to design Seattle parks, including Woodland Park and its zoo.

Now, well over a century later, in July of 2010, Woodland Park Zoo has 92 acres of exhibits.

Currently, to enter Woodland Park Zoo, it costs $16.50 for adults. One is considered an adult at 13 at Woodland Park Zoo. And no longer an adult at 64. I assume at 64 one becomes a senior citizen and the entry fee is cheaper. For kids, 3-12, it'll cost you $11.00 to get them in the zoo. Two and under is free. Fees go down from October 1 til April 30, at $11.00 for adults and $8.00 for kids.

In Woodland Park Zoo you'll find 300 species, 1,090 animals, 35 of which are endangered and 5 of which are threatened. The park has over 1,000 plant species with 7,000 tree and over 50,000 herbs and shrubs.

Only New York's Bronx Zoo has won more Best National Exhibit Awards from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums than Woodland Park Zoo.

The Gorilla Exhibit at Woodland Park Zoo is considered to be the world's first immersion habitat, with an immersion habitat being one in which the exhibit replicates the animal's natural environment with the viewer feeling as if they are in that environment.

The African Savanna won a National Best Exhibit award. The African Savanna, like the Gorilla Exhibit, was another first of its kind. You enter the savanna through an African village, outside of which you'll find zebras, ostriches, giraffes, gazelles and hippopotamus. Hidden moats keep the herbivores separate from the carnivores, so as not to get eaten by the lions and African wild dogs.

The Northern Trail is another National Best Exhibit Award winner, winning when it opened in 1994. On the Northern Trail you walk through Tundra, Montane and Taiga habitats. The Northern Trail is designed to look like a trail in Denali National Park in Alaska. You'll find grizzly bears, wolves, foxes, mountain goats and bald eagles. The bears are particularly memorable as you view them from inside a cave which gives you an underwater view of the splashing bears.

Tropical Asia, opened in 1990, with the Elephant Forest section winning a National Best Exhibit Award. The Trail of Vines section of Tropical Asia takes you through Southeast Asian rainforest habitats, where some of the animals you'll see are Malayan tapirs, lion-tailed macaques, Indian pythons, orangutans and siamangs.

Tropical Rain Forest won a Best Exhibit Award when it opened in 1992. The Tropical Rain Forest is like a walk through a jungle canopy, following a trail as you view levels of the forest from underwater viewing of jaguars, to high in the forest with ocelots, bushmasters, toucans, tamarins and poison arrow frogs. And outside trails leads to other rain forest species, like lemurs and colubus monkeys, eventually taking you to the Gorilla Exhibit.

Bobo the Gorilla

The most famous animal ever to call Woodland Park Zoo home was Bobo the Gorilla. In the era before professional sports came to town, before the Seattle World's Fair, before Seattle became the tourist attraction it is today, Bobo was one of the most visited attractions in the Pacific Northwest.

Bobo was born in Africa in 1951. A hunter named William "Gorilla Bill" Said murdered Bobo's mom when Bobo was only about 2 weeks old. Said was unable to sell Bobo to any zoo, what with Bobo being the youngest gorilla ever captured.

Gorilla Bill took Bobo back to his home in Columbus, Ohio where his mother tried to take over the job of the mother Gorilla Bill had murdered. A few months later a fisherman from Anacortes, named Bill Lowman, bought Bobo from Gorilla Bill.

Bobo was driven from Ohio to Anacortes where he moved in with the Lowmans. Soon Bobo became famous in the Skagit Valley. The Lowmans raised Bobo like he was a human baby. But, by the time Bobo was about 2 years old he'd become quite a handful, wreaking havoc on the Lowman's home.

In 1953 the Lowmans sold Bobo to Woodland Park Zoo, where he quickly became the star attraction. It was due to Bobo, and people not liking the primitive primate house in which Bobo lived, that public support was sufficient to pass a big bond issue to build a new gorilla habitat and basically turn Woodland Park Zoo into the multiple award winning zoo it is today.

Bobo never forgot the Lowmans, always recognizing them when they came to visit.

In 1956 Bobo met Fifi. Fifi quickly attached herself to Bobo. There was great hope that Bobo and Fifi would mate and make little Bobos and Fifis. But, that never happened, to the great disapointment of the public and the zookeepers.

Seattle and the Pacific Northwest were shocked on February 22, 1968 to learn that Bobo was found dead in his cage. A great controversy, that has never been resolved, arose over what killed Bobo. An autopsy claimed the cause of death was a pulmonary embolism. Bobo's corpse was mistreated, his head removed and lost.

