Sally DeWees has distinct memories of regular visits to the National Zoo as a child growing up in Washington, DC.
There is nothing particularly unusual about childhood outings to the zoo. What made those trips unique for the Wilmington woman, however, was the fact her father, Nick Arundel, would bring DeWees and her four siblings to see his other “children:” two gorillas he personally transported from the Belgian Congo when they were babies.
Nick Arundel was an “adventurer,” DeWees recalls, a Marine who conducted covert missions for the CIA in Asia and had a lifelong love of wildlife and nature. As an 8-year-old boy, Arundel started a neighborhood newspaper, penning a story about why the National Zoo should have giraffes.
On a 1955 African expedition Arundel came to possess two baby gorillas, which, trundled under each arm, he accompanied via commercial airline on a multi-leg journey more than 8,000 miles back to Washington, DC.
His mission was to donate the primates to the National Zoo, the first the zoo would possess in more than 20 years.
The many twists and turns of this remarkable story are recounted in “Raising America’s Zoo: How Two Wild Gorillas Helped Transform the National Zoo,” written by DeWees’ sister-in-law Kara Arundel.
Kara and her husband Tom Arundel were in Wilmington this past weekend to talk about the extraordinary tale at the heart of her book – a riveting, hard-to-believe Indiana Jones-esque account of both a man and an institution, and the transformation of both.
Former Congressman Pete McCloskey Jr., co-author of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, calls Arundel’s book “timely, heart-wrenching and triumphant … a compelling read for anyone interested in animal conservation.”
We caught up with Arundel to learn more about the historical nuggets uncovered in her research and the broader implications of her father-in-law’s bold, fateful decision more than 60 years ago.
TSD: How did you first learn of this story about your husband’s family?
Kara Arundel: Nick Arundel is my husband’s father. While Tom and I were dating, I heard from Arundel family members that Nick Arundel had captured a pair of baby gorillas in Africa in 1955 and brought them to America to donate to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Nick named the male gorilla Nikumba, who was about 16 months of age, and the female gorilla was named Moka, who was about two years of age. I remember asking Nick Arundel one time when Tom and I were still dating, “I heard you captured gorillas. How did you do that?” Nick told me it was a sad story and he didn’t want to talk about it so I never asked him about it again.
Nick passed away in 2011 without sharing the full story about how he got the gorillas.
But throughout his life, Nick had kept diaries, photos, news clippings, letters he sent, and letters he received. I used that information, plus thousands of pages of documents at the Smithsonian Archives to tell this historical story of the zoo. The Smithsonian Archives is mandated by Congress to preserve and maintain all the documents from the Smithsonian Institution and its museums, including the National Zoo.
TSD: What prompted you to write the book?
KA: I was only inspired to learn more about Nick and the gorillas’ story after Nick passed away. Nick’s obituary ran in the Washington Post with a photo of him and Moka in 1955. Several people asked me about the photo and wanted to know more about how Nick got the gorillas and what happened to them after they came to the National Zoo.
TSD: What did you learn in researching the book that surprised you and was news to the family?
KA: There were several parts of my research that surprised me.
The first was that some of the early animal conservationists profiled in the book were very conflicted about killing wild and exotic animals in order to be able to study them and help prevent their demise. Nick Arundel himself was a member of the Washington Safari Club, which was a social club for big-game hunters. In 1961, Nick and several of the club’s members left to form the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation to help Africans learn how to protect their endangered wildlife resources against poaching and hunting.
Another surprise was that Nikumba and Moka’s first offspring, Tomoka, was only the fourth gorilla born in captivity in the whole world and only the second in North America.
At the time of his birth in 1961, there was very limited knowledge of gorilla births. National Zoo leaders were concerned Moka wasn’t caring for Tomoka so they removed the newborn and brought him to the zookeepers’ home in suburban Maryland to be raised for the first few months of his life.
Diapers and a high chair for baby gorilla Tomoka
At the zookeeper’s home, Tomoka was treated almost like a human baby. He wore diapers, sat at a high chair for meals, and went on errands around town, including to the grocery store. Can you imagine going grocery shopping and seeing a baby gorilla?
The most pleasant surprise was the confluence of events that helped strengthen the understanding of gorilla behavior and protections for wild and captive gorillas. Those events include the passage of the Endangered Species Act and international animal conservation agreements; research from scientists who studied gorillas in their natural habitats; and the cooperation among zoos to create plans for managing reproduction of the current population of gorillas.
TSD: Your father-in-law had a fascinating, diverse career, as did his father. What do you think sparked that sense of adventure in the family?
KA: Both Russell Arundel and Nick Arundel were very hardworking and tenacious. They also took risks and experienced challenges. I think a combination of both of their ambitions and experiences led to their sense of adventure. Both were smart businessmen and because of their successes, they were able to have great adventures.
TSD: It is hard to imagine today what Nick Arundel pulled off 60 years ago. Even then it seems to have been an extraordinary thing to do, bringing wild animals into the US on a plane. That must have raised some eyebrows?
KA: Yes, it did. Right after Nick got the gorillas in Africa he called several airlines to see if they were willing to fly him and the gorillas. Pan American Airlines refused, telling Nick that their airplane would not transport “King Kong.”
“We won’t transport ‘King Kong'”
It took Nick several days to find an airplane willing to fly the trio. Sabena Airlines, a small Belgian airline with a reliable history, said yes but only after Nick promised that there would be reporters and photographers on the tarmac in New York City taking pictures of the plane. There was plenty of journalists and photographers when they arrived and Nick and the gorillas’ photo was on the front page of the New York Herald Tribune the next day.
TSD: Nick’s attitudes about hunting changed significantly over his lifetime – how did he come to feel about zoos and their role in society?
KA: Nick attitudes about hunting exotic animals changed significantly over his lifetime. After he returned to Washington, D.C. with the gorillas, he told people he captured the gorillas with the help of natives and by killing the gorillas’ parents. His story was retold in several Washington, D.C. newspapers, portraying Nick as a hero.
But by the 70s, after he had helped start the African Wildlife Leadership Foundation and after the Endangered Species Act, he stopped telling people about how he captured the gorillas.
In addition to his work with AWLF, he became involved in the zoo by being an early organizer of Friends of the National Zoo, a nonprofit fundraising arm of the zoo. He was a consistent supporter and donor to the National Zoo for his entire life starting from when he was 8 and began a neighborhood newspaper to advocate for the display of giraffes.
TSD: What’s been the reception for your book? I imagine the story could be a sensitive one in some quarters.
KA: The reception for the book has been largely positive. I do mention briefly at the end of the book about the changing sentiment of having large intelligent animals in captivity.
For the most part, I think readers have appreciated the historical review of one man’s and one zoo’s transition to better animal management and practices. A narrative, nonfiction book on this story didn’t exist before and could only have been written because of the documents at the Smithsonian Archives and because of former zoo staff willing to talk about the changing practices and attitudes.
TSD: Anything else you want to add about the National Zoo?
KA: The National Zoo is “America’s zoo,” meaning it is largely paid for by taxpayers’ money. While Congress has approved level or slight increases of funding over the past several years, the aging zoo has many needs. Because of its federal status, there are a lot of protocols for permissions. For example, a proposal for a parking garage required the approval of Congress and the signature of President of the United States.
Despite this, the National Zoo has become a leader in animal conservation of wild and captive animals. Its scientists are doing incredible work, including the reintroduction of endangered species back into the wild and research into gorilla heart disease.