Circus Confidential: M'Toto the gorilla's Sarasota legacy

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Posted: Monday, May 5, 2014 11:00 pm


SARASOTA, Fla. -- Animals have always played a big role in the circus; elephants, tigers, lions. But decades ago the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus wowed their crowds with gorillas.

One of those gorillas was known as M’Toto. She quickly became a household name in Sarasota, and her legacy lives on today.

There have been many famous gorillas throughout time; who could forget King Kong, the loveable Koko who understands sign language, the famous Phoenix Suns mascot, and even Donkey Kong.

M'Toto never reached that kind of popularity, but during the mid-20th century, the primate left a mark on the Ringling Circus and Sarasota.

“She was nice to have around. Just to know that you had a friend who was a gorilla and a lot of people enjoyed that,” says former clown Toby Ballentine.

M'Toto – Swahili for little child -- was brought to the Suncoast in the 1940's by A. Maria Hoyt. The arrival happened in a time many in the U.S. knew very little about gorillas, says Pamela Rosaire, a long-time circus primate trainer. “In those days, you didn’t see gorillas...even in zoos. They hardly had any in this country or anywhere else for that matter.”

The Ringling Circus quickly put M’Toto to work, pairing her with another well-known gorilla at the time: Gargantua. The two were supposed to mate, but it never happened. “They wanted her to be his bride in the circus. They dressed it all up like they were going to get married in the circus. They didn’t get along at all.”

When M'Toto wasnt performing in the circus, she spent her time here at a home on Virginia Drive in Sarasota; a very unique, very long structure.

Why a house like that? “On the circus train, she liked the train car, which was 80ft long. So in 1944, they built this house, and it’s 79 feet long,” says Ballentine.

He says M'Toto was practically human. “She was adopted as a human baby, and she wanted to wear pearls, and she brushed her teeth every day with a toothbrush and toothpaste in a sink.”

M'Toto's reputation began to grow in Sarasota. She would have a lounge named after her at the swanky John Ringling Hotel. But after years in the circus, she became sick and according to many died of a brain tumor in Venice in 1968.

The legend is that her body was buried at Sandy Lane pet kennels and cemetery. The rumor is M’Toto is buried somewhere back there, but the place has been abandoned for many years. There are 600-700 animals buried there, including that famous gorilla.

After walking through the brush, we find a plaque covered in dirt and weeds. It says M'Toto.

The house that M'Toto once lived in is in foreclosure. And if you're wondering, Gargantua died in 1949. Rather than being buried in Sarasota, his skeleton was donated in 1950 to the Peabody Museum at Yale University.

Toto Shows Affection for His Lifelong Mentor Courtesy: National Geographic

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1 comment:

  • mmt643 posted at 2:05 pm on Fri, May 16, 2014.

    mmt643 Posts: 1

    I have been enjoying "Circus Confidential" thoroughly since it began. I lived in Sarasota in 1945-46 and spent a lot of time at the circus grounds. I watched the exciting parade of circus performers and animals as they debarked from their train at the end of Main Street and wended their way to their winter quarters. Huge crowds of Sarasotans lined the route to welcome their circus friends home. It was truly an unforgettable experience!

    However, I would like to point out that M'toto's name was mispronounced. She was called muhtoto, not em toto. The origin of her name is given as follows in Wikipedia:
    Toto (1931–1968) (a.k.a. M'Toto meaning "Little Child" in Swahili) [1] was a gorilla that was adopted and raised very much like a human child.

    A. Maria Hoyt adopted the baby female gorilla orphaned by a hunt in French Equatorial Africa in 1931. Mrs. Hoyt's husband killed the baby gorilla's father for a museum piece, and his guides killed its mother for fun.[1] Mrs. Hoyt moved to Cuba to provide a more tropical home for Toto. At the age of four or five, Toto adopted a kitten named Principe, carrying the kitten with her everywhere. When Toto became too difficult to manage for a private keeper, she was sold to the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus as a potential mate for another gorilla, Gargantua, a.k.a. Buddy. Toto died in 1968. Toto is buried at "Sandy Lane" Kennels Pet Cemetery in Sarasota, Florida.[citation needed]

    I'm looking forward to further installments of your circus findings, Mr. Wintiz; keep up the good work!

    Marilyn M. Timm


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