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

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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.

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