Tragedy at a German Zoo The Life and Death of Massa the Gorilla

When Massa the gorilla died at age 49 in a tragic fire earlier this year at the zoo in Krefeld, Germany, he was one of the oldest gorillas in Europe. His offspring live in zoos across the continent.
Western lowland gorilla Massa in 2005

Western lowland gorilla Massa in 2005


Zoo Krefeld

On good days, when there were no kids in costumes and no men with hats visiting the Great Ape House, Massa perched himself on the tree branch in the middle of his enclosure and watched the people who had come to see him. He would stretch out a leg, clench his teeth, blink and purse his lips as if he wanted to whistle a song.

He looked relaxed in those moments. He propped himself up with his right arm and fed himself a head of cabbage with his left hand. He peered at visitors straight in the eye. Even if he hadn’t chosen his fate, he seemed to have accepted it - a life in over 300 square meters (3,200 square feet) of concrete at the Krefeld Zoo located about 30 minutes from Cologne.

At 49, he was one of the oldest male gorillas in Europe. Several generations of Krefeld residents grew up knowing that he would be waiting for them at the same place each day.

Massa’s life, like that of all zoo animals, was dictated by the desires of people. He was hunted by animal catchers because he was precious. He was shipped to Europe because the continent wanted exotic animals. He was locked up so people could marvel at him. The wind carried a human’s last wish to Massa.

Birth and Abduction

The first thing Massa saw in his life was the jungle.

He was a western lowland gorilla, a subspecies that lives in the rain- and swamp-forests of Central Africa. Massa was born in 1971, probably – the zoo believes -- in what was then Zaire and is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. The international trade in lowland gorillas has been prohibited since the mid-1970s, as stipulated in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. When it became clear in the early 1970s that the convention would severely restrict the import of endangered animals, many European zoos decided to replenish their stocks in advance.

It was a time when people smoked in their cars and didn’t think twice about eating steak. Zoos didn’t sell themselves by advertising their compassionate zoo-keeping, but by showing off their exotic animals. Trade in wild animals was a lucrative business. The zoos mostly paid middlemen in Africa, who in turn hired local hunters who knew where the gorillas lived.

Massa was likely one year old on the day he lost his freedom

Young animals were the most sought after. And a live baby was worth the equivalent of several thousand deutsche marks at the time in the markets of Central Africa.

Lowland gorillas are social animals. A silverback lives in a community with several females and their young. Gorillas will fight to their death to defend their babies, so when hunters tracked down a family, they first killed the silverback and then the females. The zookeepers believe this is what happened with Massa. The young gorilla was then brought to a market in the Congo Basin.

Nobody knows for sure if apes mourn. Gorillas don’t cry. Primatologist Jane Goodall has spent years studying chimpanzees and believes that apes have feelings, like we do, and that they are capable of suffering and love.

Massa was probably a year old when he lost his freedom. From that day on, humans determined his fate.

Wolfgang Dressen, Zoo Director

The Krefeld Zoo, which was founded in 1938, has been managed by Wolfgang Dressen since 2003. It is home to musk oxen and butterflies, otters and two snow leopards. There’s a beech grove in which native grey herons breed and a restaurant that serves sausages and beer. It takes about an hour and a half to visit the zoo in its entirety.

If you walk through Dressen’s zoo with him and a plumed basilisk crosses his path in the rainforest house, he’ll shout: "Ah there’s one, quick, he’s sitting back there!” Then he grabs you by the arm and whispers: "Can you see it? A species of lizard from South America that can grow to be 30 to 40 centimeters.”

Dressen studied biology and wrote his doctoral thesis on the social behavior of kangaroos. He believes the modern zoo is an answer to the dying out of species and argues that it serves to maintain small populations of animals that may soon become extinct in the wild - a kind of ark, built against a man-made flood. One gets the impression that Dressen is sincerely concerned about conservation. "Today,” he says, "zoos no longer take animals out of the wild. Thank God for that.”

Dressen says that kids, especially, love the zoo. You might think, he says, that the first thing they would want to visit are the predators, like the Sumatran tiger, or the snow leopard. But for many, Dressen says, the apes were the highlight of their visit.

