The great emotional au revoir for Bao Bao, the giant panda shipped last month from the National Zoo in Washington to China where, the idea is, she will mate and produce another rare panda, brought to mind one of the most hilarious events in my experience as a newspaperman at The Baltimore Sun.

This is the story of Baltimore Jack, a 500-pound, 18-year-old gorilla The Baltimore City Zoo (as it was known then) had agreed in 1970 to sell for $5,000 to the zoo in Phoenix, Ariz., where it was hoped that Jack would go ape over Hazel, a 10-year-old beauty in residence there.


It was the kind of story that made newspapering great fun for everyone involved, back in the day when The Sun not only had its own correspondents stationed around the world but also a Washington bureau staffed with a dozen writers and editors, and — most important in this event — a full-time reporter covering the Baltimore Zoo.

No one was quite sure how Jack would relate to Hazel, whether the relationship would provide a baby gorilla. Gorillas are notoriously unreliable in this respect, especially in captivity. The $5,000 deal between Baltimore and Phoenix stipulated that if there were offspring, the first-born would come live in Baltimore.

But the project was troubled from the start with challenging travel arrangements. Under the original agreement, the Phoenix Zoo was supposed to provide the transportation. They presumed the Arizona Air National Guard would bring Jack from Baltimore to Phoenix. But at the last minute the Guard pulled out. Transporting an ape was one thing, bringing along a bunch of other attendant civilians was quite another.

Then something far more exotic came along to save the day. Hugh Hefner, the founder of Playboy Magazine, Playboy Clubs and the Playboy bunnies announced he would transport Baltimore Jack to Phoenix on his private Bunny-staffed Boeing 727 jet aircraft.

And on a hot July day 47 years ago, the Playboy jet arrived with three mini-skirted flight attendants who helped the sedated Jack onto a large round bed in Mr. Hefner's stateroom.

The most envied staffer of the day was not the London correspondent or the Paris correspondent or the Chief of the Washington Bureau. It was the Baltimore Zoo correspondent, David L. Maulsby, a gentleman of patrician antecedents and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of World War II.

Mr. Maulsby loved animal stories. He had written elegantly about a crow, French poodles and even one "splendidly groomed piglet." As his obituary in 1975 noted: "His sense of humor, his whimsy and his turn of phrase were such that he became a genre unto himself. To his colleagues, such stories, whether he wrote them or not, became known as 'Maulsby stories.'"

The Baltimore Jack story naturally seemed made for Maulsby who was dispatched by Scott G. Sullivan, city editor of the day, to accompany Jack to his Phoenix rendezvous.

Day after day, Mr. Maulsby's turn of phrase was devoted to playfulness between Jack and Hazel with details of the various items they were treating as toys, what they were eating and the extent to which they seemed to be attracted to each other. But none of this was leading to the consummate event, as it were.

After a while, Maulsby was summoned back to Baltimore. A few months later he returned for a follow-up story as hope had risen that something might happen. But in the end, he acknowledged "Arizona is considered to be one vast desert and Baltimore Jack, the gorilla, is considered by some to be one vast disappointment."

Baltimore Jack died two years later, cause of death recorded as mycotic pneumonia.

One can only hope that Bao Bao and her panda lover in China will fare better than Hazel and her pal from Baltimore did in Phoenix.

G. Jefferson Price III (gjpthree@gmail.com) is a former Sun foreign correspondent and editor. His quarterly guest column will run every other Sunday through May.