The Day the Great Apes Died: The Legacy of the 1995 Philadelphia Zoo Fire
Twenty-five years ago, the tragedy at the World of Primates building broke the city’s heart and raised a loaded question: What, exactly, do we owe the animals in our care?
It was Christmas Eve — December 24, 1995 — and it had snowed in Philadelphia, big soft flakes floating through wintry skies and drifting to the ground to form a blanket of white. Snow covered the weathered rowhouses, the broad highways and crooked little streets, and, in West Philly, the winding paths and darkened outbuildings of the nation’s oldest zoo, where hundreds of creatures were fast asleep. Nearly two hours earlier, the pair of guards keeping watch over the slumbering animals had duly made their rounds despite the weather. They’d smelled smoke, but that wasn’t unusual; the zoo’s 42 acres pressed up close against an Amtrak rail yard where fires always seemed to be burning. The guards didn’t bother doing anything about it this time.
On the cusp of a new year, beneath the snow, the sleeping city was undergoing a transformation. Four years earlier, New York City transplant Ed Rendell had been elected mayor, stepping confidently into the morass of a $250 million deficit and the most dismal credit rating of any city in the nation. His first term in office was being chronicled by Buzz Bissinger in what would become the book A Prayer for the City; Al Gore would anoint Rendell “America’s Mayor” for the fiscal miracle he worked to bring Philly back from the dead. None of that, of course, was known to the dozing elephants, the lions curled up in the darkness, the flamingos with their heads tucked tight, adeptly snoozing on one leg.
The zoo, too, was on the verge of a transfiguration. The past few years had been filled with turmoil. Longtime zoo president Bill Donaldson had died of pancreatic cancer in 1991 at age 60, and the national search for his successor was lengthy before the board settled late in 1992 on Alexander “Pete” Hoskins, a former director of the Fairmount Park Commission and city streets commissioner who had no zoo experience but lots of big ideas. There was a $1.5 million deficit looming for the year; several longtime employees who’d had disagreements with Hoskins had left. There had been an embezzlement investigation. In 1993, a plumbing disaster had fatally scalded 16 turtles with hot water.
But things were looking up. Hoskins had already raised $9 million in his capital campaign for expansion and renovation. And in mid-December, he’d proudly informed the board that the zoo had snagged a grant from the William Penn Foundation that would let his plans move full steam ahead.
The newest building on the grounds at the moment was the World of Primates, completed a decade before at a cost of $6 million. It housed 23 of man’s closest genetic relatives — a six-member gorilla family, a three-member orangutan group, four gibbons and 10 lemurs, all endangered species. It was equipped with smoke alarms but had no sprinkler system; the city’s fire regulations didn’t require one. A warning horn atop the building was, at the moment, covered with snow.
Not long after midnight on Christmas Eve, the guards on duty — Edith Henry, a seven-year veteran, and Joe Villaloz, who’d been with the zoo for 17 years — glimpsed flames atop the World of Primates. Henry tried to call the fire department from her zoo-issued cell phone but couldn’t locate a required access code. Finally, a call went through, and the fire department responded with a “full box”: four engines, two ladder trucks and two battalion chiefs. Once on the scene, Engine 44 Lieutenant James Mullin would report “a pretty good fire” in the ceiling of the World of Primates. The firefighters went to work.
Andrew “Andy” Baker, then in his mid-30s, was the curator of primates for the zoo, responsible for overseeing the crew of keepers who tended to their daily needs. He remembers getting a call that Christmas Eve from somebody — he’s not sure who — on the public safety staff: “I only lived 15 or 20 minutes away at the time,” he says, “so I headed in immediately. I didn’t get any details on the phone.” He expected something minor — maybe a trash-can fire. But when he arrived, “It was immediately clear the situation was really, really bad. The fire department was there. I was in a state of shock. It’s hard for me to remember details.”
Baker made an impression on Battalion 11 Chief John McGuire. In a 1997 article in Firehouse, a magazine for fire and rescue professionals, McGuire said he was glad when the primate curator arrived, but added, “He was very upset and acted like we were intruding. … We were just there to help, but he was quite disturbed over our presence.” He also told the magazine how concerned he was about what his men might encounter inside the dark, smoke-filled site of the fire on this cold night: “I wondered whether we might have animals climbing out.” (In the same article, Lieutenant Mullin recalled hearing someone shout, “This is the gorilla house!” in the confusion but didn’t realize it was meant literally.) Despite the havoc and misunderstandings, the fire took only half an hour to put out.