A gorilla’s gene sequence is largely identical to ours, making it both a relative and a stranger at the same time. Standing in front of an ape, a person is reminded of his or her own sense of civilization – in the zoo, man rules over nature.

Foto: Zoo Krefeld

Childhood and Captivity

The second thing Massa probably saw in his life was a city. In the markets of Central Africa, many merchants still care little about species protection. Conservationists say that some sell ivory and rhinoceros horn, either powdered or intact. One kilogram of horn can bring in several thousand euros when resold on the Asian black market. Some say that you can buy slaughtered gorillas there, and some live young animals are sold next to the meat of other members of their species. Little is known about the first years of Massa’s captivity There are few facts, only stories told to the zookeepers when Massa was delivered to them. An American living in Zaire supposedly bought Massa at a market in 1972 or 1973 for his amusement.

By that point, exotic pets had been in fashion for some time. Elvis Presley owned a kangaroo. Salvador Dalí led an anteater through Paris. And Harrods in London sold flying foxes.

After a few months, the zoo says, the American got overwhelmed and sold Massa again. A company called Ruhe, named after the family of animal dealers in the German state of Lower Saxony that owned it, came into possession of the gorilla. The company was founded in the middle of the 19th century and employed catchers and traders who would procure bull elephants and chimpanzees for circuses and zoos located anywhere from Hannover to New York. The company loaded Massa onto a ship and sent him up the Atlantic to Germany. 

People at the zoo say Massa was made to wear roller skates there for photos.

After arriving in the port of Hamburg, he was sent to a small zoo in northern Germany that housed lion and tiger cubs, elephant and rhino babies and great apes. The animals had been caught in the wild and reared by hand before getting sold on again. People in the zoo say Massa was made to wear roller skates there for photos.

Two years later, the Krefeld Zoo acquired Massa. Although the price isn’t known, the gorilla already had his name at the time. It’s unclear who gave it to him - maybe the animal catchers, or the American or the small zoo. Only its meaning is certain: "Massa,” meaning "master,” is what Black slaves once called their owners in the United States.

He arrived in Krefeld on April 29, 1975 – a gorilla cub, four years old, around 32 kilograms (70 pounds), with big eyes.

Klaus Reymer, Zookeeper

Klaus Reymer was an animal keeper at the Krefeld Zoo from 1970 to 2015. Today, he’s a retiree with two greyhounds. He sometimes visits the zoo, walks along the enclosures and goes to the gift shop to talk to the saleswoman there.

When Massa was young, he says, he loved to cuddle with him. He picked him up and tickled him. Reymer fed him milk from bottles, and in the afternoons, when the other animals had been fed, he went to Massa and played with him. He was the gorilla’s substitute family. Reymer says he enjoyed the time a lot, that he felt needed by Massa When asked about Massa’s death, he lowers his head.

Youth and Forgetting

The mayor of Krefeld opened the zoo’s Great Ape House on June 29, 1975. In his speech, he said that the house was state-of-the-art in its construction and in its way of housing the animals. The building, he said, was one-of-a-kind in Europe.

The enclosure was in fact considered an innovation at the time: a large tropical ape house with a constant internal temperature of 26 to 28 degrees Celsius, 2,000 square meters covered in Plexiglas that allowed the sun to shine through. The enclosure was only separated from the visitors by a concrete gorge, a dry trench.

In the 1970s, many zoos still kept apes in tiled rooms that looked like bathrooms without toilets, because those enclosures were easy to clean. The Krefeld ape house, by contrast, allowed visitors to enter a different climate zone, with exotic birds and tropical plants.

The keepers gave Massa baby food, fruit and vegetables until the age of six

When it opened, Massa was the only animal kept in the enclosure. A few weeks later, the keepers added two females named Boma and Tumba. Like Massa, both had been caught in the wild. Reymer says the three got along immediately.

Lowland gorillas don’t become independent until late. Their mothers nurse them for about four years, carrying them on their stomachs and backs. The keepers gave Massa baby food, fruit and vegetables until the age of six. Then he began receiving mainly chicory, celery, leek and endive salad in buckets - soon, that meant 10 liters (22 pounds) of food, twice a day.

