I met Hugo the gorilla in Houston back in 1974
Back in 1974, when I was living in Montrose, a Houston neighborhood that was a vaguely bohemian mixture of gay bars and strip joints and that was also home to the SWP headquarters, a comrade named Gene Lantz invited me to go see the famous gorilla named Hugo who lived in a Montrose house. Gene was one of the few local Texans we had recruited that sided with the pro-Barnes majority I was sent down to reinforce. Most of the rest were aligned with the minority that backed the Ernest Mandel faction based in Europe and Latin America.
Since I was fascinated by the great apes at the time (and still am), I decided to take him up on his invitation. We arrived in the living room of a man named Charles B. Greer Jr. who was one of Montrose’s “characters”. He had built a cage for Hugo abutting his living room, in which the animal was sitting quietly near the rear. With a mischievous smile on his face, Greer invited me to go up to the bars and take a look in at Hugo. As soon as he saw me, he stood upright and charged directly toward me like a football defensive lineman coming after a quarterback. When he rammed into the reinforced bars of his cage, it sounded like a bomb going off. This made Greer laugh out loud. It was obvious why he enjoyed keeping a caged gorilla next to his living room—it was a good practical joke to play on visitors. Hugo’s needs hardly entered the picture.
As I expected, I discovered an article about Hugo after Googling “Montrose Houston gorilla pet”. It appeared originally in the September 23rd 2014 Houston Chronicle, a rancid newspaper that befitted a rancid city like Houston. Titled “The amazing, baffling and heartbreaking journey of Hugo the gorilla”, it finally explains how Greer ended up with a gorilla living next to his living room.
When he was just a tiny babe, he [Hugo] was written up in all the major newspapers, appeared on TV and became a fundraiser for various charities in Houston.
But for practically all of his life, he called the Montrose area home, living in a 10-by-20-foot cage that adjoined a house off Mandell Street, just north of where the Southwest Freeway is today.
His name was Hugo, a gorilla born in the wilds of French Equatorial Africa, torn from the jungle when he was mere months old and brought to Houston, where he was the center of a tug-of-war with city officials.
In May 1951, Charles B. Greer Jr. and his wife, Annie, set off from the U.S. for Africa in an adventure-filled hunting trip. It was a lifelong ambition for Charles to hunt there; he already had extensive experience hunting in Canada and Mexico.
The Greers were also looking to bring back some gorillas, living and dead, for the Houston Zoo and other specimens for the Houston Museum of Natural History.
The little gorilla was a celebrity before he even arrived here. The Houston Chronicle ran a couple of articles on him while the Greers journeyed back from Africa. The paper reported their arrival in New Orleans — and their difficulty in finding a room in the Crescent City (“We tried all the big hotels and got shudders, gasps and firm turndowns instead of rooms,” Charles Greer said at the time.).
Eventually Greer and the Houston zoo could not see eye to eye on Hugo’s living conditions at the zoo, so he ended up permanently in a cage adjoining Greer’s living room. Greer told the Chronicle: “They didn’t maintain the proper temperatures. I’ve seen it 10 degrees below the minimum of 78 required for the primate house. And there were other faults, such as letting the roaches take over and letting zoo guards toss food to the apes.” Maybe Greer should have left him in Africa to begin with. And maybe he didn’t need to go on an “adventure-filled hunting trip”. Where did people like him, Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway ever get the idea that this was supposed to demonstrate their manhood?
It is entirely possible that Lantz had gotten the idea to take me over to see Hugo because I had postcards of great apes all over the walls of my Montrose apartment. After seeing “Morgan” a few years later, I had begun identifying with the eponymous character who was fixated on Trotsky and gorillas. Morgan had a mental breakdown at the end of the film (the full title was “Morgan: a suitable case for treatment”) and to some extent I was feeling so alienated by life in the SWP that the identification with Morgan came easy.
But there was more to it than that. I had read fairly extensively about primates, including Jane Goodall on the chimps and George Schaller and Diane Fossey on the gorillas. Fossey had become a passionate defender of gorilla habitats in Africa so much so that it got her killed. She was violently opposed to people like Greer snatching animals from the natural surroundings and bringing them to zoos so that we can gawk at them.
When Fossey started off as a naturalist, her parents refused to support her. So she had to take jobs working as a department store clerk or a factory machinist to keep her going. Once she got established in Africa, she focused on keeping poachers out of the gorilla’s habitat who sought to sell infant animals to zoos. Wikipedia reports:
On three occasions, Fossey wrote that she witnessed the aftermath of the capture of infant gorillas at the behest of the park conservators for zoos; since gorillas will fight to the death to protect their young, the kidnappings would often result in up to 10 adult gorillas’ deaths. Through the Digit Fund, Fossey financed patrols to destroy poachers’ traps in the Karisoke study area. In four months in 1979, the Fossey patrol consisting of four African staffers destroyed 987 poachers’ traps in the research area’s vicinity. The official Rwandan national park guards, consisting of 24 staffers, did not eradicate any poachers’ traps during the same period. In the eastern portion of the park not patrolled by Fossey, poachers virtually eradicated all the park’s elephants for ivory and killed more than a dozen gorillas.
Fossey helped in the arrest of several poachers, some of whom served or are serving long prison sentences.
In 1978, Fossey attempted to prevent the export of two young gorillas, Coco and Pucker, from Rwanda to the zoo in Cologne, Germany. During the capture of the infants at the behest of the Cologne Zoo and Rwandan park conservator, 20 adult gorillas had been killed. The infant gorillas were given to Fossey by the park conservator of the Virunga Volcanoes for treatment of injuries suffered during their capture and captivity. With considerable effort, she restored them to some approximation of health. Over Fossey’s objections, the gorillas were shipped to Cologne, where they lived nine years in captivity, both dying in the same month. She viewed the holding of animals in “prison” (zoos) for the entertainment of people as unethical.
In addition to poaching, the biggest threat to gorillas is the encroachment on their habitats from both big capitalist logging and mining interests as well as subsistence farmers driven to the deep forest because most of the available land is being used to produce coffee for Whole Foods, et al.
All this brings me to the incident at the Cincinnati zoo where an endangered gorilla was shot in order to protect a toddler who had fallen into his enclosure. I am not going to weigh in on the debates that are raging on the Internet, including whether the African-American mother was negligent.
My main interest here is to assert the need for the abolition of every last zoo, aquarium, and circus that shanghais animals for our entertainment. I also include idiotic lion taming acts like Siegfried and Roy’s. There is an urgent need to protect the environments of great apes not only for their benefit but for ours. Take the orangutan, for example. Its natural habitat is in Sumatra and Borneo in Indonesia. Deforestation on behalf of palm oil plantations and oil exploration contributes to global warming just as it does in Brazil for ranching and mining. We have a vested interest in such forests remaining pristine and the animals left in peace.
Under socialism there should be a crash project to rebuild the natural habitats of all great animals that have fallen victim to capitalist progress such as the gorilla, the bison, the lion and the tiger. There might not be any zoos in the future but naturalists will go into these habitats and place cameras that can record the daily activities of the animals as the feed and procreate. The video will be broadcast on cable television and the Internet worldwide on a 24/7 basis so that you can watch a gorilla beating his chest from the safety of your living room. Trust me. That will be a lot more entertaining than watching one sitting morbidly behind bars in a cage or even in a supposedly naturalistic “enclosure” like the one at the Cincinnati zoo.