There Was Once a Gorilla Named John Daniel Who Was Raised Like He Was a Child

Image via NYPL.
Image via NYPL.

Gorillas have been getting the shit end of the stick from humans for a very, very long time. Let’s remember one beautiful creature, John Daniel, who was raised to believe he was a little boy, drinking tea and eating flowers.


A new book published by archivist Margaret Groom includes recently discovered photos of John Daniel amongst the children of the small town of Uley in Gloucestershire in the UK. The Telegraph reports that Groom says she knew people who saw John Daniel first-hand:

“Until recently we had people that remembered him walking around the village with the children. He used to go into gardens and eat the roses.

“The children used to push him around in a wheelbarrow. He knew which house was good for cider, and would often go to that house to draw a mug of cider.

“He was also fascinated by the village cobbler, and would watch him repairing shoes. He had his own bedroom, he could use the light switch and toilet, he made his own bed and helped with the washing up.”

John Daniel was purchased by Major Rupert Penny at a London department store—back when apparently you could do that—called Derry & Toms in 1918 for £300, which would be about £25,000 (or around $31,500) today. He had been captured in Gabon after his parents were shot by French officers.

His bedroom was in Penny’s sister, Alyce Cunningham’s house. Cunningham treated John Daniel as a part of the family, and said she was pleased with his conduct:

His table manners were really very good. He always sat at the table, and whenever a meal was ready, would pull his own chair up to his place. He did not care to eat a great quantity, but he especially liked to drink water out of a tumbler. I always gave him some butter with his breakfast, but he seldom liked bread. Sometimes he would take a whole crust or round of toast when you least expected him to and eat it all. He always took afternoon tea — of which he was very fond — and a thin piece of bread with plenty of jam; and he always liked coffee after dinner. He was the least greedy of all the animals I ever have seen. He never would snatch anything, and always ate very slowly. He always drank a lot of water, which he would get himself whenever he wanted it, by turning on a tap. Strange to say he always turned off the water when he had finished drinking. He seemed to thrive on water, and this never prevented his taking his milk as well.

John seemed to think that every one was delighted to see him, and he used to throw up the window whenever he was permitted.

As John Daniel grew, however, it seems that Cunningham found him less manageable, perhaps because he was a wild animal. She reportedly arranged for him to go to a park in Florida in 1921, thinking it would be a more suitable environment, but found out after signing the contract (in which she sold John for a thousand guineas) that she had actually handed him over to Ringling circus.

In New York, John Daniel became ill. In the book Gorilla by Ted Gott and Kathryn Weir, accounts from observers indicate that the shock of the complete change in his life was too much for him:

“John showed that he missed Miss Cunningham and seemed humiliated when he was assigned to a cage on his arrival here a few weeks ago. He refused food and would crouch on his iron bed away from the front of the cage and cover himself with his blanket to hide from the crowds.”


John Ringling urged Cunningham to travel to New York as soon as possible, offering to pay all her expenses, and moved the gorilla to a room on top of Madison Square Garden with fresh air and a view of the sky. John Daniel died of pneumonia on April 17, 1921, before Cunningham reached him. His body was dissected and eventually stuff and displayed at the Museum of Natural History, where it still is today.

And guess what? After all that, Cunningham bought yet another gorilla from West Africa, raising it in the same manner. She eventually escorted her new child gorilla, John Sultan, to America for a tour with the Ringling Brothers. John Sultan died in 1926, hailed as living proof that “when caught young and treated kindly [gorillas] show intelligence of an order much higher than that of the chimpanzee and the orang, and in its quality closely approaching that of mankind.”

Contributing Writer, writing my first book for the Dial Press called The Lonely Hunter, follow me on Twitter @alutkin



Humans are the worst. What the hell is the matter with people?