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Dec. 1, 1958: Phil the gorilla dies after a hunger strike

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ST. LOUIS • Phil was listless and without an appetite. He wouldn't gulp the orange soda that was his favorite treat. He spurned a gift of sugar cane and pushed away a cherry pie.

"Everyone is pulling for Phil," said George Vierheller, director of the St. Louis Zoo. "It's all very discouraging. We really are helpless."

Phil lived at the St. Louis Zoo since Sept. 10, 1941. On Nov. 8, 1958, the zoo announced that Phil had stopped eating and was losing weight. Less than a month later, on Dec. 1, Phil died.

Phil was Phil the Gorilla, the king of the zoo. For almost two decades, zoo patrons had flocked to his cage hoping to catch some of his antics. Sometimes he'd rip the shirt from his main keeper, Frank Florsek. Other times he'd suddenly bomb his human admirers with a mighty splash from his swimming tank.

Phil had lived at the zoo since Sept. 10, 1941, when Vierheller bought four young gorillas for $14,000. Captured in west Africa, Phil weighed 30 pounds when he arrived here.

In health, Phil's daily diet was 22 pounds of vegetables, chased down by two gallons of milk and an orange soda. But on Nov. 8, 1958, the zoo announced that Phil had stopped eating and was losing weight.

Newspaper updates came almost every day. When Vierheller said he was ordering sugar cane from Louisiana, Mamie Sturgis of 4332 Lindell Boulevard showed up with three stalks she had just brought home from New Orleans.

Phil wouldn't eat the sugar. On Nov. 18, he picked one cherry out of a pie and turned away. The next day, Marcella Hampel of Pine Lawn arrived with a custard pie. Phil snubbed that gift, too.

Caring people filled the zoo mailbox with ideas. A letter from Hong Kong suggested vinegar and water. Someone proposed hypnosis. A doctor wrote that someone should "sit down and talk to Phil."

On Nov. 30, zookeepers were encouraged that Phil drank milk and peach juice. The next morning, a zookeeper saw Phil resting on his floor at 8:30 a.m. A half-hour later, Phil was dead.

His death on Dec. 1, 1958, was front-page news. "He was one of my great pals," Vierheller said.

An autopsy determined death by ulcerative colitis. It also revealed that Phil, even with his fasting, weighed 776 pounds when he died, meaning he had been the largest gorilla in captivity.

The zoo hired taxidermists to preserve Phil's body for permanent display in the old Elephant House, next to today's Jungle of the Apes. The display opened May 11, 1959, and was a must-see exhibit for many years.

Later, it was moved to the Children's Zoo, then to the gift shop.

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