The Milwaukee (Library) Lion

In talking about my “Carnage at the old Washington Park Zoo” post over dinner last week with my friend and fellow blogger Karen Spivey, we started to reminisce about Milwaukee and its close relationships with favorite animals.

For example, consider Samson the gorilla, who made front page news (complete with ginormous above-the fold headlines) in the local newspapers when he died. I had just moved to Milwaukee and was both amused and awed by the city’s collective devotion to this animal. Little did I know 🙂

Samson came to Milwaukee as a baby in 1950 and thrilled zoo-goers for the next 31 years, particularly with his penchant for rushing toward visitors and pounding his fists on the exhibit enclosure’s windows. He broke four of them over the years. Today Samson’s skeleton and his taxidermy-like “recreation” (i.e., not his real skin) reside at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Here’s an excellent blog post from the Milwaukee Public Library about Samson (link).

Let’s not forget either about Gertie the Duck, now immortalized with her ducklings in bronze down on the Riverwalk near the site of her nest in the pilings under the Wisconsin Avenue bridge next to Gimbels during World War II. Gertie and her brood were relocated to the Gimbels storefront display windows, which probably kept them a little safer and definitely made it easier for passersby to get a look. Gertie was so cute that she actually made international news and got a feature in Life magazine!

Nor should we neglect to mention the “Milwaukee Lion” that first appeared in summer 2015 and has perhaps reappeared in nocturnal security-camera footage periodically since then.

CNN ran a feature on this story, as well, embellished with a few humorous touches.

I thought I was pretty well informed on the history of Milwaukee’s animal celebrities, but Karen has lived in Milwaukee her entire life, so she has far greater knowledge than I do about the city’s more famous animals.

New to me was her mention of a lion that once lived on the roof of the Milwaukee Public Library.

The lion’s name was Simba (which means “lion” in Swahili), and he came straight from Africa, where he had been found as an orphaned cub during an expedition sponsored by the Milwaukee Public Museum in 1929. Simba lived on the roof of the library (which also housed the museum at that time) until he was transferred to the Washington Park Zoo after injuring his teeth on a wooden bowling ball he’d been given as a toy. He lived at the zoo for the rest of his life, after which time he was returned to the museum, where he was stuffed and mounted and can now be seen in the Savanna Bush African diorama.

Here are two good Milwaukee Public Library blog posts on Simba:

The second post is longer and has more background details, but the first has some video footage of Simba drinking from a bottle in Africa and then frolicking on the library roof with safari leader Carveth Wells.

It’s so strange to think about zoos in the early 20th century and how so many of their animals were originally brought from Africa via ship and unloaded at the docks. This was also roughly the era of former President Teddy Roosevelt’s 1909 African safari. Although Roosevelt’s official purpose was to collect specimens for American museums, he also wrote about how all the hunting and shooting of big game “made our veins thrill.” Roosevelt compiled a list itemizing the 512 animals killed by him and his son, Kermit.

Again, that’s 500+ animals killed in the name of conservation.

Most specimens were donated to museums, but as Roosevelt noted in his book (African Game Trails: An Account of the African Wanderings of an American Hunter-Naturalist), he and his son did keep about a dozen “trophies” for themselves. You probably recall the widespread outrage that greeted photos of President Trump’s sons posing with their own “trophies” from an African hunting trip.

How our collective sensibilities have changed!


About Katherine Wikoff

I am a college professor at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where I teach literature, film studies, political science, and communication. I also volunteer with a Milwaukee homeless sanctuary, Repairers of the Breach, as chair of the Communications and Fund Development Committee.
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5 Responses to The Milwaukee (Library) Lion

  1. I forgot about Gertie the Duck!! My sisters and I would go feed bread to the ducks in the Juneau park lagoon with my Mom’s friend (after which we would go to her apartment and watch the Miss America contest!!)!! I remember feeding marshmallows to the bears at the zoo too!! Oh, my, the times they have changed…all for the better for the animals, that’s for sure!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sally Cissna says:

    Loved this!! I remember seeing Sampson at the Zoo in is waning years. He was always a bit spooky, the way he’d meet your eyes and stare into your soul. Great blog!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Rose says:

    Catching up after being away. Just went to the Zoo recently & the gorilla section was closed. The elephants will get a new home as it’s under construction. I remember the Washington Park Zoo before the current Zoo grounds. Monkey island & the elephants. Very young at the time but I have vague recollections of huge stone stairway or paths? Sampson to me was scary in his youth. He seemed more complacent when my kids were younger. Now we visit Sampson at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

    Liked by 1 person

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