Massa grew, quickly reaching 60 kilograms. But he was still a boy. He once escaped his enclosure by pulling himself over the dry trench with the help of a creeper plant. The zoo was already closed, so he ran around the ape house tearing out plants. After a while, he sat down on the ground in front of the ditch and began howling. Reymer says it sounded like crying, a heartbreaking cry, and he thinks Massa was homesick, that he wanted to go back into his cage.

No one can say for sure if apes feel homesick

It’s a peculiarity of humans that we want to recognize ourselves in others, even animals – in stories of cats that run miles after their owners move away, of dogs still waiting for their dead owners.

No one can say for sure if apes feel homesick, but animals are known to get used to captivity. It’s hard to release gorillas back into the wild. They don’t know how to build sleeping nests or where to find food. It’s as if they’ve forgotten who they once were.

After Massa got out, Reymer took him in his arms and carried him back to the enclosure.

Foto: Zoo Krefeld

Werner Golinowska, Zookeeper

When Werner Golinowska started his training as a zookeeper in 1978, the zookeepers still went into the enclosure Massa lived in. When Golinowska talks about his job, he says that although it is wonderful to work with animals and though he could not have imagined a better job, he always drew a line. "The animal belonged in the cage and the human outside it,” he says. And animals and humans are not friends.

In 1985, Golinowska became one of several people responsible for the apes in Krefeld. He fed Massa every day and cleaned his enclosure. Golinowska says that many animals get used to their keepers over time, and some even allow themselves to be petted. The young Massa would allow himself to be tickled, he recalls, but the way the gorilla would sometimes look at you later on, commanded respect. "It was a bit grimacing,” says Golinowska.

A person can teach lions to jump through hoops of fire, and dogs to sit up and beg. In the end, though, they’re still animals.

Golinowska claims a gorilla can never be completely tamed, no matter how hard you try. That was always as if Massa tolerated people and not the other way around.

Puberty and Dominance

Reymer thinks Massa must have turned into a grown-up in the summer of 1978. One day that summer, he went to Massa’s enclosure, as usual, to bring him and the females cocoa mixed with milk in a bucket. Reymer opened the door, bucket in hand, then closed it behind him. He walked through the enclosure as he had hundreds of times before and placed the cocoa in a corner.

When he turned around, Massa was standing at the door and blocking the exit. Reymer shouted at the gorilla: "Come on, get away from there!” But Massa didn’t move. Reymer took one step toward him. "Get out of here, boy!” he said. Then Massa took a step toward him.

Massa’s relationship to humans changed - now, even in captivity, contact took place on his terms.

Reymer summoned his courage and walked around Massa. From that point on, the zookeepers locked the gorillas up before feeding them, or threw their food to them.

Young male gorillas are called black backs, because their fur is not yet silver like that of an adult. But they have a strong chest on which they can drum with their hands to impress females and intimidate opponents.

Massa’s relationship to humans changed - now, even in captivity, contact took place on his terms. Reymer recalls how he had been a cuddly orphan just a few moments earlier, but after turning into a young gorilla, he could have taken on three men.

Male lowland gorillas can usually only sire offspring if they are the leader of a group. They often mate with the females in exchange for providing them with protection.

When Massa was seven and Tumba five, Tumba suffered a miscarriage. She carried the fetus around for days and held it at her breast when she slept.

After three more stillbirths, the keepers mixed a birth control pill into her food.

The Neighbors

Around 233,500 people live in Krefeld, and the zoo is located in the east of the city. The area is a mixture of residential zone and shopping area. It’s home to a gas station, a Greek restaurant called Poseidon, an elementary school and a vocational college. The streets around the zoo are quiet, with small homes. Some backyards have trampolines for children. Somewhere in this area, three women floated a few paper sky lanterns into the air on New Year’s Eve.

Sky lanterns hold a fire, a burning paste that allows them to float into the sky. You can buy them on the internet. Five lanterns cost 12 euros. You can attach a note with a wish to the lantern, then light the fuel paste and the hot air rises into the paper. The wind takes care of the rest. A lantern can drift for several kilometers before the fire goes out. You are allowed to buy sky lanterns in Germany, but not to let them fly because the danger of fire is too great.

