Babysitting A Gorilla: A True Story

“Whatever you do don’t go in that room,” said Mrs. Gillespie before leaving for the party. “Don’t go in that room!”

You see when I was growing up, our neighbor was a gorilla keeper at The Bronx Zoo.  And every night Mrs. Gillespie would bring home Julia, a 27  pound lowland gorilla to bond as her surrogate mother.  She explained that baby gorillas don’t survive without their mother’s constant body contact. And so we had a baby gorilla as our neighbor.

We could not tell anyone there was a gorilla living next door because they feared a kidnapping as they were very valuable.  That was kind of  a tough secret to keep as a kid. And I’ve never told anyone until today.

Weekends were special when Julia spent the day at home.  We would go over and play with her in the back yard, not the front yard so she wouldn’t be seen. And for 27 pounds, she was amazingly strong. One time she pinched me and I was black and blue for a week or two but we made up and moved on. So since I knew Julia and Julia knew me I was asked to gorilla sit one night. She was about this size at the time, perhaps a little bit bigger.

I went with Mrs. Gillespie into the bedroom and put Julia to sleep in a pen that was an old style wooden baby crib with a plywood board fashioned on top to keep her in.

There I was gorilla sitting, reading the charts they kept about Julia at the kitchen table.  The notes were incredibly detailed and there was an entry about every hour. Her mood, activities, what she ate, favorite snacks and how her stool came out. About an hour later I started to hear some whining. It started out soft then it got to be full-on jungle whining. And you’re smart enough to know what I did next. I went in the room to check on her.

I calmed her down and was real proud of myself. Then the whining started again. So I went into the kitchen to get what I read was her favorite snack, grapes. I opened the door and Julia went silent. I fed her grapes through the bars and we were having a special private moment together and the she went back to sleep.

As I was walking out of the room Julia started shaking the cage, pushing on the top and bending the plywood.  Then a loud snap. The top flew off and Julia ran around the room on walls alone! I ran out of the room, slammed the door, ran out of the house, slammed the front door, ran into our house and slammed our front door. I called Mrs. Gillespie and told her Julia got out. And that’s my gorilla babysitting story.

I called the Bronx Zoo and the Wildlife Conservation Society to get an update on Julia.  A spokesman would not comment other than to say that “their facility is state-of-the-art and that no animals leave the zoo at any time.”

Gorilla photo credit: Caters News Agency

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17 Responses to “Babysitting A Gorilla: A True Story”

  1. NataschaOS Says:

    … and as long I am visitng your blog tonight … great story about babysitting the gorilla. When I was about eleven I babysat a lioness cub for a weekend, an unbelievable and exotic experience until I decided to parade with her at the Caribe Hilton hotel (like if I was the Puertorrican Eloise), the attention got the cub nervous and …

  2. Rob Says:

    I gotta admit, Mike, that I read this right when you published it. And though I’ve not known you to “punk” your readers, I didn’t want to be the first.

    Which is why I comfortably sat on this until today.

    I thought that your follow ups with the zoo were hints that this might have been childhood fantasy. I think it’s an awesome story, and yet I still feel like there is a trick involved. Anyone who has met and played with a friendly Gorilla, well that’s pretty fantastic. Mr. Peebles. Diane Fossey. Mike LaMonica.


    • Mike LaMonica Says:

      Hi Rob-

      A strange coincidence: there was a segment on Diane Fossey on 60 Minutes last night. We have pictures of Julia that my dad took. Problem: they are in a basement somewhere in NY with about literally 40,000 other photos as my dad was a photographer.

      I have not spoken to my brother about this post. If you would like, call my brother and ask. I’ll send you his phone number. I’m generally a creative guy, but not that creative. Thanks Rob.


  3. Pam Anderson Says:

    You totally have to make this experience a children’s illustrated book! And then it has to be on stage as a short! Seriously!

  4. vicequeenmaria Says:

    Julia ended up needing years of therapy after …


    Great story, Mike. Thanks for posting it. How many people can say they baby sat a gorilla?

    • Mike LaMonica Says:

      Actually, I needed years of therapy after. I really didn’t take the space in the post to say how terrifying it really was. I guess you wouldn’t know the feeling unless you have a wild lowland gorilla (scientific name: Gorilla, gorilla, gorilla) coming after you.


  5. Etiquette From the Trenches Says:

    What a great story! I am so glad you followed up with a call to the zoo. Their response is priceless. Looking forward to reading more!


    • Mike LaMonica Says:

      Dear Amy-

      Thank you for taking your time out to comment here on what I know was an unbelievably busy day for you. It’s almost unbelievable of you. I appreciate you checking in and spending some of your precious time here with me.


  6. Jill Says:

    I used to go to the Bronx Zoo all the time as a child. I guess Julia was the gorilla I used to see there. What a neat glimpse into her history.

    • Mike LaMonica Says:

      We used to go to the zoo as well to see Julia and the other gorillas. We felt like celebs because we knew her. Mrs. Gillespie would also go into the area where the adult females were. But she said none would go into the males area for obvious reasons. Thanks for checkin’ it out!


  7. Angel Says:

    Events like that, always go on to add to ones character. I wish I could have seen the look on your face when she got out. Thanks for sharing.

    • Mike LaMonica Says:

      This was so nuts! I swear I thought the devil was in that room. I was probably as white as white Bengal Tiger…I don’t know if it added a to my charachter. Well< maybe it did, because I'm nuts, as you know.


  8. blackwatertown Says:

    Good story, especially the final “nothing ever happened” comments at the end.

    • Mike LaMonica Says:

      Yeah, nothing did really happen in the end…I don’t think I got in trouble. And the Zoo never got back to me to comment. But you did and I thank you for that.


  9. mkhall Says:

    Great story!

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