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6 May 2004

Max the Gorilla - best known for his crime-fighting activities when he took on a gun-wielding attacker who strayed into his cage at Johannesburg Zoo in 1997 - is dead.

Anyone wishing to send a message of condolence following the death of the zoo's most beloved occupant is invited to address them to max@jbhzoo.org.za.

According to a post-mortem, Max died in his sleep on Tuesday night of "congestive heart failure and renal failure", which are signs of old age, said zoo marketing manager Elmarie Loubser. He was 33 years old, roughly the standard life span for gorillas in captivity. In the wild, they generally live to the age of 40.

The 180kg primate became a household name in Johannesburg in 1997 when he tackled a criminal who jumped into his enclosure while fleeing from the police. The 250kg lowland gorilla "apprehended" the criminal, and was shot twice in the process, a feat that earned him the title "Newsmaker of the Year" from the Johannesburg Press Club.

The injured Max was treated by staff from Johannesburg's Milpark Hospital. One bullet passed through his jaw and another lodged in his arm. The bullet in his arm was never removed.

The Western lowland gorilla came to the Johannesburg Zoo from Germany's Frankfurt Zoo as a two-year-old in 1972. One of the most endangered species in the world, and the largest living primate, the lowland gorilla originates from the tropical rain forests of equatorial Africa, particularly the Congo and Cameroon.

In June 1991, the Moscow Zoo provided a mate for Max in the form of Lisa - on permanent loan to the Johannesburg Zoo. The state-of-the-art enclosure at the zoo was the first outdoor experience for the female gorilla, who was also used to the Russian language.

With time both gorillas adjusted to the new status quo, and Max reached "silverback" status, achieved by a fully adult male bonded to a female.

Max was cared for by curator Phillip Cronje and the team from the zoo's Alpha section. According to Cronje, Max's favourite snack was garlic, and he also enjoyed the occasional beer. The silverback also preferred being fed breakfast before Lisa woke up.

Of late, both Max and Lisa had shown signs of ageing, according to a zoo press release. Lisa developed a potbelly and Max suffered from arthritis.

Source: City of Johannesburg website