Zookeeper's emotional reunion with gorilla he hand-reared 20 years ago
A retired zoo keeper has had an emotional reunion with a gorilla he brought up as a baby with his wife back in the 1970s.
Ron Smith, 82, battled back tears as he saw Salome for the first time in 20 years.
Ron, of Ipswich, Suffolk, told Archant: "She looks really well. It's so nice to see her. I am choked."
The widower recalled: "We reared her from soon after she was born. It was like our own child. She even slept in a cot in our bedroom."
Ron and Salome's incredible story starts back in 1976. He was second in command at the Ape House at London Zoo when Lomie gave birth to Salome – the first ever gorilla born there.
But Lomie struggled with her new baby and so Ron stepped in to take Salome home and rear her with his wife Barbara, who died in 2008, for the first year of her life.
She was taken into the zoo during the day but at night she slept in a cot in Ron's bedroom.
The animal-loving Smiths, who had no children of their own, loved bringing up loveable little Salome.
The time of caring for her soon came to an end, and Ron recalls that their parting was harder than he ever thought it would be.
Two decades have passed since Ron last saw Salome, who he affectionately still refers to as "my baby".
Now aged 36, the mother-of-three is living at Bristol Zoo, where she was relocated 20 years ago.
Ron decided he would love to see Salome for at least one last time as an extra-special Christmas present to himself.
His eyes lit up and he choked up as she emerged from behind a bush with her one-year-old son Kukena clinging to her leg.
Salome stared at Ron and his eyes began to water as she focused on her surrogate dad for a few magical seconds before walking away.
The former zookeeper stood transfixed as he watched her playing the highly-attentive mother.
John Partridge, senior curator of animals of Bristol Zoo, saluted Ron and his late wife Barbara for doing such a good job rearing Salome, saying: "I was really excited to meet Ron.
"I first met him in 1976 because Salome's mother came here to begin a breeding programme.
"Salome's mum then went back to London where she gave birth to Salome.
"Salome is a brilliant mother and that is all down to this guy."
He added: "The proof is there as she has had babies, rears them herself and is a strong member of the family.
"All that is down to how she was reared."
Lynsey Bugg, assistant curator of mammals, said: "I do not think she necessarily knew who Ron was but there was a definite recognition of familiarity.
"I think it is wonderful. He's done such a good job. She's an amazing animal in terms of teaching other members of the group about mothering. To see the man who made it all possible is just magical.
"The whole team have loved having Ron here and will continue to keep in touch with him."
Making the long 200-mile trip back to Ipswich, the lifelong wildlife-lover said: "This day will stay in my memory for a long time. I am overwhelmed. It has been a wonderful day – the best."
Aol Travel reported the birth of Salome's own baby, who arrived on 28 September 2011.
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