University of Delaware
Office of Public Relations
The Messenger
Vol. 5, No. 4/1996
Calamity's aftermath

     It was a phone call, received in the early hours before dawn
last Dec. 24, that made Julie Unger, Delaware '87, feel as if her
heart had stopped beating. And, she says, it has never beat in
quite the same way since.
     Unger, lead primate keeper at the Philadelphia Zoo, and her
fianc, Andrew Smith, Delaware '89, were preparing to celebrate
the holidays at his mother's home in Wilmington, Del., when the
phone call came.
     On the other end of the line was Unger's boss, Andy Baker,
curator of primates at the zoo. She snapped wide awake when she
heard his voice.
     "It was just so unusual for him to call me, especially at
that hour, that I knew immediately something was very wrong. As
soon as I heard his voice, I started mentally going down the rows
of animals. What I said was, 'Oh no. Has one of my animals
     "Julie," Baker said, in a grief-stricken voice, "something
bad has happened."
     "Which one?" she asked. "Who died?"
     "This is much worse," Baker said. "Worse than you can
possibly imagine. There was a fire. Everyone died."
     Unger, who thought of the primates-especially the six-member
gorilla troop-as a lovable, playful extended family, sank to the
floor in pain.
     All 23 of the zoo's primates, the animals Unger loved and
cared for daily, including her beloved gorillas, died in the
worst zoo tragedy in U.S. history. An electrical fire destroyed
the World of Primates and all its inhabitants. In addition to the
gorillas, three orangutans, four gibbons and 10 lemurs perished.
     "Everyone told me not to, but I just had to go to the zoo
right away," Unger says. "I know it sounds morbid but I had to
walk down to the remains.  I had to see for myself. It sounds
awful, but I had to touch John's fur."
     John was the 450-pound silverback gorilla, leader of the
western lowland gorilla family that died in the fire. Like a
proud aunt, Unger kept a hand print of John's-made once while he
was sedated for a medical procedure-on the door of her
refrigerator at home.
     "John would reach through the cage and hold my hand," Unger
recalls. "He was the exact opposite of the big, fierce gorilla
people expected him to be. He was gentle and kind. He made sure
the troop was respectful of one another."
     His two wives-Snickers and Samantha-also were favorites of
Unger. She remembers winning over Snickers, whom she describes as
"kind of gruff," with a series of through-the-bars backrubs.
     It was doubly hard to loose Samantha, whom Unger remembers
as "the sweetest, most submissive gorilla," because she was
pregnant when she died.
     "You have to keep your distance. You're never going to be
part of their troop. But, when you feed and play with gorillas
every day, you do develop a sort of sibling or parent/child
relationship," Unger says. "It feels like a huge part of my life
has been ripped out. My job was a much bigger part of my identity
than I realized."
     In addition to feeling the personal loss, as a zoo
professional, Unger also mourns the loss to the gene pool. All of
the primates who died were endangered species.
     A supportive fianc and family as well as the zoo's
mandatory grief counseling have helped Unger over this hurdle in
her life. The tears that overflowed when she first gave
interviews about the fire have been replaced by a sort of wistful
sadness in her eyes.
     An optimist by nature, she has decided to stay at the zoo,
working on a renewal project that aims to rebuild an even better,
safer World of Primates.
     "To go somewhere else to work with gorillas again would
almost be worth it," she says, "but my heart is here. I want to
be part of the rebuilding effort. We have to make sure nothing
like this ever happens again."
     Wearing a button with the Philadelphia Zoo's motto,
"Remember, Rebuild, Renew," Unger admits to having adopted the
saying as a personal mantra.
     "Somedays, when I'm driving to the zoo, and the sun is just
coming up, I start to cry," she says. "But, I'll be okay. I'll be
here when the new group shows up."
     Meanwhile, she spends her days at the zoo in Penrose Lab,
caring for some Geoffroy's Marmosets and two Golden-Headed Lion
Tamarins, which were housed next door to the World of Primates
and are recovering from smoke inhalation sustained in the fire.
     Unger spends the rest of her time in the small mammal house,
caring for tree shrews, ermine, a dwarf mongoose and a few small
rodents. Instead of hiding blueberries in ice for her lively
gorillas to find, or playing a favorite game of leaving their
food in special secret places, she leaves dishes of cows' blood
each night for the vampire bats to drink.
     While it will be years before a new primate facility is
ready and a new male gorilla is found to establish a new troop,
Unger says she is hopeful that the leader may, in fact, be one of
John's offspring.
     John and Samantha have children and many grandchildren
living in several zoos. National zoos cooperate rather than
compete with each other, Unger says.
     For instance, Chaka, son of John and Samantha, now lives at
the Cincinnati Zoo, where he is having some adjustment problems.
In gorilla terms, that means he's taken to punching the females.
Chaka may do better with new mates back in Philadelphia.
     "It's important to remember that the mission of zoos has
changed from strictly entertainment to stressing conservation,"
Unger says. "Our animals didn't die in vain. Their lives had a
purpose. They were delightful ambassadors for their wild cousins.
If zoos can help people learn to care about one animal in
captivity, that caring can spread to concern for animals in the
wild. This has made zoos everywhere more determined to do right
by the animals in our care."
                                              -Beth Thomas