Albert came to the Zoo in 1949, along with two females, Bouba and Bata. They were all only between 6 and 10 months old, and Albert was the youngest and the smallest. Edalee Orcutt Harwell, who had been a Zoo hospital secretary, agreed to take on the huge task of raising them. At first the gorillas had their own special “apartment” at the San Diego Zoo hospital, where they had a large, sunny corner room with three sleeping areas. The staff created a play area for them in the hospital’s yard with swings, a teeter-totter, and a metal slide. Albert loved to go up the slide from the bottom and stop in the middle, and then bang on it as hard as he could, to make as much noise as possible.
As the little gorillas grew, Edalee fed and played with them, provided discipline and structure, and cared for them when they were sick. Albert wasn’t the most cooperative at mealtimes. He loved fruit baby food, but he didn’t like peas or carrots, and he hated cereal. If he didn’t like something, he would clamp his mouth shut. Even though Albert was the smallest of the trio, he was not deterred by not getting something right; he’d keep at it until he mastered it. He grew quickly and soon developed into an endearing little show-off who was well able to hold his own against the girls. He definitely had his own opinions and could be stubborn—when urged to do something he didn’t like, he would give Edalee a look that was half scowl and half pout. That became his “signature look”—one he would be known for even as an adult.
Albert gradually grew into his role as leader. If Bouba and Bata got into a quarrel, he’d charge over and put a stop to it. If they took an item and ran off with it, he’d get it back and hand it back to the keepers. In 1964, Albert moved into the Zoo’s new gorilla grotto exhibit, and that’s where he met Vila. He took a liking to her and put on showy displays of strutting, chest beating, and rushing around to impress her and get her attention. Apparently it worked, and the result was the birth of Alvila in June 1965, the first gorilla born at the San Diego Zoo.
But there was one thing Albert was even more famous for. When visitors would stare at him or yell things at him, he had a way of getting back at them. He would casually pick up something close by, quietly examine it—and then suddenly throw it full force at the offender. He was amazingly accurate and usually hit his target. Unluckily for the person on the receiving end, the item he chose to throw was often poop. Visitors who were familiar with Albert’s ways would chuckle, and then stand aside, as some misbehaving novice guest would get what was coming to them.
Albert had a close relationship with keeper Harold “Mitch” Mitchell. Mitch could call his name and Albert would pay attention, or ask Albert to bring back something like a rag that had gotten into the exhibit. This developed into an “exchange game”: Albert would offer Mitch something, like a piece of fruit, and Mitch would take it and offer something in return, like a piece of bamboo. Mitch always considered these games to be a gesture of friendship between the two. Albert’s legacy has lived on through his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and the Zoo’s Albert’s Restaurant is named in his honor.