Mbongo and Ngagi

When gorillas Mbongo and Ngagi arrived in 1931, they began the San Diego Zoo’s long relationship with these great apes.
  • 1930s
  • 1940s

After the arrival of Mbongo and Ngagi, the San Diego Zoo became quite the “gorilla capital,” as scientists and zoo buffs from every corner of the globe came to observe the two thriving gorillas. At the time, there were many myths but few facts about gorillas, making every detail of their care and behavior a learning experience. In fact, it wasn’t until the two juvenile apes had been at the Zoo for over three years that staff felt confident in declaring them both to be males! For many years they were also thought to be mountain gorillas, but they were really eastern lowland gorillas.

With their handsome faces and playful antics, the gorillas soon won the hearts of just about everyone. People came to know them as individuals, and their adoring public kept a close watch on them both through visits to the Zoo and in the pages of ZOONOOZ. Ngagi was more dominant and thought to be the older of the two by about six months, but Mbongo was considered more clever. Director Belle Benchley described Mbongo as “friendly, comical, and apt to be a little tricky. He is much more buoyant and lighthearted and at the same time more easily depressed than Ngagi.” About Ngagi, she said he “has always seemed to feel a sense of responsibility which has made him watch over and control the younger one. There are few people that Ngagi even tolerates, and he shows plainly his resentment of photographers, or too close observance, especially when eating.” Yet Ngagi showed great affection for Benchley, and would lie down close to the fence so she could scratch the top of his head.

During their lifetime, these two great apes opened eyes to what remarkable, gentle giants gorillas are. Even now, the magnificent bronzes of Mbongo and Ngagi on the front plaza are among the most photographed subjects in the Zoo.

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