Zoo Memories: Massa Was My Art Class Model

The sad and questionable killing of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, brings back old memories. Long ago, we students from the Philadelphia Museum College of Art had a favorite class. In the late 1940s, it was our weekly gathering by the cages at the Philadelphia Zoo.

We’d stay for hours to do drawings, paintings and pastel portraits of the animals. Some we considered our friends, and we’d greet and talk to them as we worked at our easels. We boasted that some recognized us as art students, and sat quietly for their portraits. We offered some quiet, friendly companionship, unlike the usual laughing, gesturing and yelling by other young zoo visitors.

Our favorite was Massa, a 400-pound lowland gorilla who first arrived at the zoo in 1931 as a little one-year-old. He was nearly 20 during our visits, a huge, powerful silverback with a very expressive face and soulful eyes.

It may have been just my own wishful illusion, but I believed he knew me and appreciated my weekly visits. I always spoke softly to him while I did my assignments in various media. And when I finished and turned my easel for him to see the result, he looked at it in what seemed to be quiet appreciation.

Naturally, I was sad that he had to spend his life in a cage, but appreciated the opportunity to spend time with Massa. Generations of art students and other visitors enjoyed visiting the big gorilla. Massa died in 1984, and at age 54, was the longest living gorilla in world zoological history.

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