My, how you've grown: Zoo keeper and gorilla reunited 20 years after he reared him in his bedroom
Ron Smith, 82, and late wife Barbara raised gorilla Salome by handSalome slept in a cot in Mr and Mrs Smith's bedroom for her first yearRon was reunited with the ape for the first time in 20 years at Bristol Zoo
00:07 GMT, 21 December 2012
When a mother gorilla failed to bond with her baby daughter, zoo-keeper Ron Smith and his wife Barbara were quick to volunteer as foster parents.
The couple, who had no children of their own, looked after Salome for the first year of her life, giving her a cot in their bedroom.
Thirteen years later, in 1990, Mr Smith bade an emotional farewell to the ape when he was made redundant at the age of 60. Two years later she was transferred from London Zoo to Bristol.
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Reunited: Retired zookeeper Ron Smith gets emotional as he visits Salome, pictured as a baby with Ron, at Bristol Zoo
Visit: Ron Smith pictured next to the gorilla pen at Bristol Zoo, home to Salome for 20 years. Ron had been deputy curator of the ape house at London Zoo when the ape was born
But he still thinks of her as ‘my
baby’ and this year, as a Christmas present to himself, the 82-year-old
widower travelled 200 miles from his home in Ipswich for a poignant
He sobbed as he saw Salome, now a
36-year-old mother of three, emerge from behind a bush with her
one-year-old son Kukena clinging to her leg. She stared at Mr Smith for a
few seconds before attending to her son.
‘She looks really well,’ said Mr
Smith. ‘It’s so nice to see her. I am choked.’ Salome’s story was
reported by the Daily Mail in August 1976, when she became the first
gorilla born at London Zoo. Her mother, Lomie, struggled from the start
to rear her daughter. She was not feeding her properly and became
increasingly irritable, with two scars on Salome’s head to prove it.
Now: Mr Smith watched as Salome, pictured at Bristol Zoo this week, played with her own one-year-old son Kukena
Sentimental: Ron hadn't seen the gorilla since she moved to Bristol Zoo in 1992 and became emotional as he watched Salome in her enclosure
So Mr Smith, who was second in
command of the Ape House, took Salome back to his flat in Cricklewood
every evening for the next year until she grew into a strong and healthy
He and his wife took turns to wake up
in the night and feed her every three hours from a baby’s bottle filled
with warm, diluted, evaporated milk.
John Partridge, senior curator of
animals at Bristol, saluted Mr Smith and his wife, who died in 2008, for
doing such a good job as foster parents.
‘Salome is a brilliant mother and that
is all down to this guy,’ he said. ‘She has had babies, rears them
herself and is a strong member of the family. All that is down to how
she was reared.’
Hand-reared: Tiny baby Salome pictured in a cot with a rattle at Ron Smith's house in the 1970s. She used to sleep in the same bedroom as Ron and wife Barbara
Zoo keeper: Ron pictured weighing Salome while working at London Zoo in the 1970s. he would care for the animal at the zoo during the day and take her home at night
Lynsey Bugg, assistant curator of
mammals, said: ‘I do not think she necessarily knew who Ron was but
there was a definite recognition of familiarity. He’s done such a good
job. She’s an amazing animal in terms of teaching other members of the
group about mothering.
‘To see the man who made it all
possible is magical. The whole team have loved having Ron here and will
continue to keep in touch with him.’
As Mr Smith left dabbing his eyes, he called back to the zoo-keepers: ‘Look after my Sali for me.’
And on the long journey home, he said:
‘This will stay in my memory. I am overwhelmed. It has been a wonderful
day – the best. Salome was a big part of our life. We never had
children so she was special.'
Current home: The Gorilla Island enclosure at Bristol Zoo. The zoo is home to seven Western Lowland Gorillas
VIDEO Salome with baby at Bristol zoo
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