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“George is a beautiful specimen of a silverback lowland gorilla...people come looking specifically for him because they remember visiting him at the zoo...”

-Suzanne McLaren
Collection Manager
Carnegie Museum of Natural History

If you are a long-time member and resident of Pittsburgh, chances are you know “George.” And even if you are new to the area or the museums, chances are still good that you have admired George at least once. George is the lowland gorilla on display in the African Savannah section of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

George is a favorite exhibit in the Museum of Natural History for at least two reasons: he’s a very attractive gorilla whose dark eyes and strong features impress many visitors, and he is fondly remembered by many Pittsburghers from his playful days at the Pittsburgh Zoo.

“ George is a beautiful specimen of a silverback lowland gorilla,” says Suzanne McLaren, Collection Manager. “And he was so popular when he was at the zoo that people often come looking specifically for him because they remember visiting him at the zoo before he died.”

By all accounts, George was an amiable gorilla who adapted as well as could be expected to his surroundings at the Pittsburgh Zoo. He was frequently sighted playing tug-of-war with visitors using a rubber hose, splashing in rubber buckets full of water, or skidding across puddles in his cage. Sadly, George died in 1979 at the age of 14 of an inflammation of the brain, which was caused by an abscessed tooth, after residing at the Pittsburgh Zoo for 12 years.

Following George’s death, the staff at the Pittsburgh Zoo asked the curators at the museum if they would like to include George in an exhibit at the museum. At the time, the Museum of Natural History was contemplating constructing new exhibit spaces that would display wildlife in its natural surroundings. When George arrived, he served as the catalyst to create the entire African Savannah currently on display in the Museum of Natural History.

“ George came along at just the right time,” says MacLaren. “He was the perfect focal point for the very first diorama created to show animals as they appear in their natural African habitats.

“ It was a very big change for the museum,” says MacLaren. “Prior to George’s arrival, animals were simply displayed alone or in family groupings in big mahogany glass cases. Since George has been with us, all of our exhibits strive to be much more realistic and to give people a better sense of the whole natural environment.”

Gorilla Gorilla Gorilla
As a western lowland gorilla, George belongs to the subspecies Gorilla gorilla gorilla. These gorillas reside in higher densities in Gabon, Cameroon, and western-central Africa.

Gorillas are the largest and most powerful species of primate. They have no tails and jet black skin. Facial features include short muzzles, a prominent brow ridge, large nostrils, and small eyes and ears. Gorillas have large jaw muscles and broad, strong teeth. Coarse, dark hair covers their entire bodies except for the face, ears, hands, and feet. Generally, the hair on the back and rump of older males grows grey—which is what happened with George—and they become known as silverbacks.

Wild gorillas are herbivores, subsisting mainly on plants, leaves, berries, ferns, and fibrous bark. They never completely strip vegetation of a single area, and the rapid regrowth of the vegetation they consume allows them to stay within a reasonably confined location for extended periods of time.
As in humans, there is no fixed breeding season for gorillas, and birth occurs after nine months of gestation. Infants grow at approximately twice the rate of human babies, and remain dependent on their mother for three to four years. Females give birth at about four-year intervals. However, a high mortality rate means surviving offspring are produced on average only once every six to eight years. Wild gorillas live between 35 and 40 years with some captive gorillas living almost 50 years.

Gorillas are generally peaceful, shy, and amiable unless threatened. They demonstrate aggression by charging towards perceived intruders. However, they rarely hit the intruder; instead they rush past and may charge again.
Gorillas band together in groups of five to 15. A typical group consists of one dominant male, many adult females with their young and, in some cases, a smaller pack of less dominant males.

Currently, each gorilla subspecies is either listed as endangered or critically endangered in the wild due primarily to deforestation—the forests on which the gorillas depend in Africa are slowly being cut down for timber and to make way for agricultural and industrial development.

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Copyright (c) 2003 CARNEGIE magazine. All rights reserved.