That night, there was an easterly-southeasterly wind blowing at 10 kilometers per hour. It likely carried the women’s wishes to the Great Ape House.

The burned out Great Ape House at the Krefeld Zoo after the Dec. 31 fire.

The burned out Great Ape House at the Krefeld Zoo after the Dec. 31 fire.

Foto: Christoph Reichwein / dpa

Fatherhood and Anger

In the wild, lowland gorillas travel around 2 kilometers per day through the forest, searching for food and eating all day. When the sun goes down, they build nests from leaves and branches that they sleep on.

Massa slept on straw. Boards made from tropical wood covered the concrete walls. Each day was the same for Massa in Krefeld. The Great Ape House got unlocked at 8 a.m. Then came breakfast, which included vegetables and halved apples. At 12:30 p.m., he was given lunch, with cabbage and other vegetables. From 14 o'clock on, he got scattered feed, pellets and grains. At 5 p.m. came dinner - vegetables again.

Some animals in zoos display behavioral problems. Cats run in circles, polar bears and giraffes sway their heads back and forth for hours. Animal-welfare activists claim this behavior shows that the animals are suffering. Some zoos give the animals psychotropic drugs.

The building was closed entirely on the main day of the local annual carnival celebrations.

Zoo Director Dressen says Massa was never given psychotropic drugs. He was given willow branches to occupy himself, he says. Massa liked to bend and peel the branches.

Massa also had quirks.

He used to get mad when he saw people with dark skin, people wearing hats or children with makeup. He would flail his hands against the walls of the enclosure, tear out hair and bite his arms. The zookeepers put up a sign outside the Great Ape House saying that people wearing masks or face paint should not go in. The building was closed entirely on the main day of the local annual carnival celebrations.

A photo from this period shows Massa sitting with his legs apart and upright in the dry ditch, staring into the camera in a sinister way.

The keepers believe Massa’s reaction is related to the day he was caught. It was likely that the men who killed Massa’s family were Black and might have worn war paint and a form of mask.

The zookeepers say that young Massa was a "choleric guy” who "had his quirks.” He hunted, beat and bit the females. During that time, it didn’t seem as though he had come to terms with his captivity. He threw cabbage and excrement at visitors. A photo from this period shows Massa sitting with his legs apart and upright in the dry ditch, staring into the camera in a sinister way.

Massa became a father for the first time in 1981. He was 10 years old at the time and weighed about a hundred kilograms. The keepers named the baby "Gorgo.” Massa didn’t dare touch Gorgo in the first months, and he would just watch Boma, the mother, from his corner. She carried the baby near her belly and nursed it.

He gave commands, gruntingly, lovingly.

Eventually, Massa approached his son and nudged him with his index finger, then sat down next to the mother and carefully put his arm on her. Gorgo grabbed Massa’s thumb. Reymer, who witnessed it, said it was touching.

Massa fathered four more babies with Boma, and Tumba gave birth to three babies after the zoo stopped giving her the pill. Massa now had his own family, a harem.

The keepers say they all listened to Massa, and that he was happy. He gave commands, gruntingly, lovingly. He threw scraps of cloth and wood shavings to his young and played with them. Otherwise, he lay on a blanket most of the time and slept. Reymer says he seemed relaxed, like a different person. He had fewer temper tantrums. This went on for almost 20 years, until the late 1990s. In photos of that time, Massa looks powerful, with his back straight and massive shoulders.

It was around this time that his fur turned silver-gray.

The Fire Department

According to the report from the Interior Ministry of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the emergency calls reached the control center at about 12:35 a.m. on New Year’s Day. By the time the emergency services reached the ape house, the whole building was already engulfed in flames. One hundred and fifty firefighters fought the blaze. Shortly after 1:00 a.m., police officers with machine guns formed a circle around the burning building, fearing that some animals might have survived the fire and would try to break out. By 4:40 a.m., the fire was extinguished and the scaffolding had been cooled with water. At around 6:40 a.m., a fireman yelled from the aerial ladder that he could hear sounds from inside. He thought he could hear animal sounds.