Bobo died before he could move into the new natural habitat that he helped bring about. I don't remember what became of Fifi.


Steve A said...

Bobo's head was recovered by the Burke Museum in 2007. Apparently the autopsy doctor kept it until he died. Fifi went to Honolulu, but died childless in 1978. For the Fifi story, go to

I miss them both. You remember zoo keys?

Durango Northwest said...

I wondered about Fifi. Visiting Bobo and Fifi was always the best part of going to Woodland Park Zoo. That and that corny carnival with cheap rides.

Are zoo keys what you put in a slot in a box, turned the key, and you'd hear a narration about an exhibit?

Steve A said...

Yup. Those zoo keys were made of plastic and I recall looked like elephants. Speaking of which, I hope you'll do future posts on the Elephant Car Wash and the Lincoln "Toe Truck."

Betty Jo Bouvier said...

We knew Bill Lowman, quite a guy. He gave a presentation on Bobo at a meeting we attended. Super interesting. Bill said he would never have tried to raise Bobo if he knew the heart break when he had to take him to the zoo. Bobo was part of his family (Bill,his mother & two daughters), ate pancakes or hamburgers just whatever the family ate, not the healthiest for a gorilla. Bobo was potty trained and wore pajamas or clothing, and played tea party with Bill's two daughters. Bobo was sad and the family was sad when Bobo went to the zoo. Bill's mother went to the zoo and stayed for awhile (in a back room) as Bobo was pretty much like a son to her. Bill had to finally go and get his mother and make her go back to Anacortes. Sad.

Durango Northwest said...

Thanks for the Bobo info Betty Jo!

Holly Hagan said...

All the animals in the zoo are jumping up and down for you. hoping you'll be sure to plan to visit the zoo as soon as you can. Story books that really talk you turn on with a key. Hoping you'll be sure to like the animals you see. Story books and zoo keys together guide you through - tell fascinating things about the animals at the zoo!!!!

Heidi Henken (Bobo's "cousin") said...

Bobo now has a facebook page - look up Bobo the Gorilla on facebook or
The page is administered by a representative of the Lowman family and includes previously unpublished excerpts about Bobo from family notes and diaries. We hope you'll "like" Bobo on facebook!

Heidi Henken said...

Startling, previously undisclosed clues to the untimely death of Bobo, Seattle’s iconic gorilla, are contained in recently rediscovered audio-taped interviews with people who knew Bobo best, according to Lowman family member, Heidi Henken, who is currently conducting a fund-raising appeal on ( to turn the tapes into an audiobook.

The tapes include personal conversations with Bill Lowman, the Anacortes, Washington, fisherman who bought Bobo as an infant in 1951 from an Ohio-based game hunter, with Jean Lowman, Bill Lowman’s mother, who became Bobo’s surrogate mother for his early life, and with Pat Pichette, the adult Bobo’s final keeper at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle.

The zoo purchased the young gorilla from the Lowmans in December, 1953, when Bobo became too strong for them to keep in their home. Bobo died in 1968, at an age considered young for a lowland gorilla, and questions have continued to surround his death.

“The interviews were originally recorded in the late 1980s and early 1990s as background material for a possible future book about Bobo,” says Henken. “Recently I cleared out my storage, rediscovered the tapes, listened to them and realized they were something special. The people I interviewed have since passed on, and this is the last opportunity to hear them tell this fascinating story in their own voices.”

The interview with Pichette is particularly surprising, according to Henken. “He was the one who found Bobo’s body,” she says, “and he was the one who had been caring for Bobo during the weeks immediately preceding his death. But no one had ever interviewed him before. What he tells me on the tape about Bobo’s behavior in the days leading up to his death is absolutely astonishing.”

Henken is attempting to raise $7,900 by October 31 in her fundraising appeal.

“I have an agreement with local audiobook company, Open Book, to publish the tapes,” she says, “but they were originally recorded on a small cassette player and they need a lot of work to bring them up to current publication standards. Digitization, audio clean-up, editing, and formatting, is surprisingly time-consuming and expensive.

“I know there are a lot of people out there still interested in Bobo, and I’m asking Bobo’s friends and fans to please donate to support completion of this project.”

Bobo’s remains are now in the permanent collection of the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle (MOHAI). “I also have an agreement, as part of this project, to supply clips from the tapes to MOHAI, to be included in the Bobo exhibit,” Henken adds, “so your support of this project will also benefit the museum.”