Osa Johnson's Exotic Pets

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Osa Johnson and Bong, 1949
Osa Johnson and Bong, 1949

Husband and wife explorers Osa and Martin Johnson travelled the world with adventurous zeal, adopting a number of exotic pets along the way

Although relatively unknown today, in the first half of the 20th century husband and wife Osa and Martin Johnson won hearts and riveted attention with tales of their adventures in far-away lands. Photographers, explorers, naturalists and authors, the pair studied the wildlife and peoples of East and Central Africa, the South Pacific Islands, and British North Borneo, sharing their findings with the rest of the (then largely unwitting) world through a series of highly influential films, writings, and lectures. Theirs is a love story in many senses. They were fuelled by a deep love for each other (Johnson paid a fleeting visit to Osa's hometown of Chanute, Kansas in 1910 where they met, fell in love and married in quick succession when Osa was only 16); they were united by their love of adventure, travel and learning, and of course, shared a great passion for animals. And considering that between 1917 and 1936 they called some of the world's remotest areas home, their scope for pets was a little more exciting than that of your average couple. It is unsurprising then to learn that over the years the Johnsons' pets included a gibbon, a gorilla, an orangutan, a cheetah and a pair of ostriches (Ossie and Oscar) – they even used to tame and ride zebras.

"Over the years the Johnsons' pets included a gibbon, a gorilla, an orangutan, a cheetah and a pair of ostriches"

Kalawat the gibbon (a small ape found in tropical and subtropical rainforests) was Osa favourite pet – the Johnsons purchased him from two Tenggara women in Borneo. They paid six dollars for him and he accompanied them on many adventures, including voyages to Africa. A wonderful image shows Kalawat and Osa grinning from the window of the Johnsons' giraffe-print aeroplane, Spirit of Adventure. Their orangutan Abai was also found in North Borneo. His head was three times the size of a human's, and he was the most prized animal of the select few they took back with them to New York – sadly he contracted pneumonia in the Bronx Zoo and died shortly after. Also taken to New York on a separate occasion was a gorilla named Snowball, purchased from a group of hunters in Africa. He was also placed in the zoo but was once brought back to the Johnsons' New York apartment as a special treat. However, upon being allowed into Osa's bedroom, he proceeded to eat her lipstick, spill her face powder, break her alarm clock and finally climbed into her bed and fell asleep. He wasn't invited back.

The Johnsons' beloved cheetah, Bong, spent longer in their care. They bought him from a ranch owner in Kenya and took him back to live with them in Nairobi. When they returned to New York, Bong came too and lived with the Johnsons, enjoying short walks with Osa in Central Park. Soon however the Johnsons deemed that city dwelling was not suitable for the growing feline and they installed him in the San Diego Zoo. He lived at the Zoo for 11 years and was said to accompany the zoo director Belle Benchley to speaking engagements at local events.

Most of the Johnsons' enthralling pet-scapades are documented in Osa's much-praised memoirs I Married Adventure (1940), a wonderful homage to the places she visited, the things she discovered, the animals she treasured and, most of all, the man she loved. The book is dedicated to Martin and ends tragically with a newspaper clipping announcing his death in a plane crash in Los Angeles (Osa was also on board and was badly injured). However, her spirit of adventure survived and she zealously continued her explorations, as well as going on to host the first wildlife series on television, Osa Johnson's The Big Game Hunt.

Text by Daisy Woodward