Like Baker, Pete Hoskins learned of the zoo emergency via a phone call from security personnel. He, too, rushed to the scene, where he met Baker and the zoo’s vice president for animal management, Karl Kranz. What they found was devastating. Hoskins would later tell conservationist Jeffrey P. Bonner, for a book called Sailing With Noah: Stories From the World of Zoos, that the first animal he saw once they were let into the affected building was a female Bornean orangutan, Rita, cradling her three-year-old daughter, Jingga Gula (“orange sugar” in Malay): “They looked so comfortable, so peaceful — almost as though they had died in their sleep, not in struggle, but in repose. … [T]hey looked just as they would have if I had tiptoed in to look at them in the middle of the night.” John, the zoo’s 450-pound silverback western lowland gorilla, was found with his nose pressed to the bottom of his cage. He didn’t sleep that way; it was as if he’d sensed that something was wrong.
The lead keeper of the gorillas, Julie Unger Smith, was staying at the home of her fiancé’s family for the holidays when Andy Baker called her that night. For a 1999 history of the zoo by local journalist Clark DeLeon, she recalled that Baker “just said, ‘Julie, something bad has happened. … ’ I knew he couldn’t be calling to say that one of the moats was overflowing or a rail broke. I knew someone had died. I absolutely knew. But I knew it was an animal.” She went on:
I just couldn’t comprehend what he said. He said, “There was a fire and … all the animals died at the World of Primates.” And it’s so goofy now, but I remember saying, “All of the gorillas?” And he said yes. And I went through all the species. “All the orangutans?” And he said yes. “All the gibbons?” And he said yes. All the lemurs …
Twenty-three endangered primates, the youngest an 11-month-old female gorilla named Maandazi, died that night. It was by far the worst tragedy ever to occur at an American zoo.
Archetypal zoos go back in time as far, at least, as the ancient Egyptians, who displayed exotic creatures — hippopotamuses, wildcats, baboons — in cages. Kings Nebuchadnezzar and Solomon collected wild animals; so did Alexander the Great. Charlemagne had an elephant named Abul-Abbas; England’s King Henry I is reputed to have kept leopards and camels at his country estate. In the 1790s in Philadelphia, John Bill Ricketts — there’s a historical marker for him at 12th and Market — put on circuses for the citizenry featuring equestrian acts and animal handlers. When then-president Thomas Jefferson dispatched Lewis and Clark westward in 1804, he hoped the expedition might find mastadons still living in the wild.
But the modern zoo — that is, a place where animals are curated and studied, rather than just gawked at and exploited — was a product of the Age of Enlightenment. Spurred by the opening of the London Zoo in 1847, members of Philadelphia’s intellectual and scientific elite proposed a zoological garden here, in the young nation’s capital. The Pennsylvania state legislature approved a bill establishing a nonprofit charter for the Zoological Society of Philadelphia in 1859, but the Civil War delayed the project, so it wasn’t until July 1, 1874, that the doors finally opened, presaging the city’s wildly successful 1876 Centennial celebration. The land the Zoological Society had procured, in Fairmount Park, contained a boxy two-story home, the Solitude, that had been built in 1785 by William Penn’s reclusive grandson, John Penn; it’s still there today.
On the zoo’s opening day, some 3,000 visitors trooped through the elaborate gates designed by Frank Furness and onto the grounds to see several hundred captive animals — monkeys, eagles, deer, alligators, even a grizzly bear. There was a prairie dog village and a beaver pond; flags were flying, and brass bands played. Admission was 25 cents for grown-ups and 10 cents for kids; a lifetime membership cost 50 bucks.