A veterinarian entered the burnt-out building accompanied by a policeman with a machine gun and a fireman. Dressen says they walked through the charred corridors following the sounds until they reached the chimpanzee enclosure, where they found two chimpanzees, almost unharmed, named Limbo and Bally. They were sitting on a grate, exactly at the spot where the keepers had trained them so that they could feed them without danger. Dressen says it was a miracle.

The veterinarian sedated the chimpanzees with tranquilizer darts and carried the animals outside. At around 8 a.m., the vet found a badly injured female orangutan. The veterinarian put it to sleep by giving it an overdose of a sedative.

Just as the group was about to leave the ruins, they discovered Massa, Dressen recalls. He was leaning against a wall. He was breathing.

Old Age and Sickness

The zoo gave away all of Massa’s offspring in 1998. Today, they live in Frankfurt, Basel, Moscow, Rostock, Munich and at the Apeldoorn Zoo, in the Netherlands.

In 2000, Massa suddenly started eating badly. The keepers worried about him. That July, he was sedated and examined and found to have high inflammatory values in his blood. He was given penicillin, among other things. His body recovered, but his rage had returned.

He began staring at the visitors, threatening them and throwing anything he could at them. At one point, the zoo put up a glass wall, and when Massa got excited, he would drum against it. The beating would echo throughout the building. In the evenings, after the people had left, he would rub his forearms. The keepers gave him painkillers and covered the glass with foil so he could longer see past it, as if the world beyond the glass didn’t exist.

The zoo put Massa on a diet. He suffered from diarrhea and pancreas problems. He had a swollen lower lip and a bump on his head. He began losing muscle mass, and one eye watered constantly. In the wild he would have likely died before then, but in the zoo, he suffered from the diseases of old age.

Tumba died in 2019. After the keepers took her body out of the enclosure, Massa walked around it for days, as if he was looking for her. He didn’t howl the way he used to do when he was sad. He didn’t grunt either. He was mostly silent, in front of the cage.

The story of the fire went around the world - The New York Times, CNN. The French daily Le Monde ran an article about "the Germans’ passion for fireworks.” Visitors placed funeral candles in front of the zoo, and children laid messages down next to them. "You monkeys in heaven, I miss you very much,” read one. Another read: "You were worth all of the love you got.” Many of the letters were addressed to Massa.

The relationship between man and animal is mostly shaped by traditions. We eat the animals we’ve always eaten. We keep the animals as pets that we’ve always kept as pets. We lock up the ones we’ve always locked up.

Sometimes, when something happens that throws these self-evident assumptions into doubt, that relationship can seemingly change for a brief period.

Massa was mourned like a human being.


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 31/2020 (July 25, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

The Shot

When the veterinarian and the policeman reached the gorilla enclosure, they found it almost completely destroyed. The trunk in the middle was burnt, the dark pane had burst. They found Bomas’ body.

Massa was leaning against the wall, his arms stretched out, eyes closed. Most of his fur was charred. His chest was rising and falling.

He might have been thinking about all the things he had survived: the trappers, the wildlife market, the American, the small zoo with the roller skates. But he probably wasn’t thinking about any of that. He was an ape, after all.

The last thing Massa encountered in his life was the barrel of a nine-millimeter-caliber Heckler & Koch machine gun.

The vet loaded her tranquilizer gun with an overdose of sedative at around 8:30 a.m. and tried to put him to sleep. She waited a few minutes, but Massa kept breathing.

She shot him again, but he kept breathing. A third time, and Massa still didn’t die. The vet concluded that, because of the burns, his circulatory function had been reduced so extensively that the sedative wasn’t getting to his heart. She spent nearly two hours trying to end his suffering.

The last thing Massa encountered in his life was the barrel of a nine-millimeter-caliber Heckler & Koch machine gun.

At 10:15 a.m. on New Year’s Day, the police chief authorized the use of firearms at the zoo. A 34-year-old officer went into the Great Ape House with a machine gun. He fired. Massa was dead.

His body was burned in the zoo’s animal-carcass disposal facility. His ashes were disposed of.

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