CINCINNATI — It was an extraordinary event for the Cincinnati Zoo: a commemorative service for King Tut, a 38-year-old, 450-pound gorilla that had lived in the zoo since 1952. He had been captured wild in Africa.
When he died Oct. 6 after dental surgery, zoo officials quickly called the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, which long has wanted the carcass of a dominant male gorilla for display purposes. A deal had been struck in 1975 that, upon the death of King Tut, the carcass would go to the L.A. museum.
Now, King Tut's carcass is in a freezer in Los Angeles, awaiting the skinning process, and a lot of people in Cincinnati are angry. They want their beloved gorilla kept and honored in their hometown. Why shouldn't he be put on display here? they ask. Here, he had sired four offspring and is considered the patriarch of the zoo's gorilla family (there have been 23 since 1970), and is widely admired by the populace. In Los Angeles, he means nothing to the public, they say.
The Cincinnati City Council passed a unanimous resolution seeking the return of King Tut's remains for suitable display.
So the zoo, feeling some pressure, realized the public felt a friend had died. And it had to somehow acknowledge that grieving. Last week's commemorative service along with the planting of a dogwood tree near the Gorilla World outdoor exhibit, was the way.
Before about 35 people, zoo director Edward Maruska said, "We all certainly will miss this animal. The king is dead, long live the king," and he reiterated he had made the right decision in letting King Tut leave. "Tut left a heritage in Cincinnati, but he left it in his offspring."
Meanwhile in Los Angeles, museum officials wait for the outcry to pass and hope Cincinnatians will realize the gorilla will be part of a first-class exhibition.
"I can understand why there would be strong feelings about keeping him in Cincinnati," said Peter Keller, the museum's associate director for public programs. "But we're pretty famous around the world for our animal dioramas. The gorilla will figure prominently in our rain forest section, and Cincinnati will take credit."
For almost 15 years, the museum has wanted to include a "big, mature male" gorilla in its African exhibit, said Tim Bovard, museum taxidermist.
"They are long-lived and don't always die in good condition," Bovard said. "An animal like that is invaluable. He has a real nice coat of hair." Indeed, Bovard flew to Cincinnati the night of the gorilla's death, and brought the wrapped and crated carcass back to Los Angeles the next day on a commercial flight.
The museum is now proceeding with a $750,000 renovation of its animal dioramas, including the rain forest where King Tut is to be displayed. Keller estimates it will be finished in 1989.
While King Tut spent much of his life in a cage inside the zoo's ape house, he moved outdoors in 1978. Then the zoo opened its $4-million outdoor Gorilla World exhibit and King Tut dominated it. He also dominated the zoo's other 18 gorillas. Whenever the animal would slowly emerge from his cave, his silver back sparkling, younger and smaller gorillas would scurry away.
"They have respect for him," said Gertrude Meyer, 70, a long-time zoo visitor who presented the city with a 170-name petition protesting the gorilla's sudden departure.
"You have to admire anyone who gets respect in his old age. They could have kept him here." Besides, she said, "what's to say with all the earthquakes (in Los Angeles), he won't go down the drain eventually?
"I hear they're going to have a plaque that says the people of Cincinnati have given him to the museum. The people? What did the people have to say about it?"
Meanwhile, there was other opposition. Even some of the zoo's 900 volunteer workers, such as Hope Nettleton, complained publicly about King Tut's departure to Los Angeles.
Zoo director Maruska acknowledged that he should have foreseen this backlash. And, he said, he has a difficult time as a scientist trying to respond to it.
"Scientifically, we made the right decision," Maruska said. "Emotionally, we may not have. But we have to go with science.
"There would be nothing gained by bringing him back. We'd probably have him on display in a glass case and then put him in a back room, carted out every once in a while."
Perhaps, if there may be a compromise in this, it might be in the suggestion of Cincinnati City Councilman Guy Guckenberger. He sponsored the resolution calling for King Tut's return. If that's not possible or in the best interest of science, Guckenberger said, maybe he could just come back now and then for a visit.