SCOTT SIMON, Host:
There were flowers, tears and grief over two deaths at the National Zoo this week. Kuja, a lowland gorilla who was 23 years old, died while surgeons were trying to implant an electrical device to strengthen his ailing heart.
He was born in the Memphis Zoo and has lived at the National Zoo since 1985. He was the father of 6-year-old Kwame and Kojo, who's four.
Just three days later, zoo workers took another gorilla, known as Mopie, into the quarters in which Kuja's family grouping lives, hoping that Kwame and Kojo would attach themselves to a new male. But Mopie collapsed and died. He was 34 and had a weak heart, but was not considered at immediate risk. An autopsy is being conducted and it may take weeks.
Mopie and I have a personal link. My family goes to the zoo every few days, and they know a man who does not want to be identified - so we'll just call him Ron - who spent most every day with Mopie for the past four years. Ron was strolling through the zoo one day when he and Mopie locked eyes. Some extraordinary understanding seemed to pass between them that surpassed what were, to say the least, obvious differences.
Ron came to the zoo each day with a folding chair and sat by Mopie, whom he called the great one. Mopie would come by the bars or glass and crouch beside Ron. If Ron didn't come on a given day, Mopie looked anxious and lonely. A worker at the zoo said simply, they were soulmates.
People who love animals often have wildly opposing thoughts about zoos. They cherish zoos for giving them the chance to see animals. They can also resent zoos for confining the animals they come to know. When Ron went to the zoo to be with Mopie right after Kuja's death, he said it was hard for him to see casual visitors expect the gorillas to swing from tree limbs and eat bananas and oranges.
The gorillas were in mourning. They needed to grieve.
Ron now says he won't come back to the zoo. He sent us an email that said, I was sitting on my porch yesterday and the great one came to me. He said he's now become the wind and he can go anywhere and everywhere he wants at any time. He said when I see the wind moving the leaves, it is him waving to me and I should smile his gorilla smile when that happens. Now I am the one in the cage. It was a privilege and pleasure that I never understood, but I always knew from the beginning it would end badly. How else could these things end?
Those are the words of a man who was hurt and grieving. All lifetime loves end in death. We just hope that the love those of us who suffered loss of known can heal our hearts and open them to love again.
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