If you grew up anywhere near Philly, you surely rode a big yellow school bus to the zoo for a field trip at some point. Chances are you remember the giant tortoises (we saw them mating once — ew!); if you’re old enough, you recall the way the old Carnivore House that held the big cats smelled (Rocky proposed to Adrian here in Rocky II) and the goats and sheep you could pet in the Children’s Zoo. If you were there prior to 2009, you remember the elephants as well, their trunks swaying in the dusty yard outside the Pachyderm House designed by renowned architect Paul Philippe Cret, which opened in 1941. (His other works include the Ben Franklin Parkway, the Rodin Museum and Rittenhouse Square.) Today, that house is an award-winning children’s exhibit, KidZooU, that debuted in 2013, after the zoo’s African elephants, Kallie and Bette, and lone Asian elephant, Dulary, were removed to roomier quarters in central Pennsylvania and Tennessee amid pressure from animal rights groups concerned for their welfare. (The elephants had been fighting amongst themselves, and Dulary had suffered an eye injury.) The zoo’s 42-acre footprint, according to Andy Baker — he retired in October after 28 years here, having most recently served as COO — has been both constricting and an impetus for innovation. “We could have adapted to keep the elephants,” he says, “but we chose not to. We chose to focus on the animals that fit into our limitations.” That decision was part of what he describes as a “cultural revolution” in zoos’ expectations for themselves. Just as zoological gardens evolved from displays of exotic critters in cages, today’s zoos emphasize conservation and the preservation of endangered species as well as the health and happiness of the animals in their care.
Philly’s zoo has a long history of leadership in scientific endeavors. The “Zoo Cake” that was the basis of modern animal nutrition was invented at its Penrose Research Lab in the 1920s (by a woman researcher, Ellen Corson-White). Every animal that dies at Philly’s zoo, says Karl Kranz — today, he’s executive vice president of animal programs and COO at Baltimore’s Maryland Zoo — gets a necropsy, or animal autopsy; the zoo’s invaluable collection of records, tissue slides and samples dates back to the 1800s. In the 1940s and ’50s, Kranz adds, Philly zookeepers recognized that primates were catching communicable diseases — colds, flu, tuberculosis — through their cages from the humans who came to see them. That’s why zoo bars were replaced with glass.
Zoos are continually evolving because the way we think about their mission and the animals they house is continually evolving. “No zoo today looks like it did 30 years ago,” Andy Baker says. “So much has changed within our organization and society.” Where animals were once viewed as having been put on Earth by God to serve Adam and Eve, today we tend to see ourselves as their custodians, even their handmaidens. That makes for a very different relationship. In the early days of his career, Baker trailed golden lion tamarins — adorable little New World monkeys — through the Brazilian rain forest to study their behavior; in the years since, the Philadelphia Zoo has become a leader in preserving that endangered species, working with other zoos and conservation groups to breed them and help rehome zoo-born members as well as raising half a million dollars to help fund the salary of the executive director of Brazil’s Golden Lion Tamarin Association for 10 years.
Both Baker and Kranz started out at the bottom of the zoo ladder and worked their way up into administration. Asked if there’s any common denominator among the many zoo staffers he’s known, Kranz laughs and says, “Not really. People go into it for a variety of reasons. But I will tell you: It attracts people who like animals more than they like other people.”
The relationship between human beings and animals has always been complicated and fraught: We eat them, we dress in them, we fear them, we adore them. Perhaps that’s why, all over the world, ancient mythology is full of creatures that are part animal and part human: Greek centaurs and satyrs; the Germanic goat-horned Krampus; China’s Nüwa, with the lower body of a snake; cat-headed Egyptian goddess Bastet; Hinduism’s Ganesha, with an elephant’s head. Their ubiquity speaks to our fascination with the ways in which we’re similar to and yet different from animals — what we share and where we diverge. Sure, we humans are prone to anthropomorphizing. But dolphins talk in their sleep; rats laugh when you tickle them; chickens and ants can count; swans and penguins can be gay. How much more does the line between human and animal get blurred when you work and live with gorillas, whose DNA is 98 percent identical to ours? Pete Hoskins told Jeffrey Bonner about looking into the eyes of a young female gorilla named Kola who was about to have her knee X-rayed and thinking: “She looks just like a frightened little girl would, if she were being sent to some strange and scary place like a hospital, not fully understanding what was going to happen to her or why.” Hoskins went on: “That was the moment I really felt that I was as responsible for that animal as I was for my own family.” Kola died in the Christmas Eve fire.
