New Year’s Day 1951.
Time magazine had called him “the best known and most popular civic figure in Chicago.” Now he was dead, and the city mourned.
His name was Bushman. He was a gorilla.
Bushman was a two-year-old, 38-pound baby when he was brought to Lincoln Park Zoo in 1930. He had been purchased from a West African missionary for $3,500. Gorillas were still a rarity in America, and Bushman was soon drawing crowds.
Things were pretty casual in the beginning. Visitors to the zoo would often see Bushman and his keeper tossing a football around on the park lawn. But as the gorilla grew bigger and less docile, he had to be kept locked in his cage. Bushman eventually topped out at 6'2" and 547 pounds.
Despite living his life in captivity, Bushman had a sunny disposition. He was gentle to the mice he might catch and he never attacked a keeper. Reclining in his cage, he munched grapes like a Roman emperor while downing endless quarts of milk. School children loved him. On his birthday he always received a cake or three from some class on a field trip.
The Lord of Lincoln Park became the most famous zoo animal in the country. Bushman was featured in magazines and newsreels, on t-shirts and postcards. Like any celebrity, he sometimes lost patience with the paparazzi, and would throw food at photographers. “He got a kick out of seeing them scatter,” his keeper laughed.
In the summer of 1950, Bushman suffered a heart attack. At 22 he was not very old for a gorilla and had always been in excellent health. When news got out that he might be dying, Chicagoans rushed to the zoo. In one week, over a quarter million people filed silently past his cage.
By October Bushman had recovered. He seemed his old self. One day he managed to get out of his cage and roamed through the ape house for over three hours. Nobody could convince him to end his vacation. Then he saw a garter snake and retreated to safety.
On New Year's Morning 1951, one of the keepers found Bushman dead in his cage. This time the heart attack had been fatal. The news of his passing was reported on the front pages of all the city's newspapers.
After an autopsy Bushman's body was stuffed. Today he is in permanent residence at the Field Museum.