The relationship between humans and animals has always been fraught and complicated: We eat them, we dress in them, we fear them, we adore them.
In the immediate aftermath of the blaze, there were awful practical considerations. Male orangutans can weigh close to 300 pounds, as can female gorillas; John tipped the scales at a quarter of a ton. All those bodies had to be hauled to a stainless steel cooler to await necropsies; maintenance workers and even the zoo’s CFO lent a hand. The sole pathologist on staff, Virginia Pierce, couldn’t perform so many examinations by herself; a single one could take as long as six hours. Kranz appealed to the Bronx Zoo for help, and Penn’s veterinary school sent pathologists as well.
All the zoo’s employees were devastated, but those who worked directly with the lost animals were inconsolable. “Primate keepers form very strong bonds,” Kranz explains; for them, the deaths were those of old friends — or more. “These animals are so close to human that this is really like losing members of our family,” Hoskins told the Associated Press on Christmas Day. “They have moods, personalities and even a sense of humor. I just can’t find the words to say how all of us are feeling right now.”
“I’ve had a huge part of my life torn out,” Julie Unger Smith, who kept photos of the gorilla clan in her home, told People magazine after the fire. She added that she dreamed about her lost charges: “They are comforting dreams, believe it or not. I’m glad at least none of them were left to mourn the others.” A couple of years before the fire, a social worker at Penn’s vet school had initiated a pet bereavement support program. One of its grief counselors was called in to help staffers cope with their losses; Unger Smith had counseling for months.
Andy Baker was a curator, not a keeper. Still, he says, “You can’t help but involve yourself with the animals. They’re endlessly amazing. And primates, with their social behavior and interests and groups — we see so much of ourselves in them.” The three adult gorillas at the zoo — John and his two female mates, Snickers and Samantha — had been born in the wild in Africa. Possibly orphaned by poachers, they’d been living together for 25 years, making them one of America’s longest-established gorilla clans. Maandazi was Snickers’s daughter; Kola and her sister, Tufani, were Samantha’s. Heartbreakingly, Samantha’s necropsy would show she was pregnant again.
“I think I saw every person who works here cry since this happened,” Unger Smith told the Associated Press. “It gets to the point when you just don’t think you can cry anymore.”
It’s all too human to try to place blame. And in a disaster of this magnitude, there was plenty to go around. The local press played up the angle of improper zoo management: “It was a difficult period in the zoo’s history,” Baker acknowledges. “I think it was appropriate to ask questions and challenge us the way they did. We were more interested in determining the facts than anyone else was. But watching the TV coverage and reading the press only added to our sadness and grief.” Kranz is more succinct: “We were getting beat up by the press. Including by Philadelphia magazine.” The narrative took a turn when zoo officials revealed that Henry and Villaloz, the two guards on duty that night, had made 14 personal phone calls when they were supposed to be making rounds — 10 after they first smelled smoke. Henry blamed the fire on lapses by management and insisted on their innocence. She also said her cell phone didn’t work, a claim the zoo strongly denied. “We’re taking the fall for it,” she told the Inquirer. “We are the minorities. Joe is old, and I am a black woman. What more can I say?” But Villaloz admitted falsifying the timekeeping log. The two were suspended, then fired on January 18th, with Hoskins announcing they’d “grossly failed to perform their duties” the night of the blaze.
The zoo had closed its gates while trying to catch its breath, regroup, and decide what to do next. It reopened early in January, and mourners came by the tens of thousands to pay their respects. Schoolchildren from across the country sent their allowances as donations to rebuild the primate house; Hoskins recalled a girl named Joey who mailed in 14 carefully folded one-dollar bills. Some kids who visited brought bags of pennies. The city’s art commission created a memorial wall at the zoo with the help of artists, staffers and volunteers. Allentown’s Morning Call reported that Rhona Case, a psychologist who’d offered to console visitors at the memorial that was adorned with photos and family trees of the lost primates, wound up crying herself: “I have tissues for the public in one pocket and tissues for me in the other,” she said.
“I saw every person who works here cry since this happened,” Julie Unger Smith said. “It gets to the point when you just don’t think you can cry anymore.”
In February, the fire department issued a report that traced the fire to a heating cable in the ceiling of the World of Primates intended to keep pipes from freezing. It had been improperly installed and hadn’t been maintained because of its inaccessibility. The fire was “accidental in nature,” according to the report, and the zoo’s fire-detection equipment had been working properly. The snow had apparently muffled the warning horn on the roof. In March, two internal reports — one by the board of directors and one by zoo staff — concurred with the fire department’s findings. Hoskins emphasized that the two guards weren’t being blamed for the fire, only for neglecting their duties. “There were plenty of insurance companies trying to figure out who’d pay for what,” Kranz says. The lost animals were all covered by what’s essentially life insurance for zoo residents. None of them had been burned; they all died of smoke inhalation within half an hour of the onset of the short-lived blaze.
Zoo management eventually decided to start from scratch and build a new primate habitat rather than salvage the site. This time around, Baker worked with an engineering firm that developed an elaborate system of ductwork and baffles to divide the new building into zones. The system could automatically block off an area in case of fire, pumping out smoky air and piping in fresh. And it would notify the fire department directly in the event of a problem.
The innovations would inspire zoos worldwide. Here in capitalist America, we look at everything from car-buying to child-rearing as a competition. But zoos aren’t competing with each other, Baker says; they’re comrades in arms: “We learn from each other and share our information. We have no reticence in sharing our successes and our failures.” Anything the Philadelphia Zoo could do to prevent another such tragedy anywhere, it was determined to do. “We ran tests before we moved the animals in,” says Kranz; the new system could clear a given zone of smoke within just six minutes, according to the engineers. Had it been in place on Christmas Eve, the primates probably would have lived.
On July 1, 1999 — the 125th anniversary of the zoo’s original opening — the new $24 million PECO Primate Reserve debuted. The 2.5-acre expanse was imagined as an abandoned logging camp that had been converted to a primate sanctuary. There were indoor and outdoor areas, 25-foot windows, rolling ladders and crates and cargo nets for climbing and playing, a mezzanine, elevated towers, plenty of plant life and running water.
And there were new animals: four gorillas, two orangutans, three kinds of lemurs, colobus and squirrel monkeys, pygmy marmosets, spectacled langurs, white-handed gibbons, even a pair of Baker’s old friends the golden lion tamarins. Where, exactly, do you get replacement animals like these? Not from the jungle anymore; it’s illegal to poach from the wild the way collectors did when the Philadelphia Zoo first opened. Instead, Baker explains, zoos rely on special studbook registries — one for each species — that are maintained by volunteers around the world. The system is like a giant Ancestry.com for zoo populations; the registries track each animal’s heritage and provenance, so keepers can do their best to avoid inbreeding and maintain genetic diversity when lending animals for matchmaking. (One reason John and Snickers and Samantha were so valued: Because they’d been born in the wild, they’d expanded available gorilla gene lines.) Zoos use the studbooks to map out Species Survival Plans, or SSPs, that are revisited every few years, depending on how frequently a species reproduces. But it’s not just matching one animal from column A and one from column B, Baker clarifies: “It’s equally important to meet the individual animal’s needs — who needs companionship, who’s not a good fit for the group they’re with. It’s a complicated but fascinating set of objectives.”
You could say the same about zookeeping, which has come under increasing fire from animal rights activists in recent years. Remember the Blackfish documentary about captive killer whales? “The tide is turning against SeaWorld and other aquariums and zoos,” PETA campaign specialist Ashley Bryne told Fox News when the theme-park chain announced the end of its captive orca breeding program in 2016. A report last year by the activist group World Animal Protection (WAP) cited dozens of zoos, safari parks, wildlife refuges, and similar attractions around the globe that were in violation of the code of ethics of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), which requires that members “focus on natural behavior” and “not demean or trivialize the animal in any way.” WAZA argued in return that the attractions cited — which WAP defined as “indirect members,” or non-member zoos belonging to WAZA-affiliated associations — weren’t members at all. But in terms of PR, elephants that play basketball, chimps in diapers riding scooters, and pens where visitors can kiss and cuddle with big cats (Tiger King, anyone?) aren’t a good look for zoos.
Still … animals aren’t people, right? They don’t have souls — do they? Or consciousness the way we conceive of it? That’s what the firefighters who put out the blaze at the zoo thought, anyway. From the Firehouse article about the primate fire:
Philadelphia Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston said he found the emotional interest understandable but still odd, considering the human fire toll that strikes large cities.
“It was a tragedy, but as fire commissioner, I have priorities,” he said. “The first is the death of a firefighter. The second is the death of a civilian.”
Mullin’s son asked his father whether he saw the animals. “I told him I felt sad,” Mullin recalled, “but we see people dead all the time.”
Among the lessons of the year we’ve just lived through is how impossibly tenuous our climate is. Hurricanes, wildfires, flooding, drought, glacier melt — all around the world, animal habitats are being affected, just as human habitats are. Some creatures — Javan rhinoceroses, Cross River gorillas, Sunda tigers, black-footed ferrets — number only in the hundreds or even dozens; the World Wildlife Fund estimates that as few as 84 Amur leopards remain in the wild. But thanks to zoo conservation and breeding programs, Tasmanian devils are again roaming Australia, 3,000 years after they went extinct there. The Philadelphia Zoo helped reintroduce Przewalski’s horse, the last remaining wild horse species, to Mongolia after it was wiped out. The accidental introduction of the brown tree snake to Guam by soldiers during World War II nearly eradicated a bright-colored bird with an iridescent blue back; though extinct in the wild, Micronesian kingfishers live on thanks to a decades-long rebreeding program at the Philadelphia Zoo. And those golden lion tamarins? With the zoo’s financial, ecological and scientific help, there are now an estimated 3,200 of them roaming Brazil’s rain forest again — 20 times as many as in the 1990s, when they were on the “critically endangered” list. It’s a tension, this interplay between humans and animals, that may prove impossible to resolve. Just as we’ve reached the point where we’re morally ready to relinquish zoos, we find ourselves morally bound to retain them.
“As humans,” says Andy Baker, “most of us connect almost instinctively to animals from a young age. It’s part of the fiber of being human. It’s in our DNA. Animals touch our instinct to nurture and protect those more vulnerable than we are.” That’s the tacit agreement we make now with the animals in our zoos: You give up your freedom, and we’ll take care of you in return. I haven’t been to the zoo since the fire at the World of Primates. The deal may be a necessary evil, but to me, keeping wild animals captive feels wrong. Then again, I have a house cat that I don’t let outside.
It doesn’t help that every now and then, as on that Christmas Eve, the deal goes awry. A little boy falls into an enclosure, and a gorilla named Harambe gets shot. A wildlife volunteer taking photos through an open car window at a lion park is mauled to death. Last New Year’s Eve, another terrible fire, this time at a zoo in Krefeld, Germany, killed more than 50 animals, among them gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, monkeys and marmosets. Police blamed the fire on three women who’d set Chinese lanterns aloft to celebrate the holiday. “We let the animals down,” Pete Hoskins told his keepers after the Philadelphia fire. It’s something we seem destined to do over and over again in the uneasy truce we make with the call of the wild.
Julie Unger Smith was on hand to watch the arrival of two orangutans and four gorillas — including Chaka, a son of John and Samantha — at their new Philadelphia home in April 1999. “It was so emotional,” she told the UD Messenger, the magazine of her alma mater, the University of Delaware. “I remember looking at the vans and thinking it was like getting a mail-order husband. … I’d been away from gorillas for three and a half years. I knew I would like them, but I wondered if I would love them. I knew it would be hard to open my heart again, but … from the minute I saw them, I didn’t have any choice. I fell in love again.”
That love might be more requited than we think. During the pandemic, animals in zoos that were closed because of quarantine began showing signs they missed their human visitors, according to the BBC. The communications director at the Phoenix Zoo reported, “Primates especially have noticed our guests are gone and go looking for them.” It seems the quest goes both ways. Who knows what difference that two percent of our DNA makes? We’re all of us centaurs, or Kola, the frightened little gorilla, unable to say where the human in us ends and the animal begins.
Published as “The Day the Great Apes Died” in the December 2020 issue of Philadelphia magazine.