Roar, Rumble and Snort: San Diego Zoo Stories
By Dani Dodge
Once upon a time, San Diego Zoo guests could watch baby gorillas grow up through the windows of the Children’s Zoo nursery. People would return again and again to watch the babies being bottle-fed and mark off the milestones of their growth.
Now, instead of seeing Frank, the zoo’s 1-year-old western lowland gorilla, playing with zoo staff, guests watch him romping with his troop in a 6,000-square-foot gorilla exhibit.
This is a story about how much things have improved in the 12 years since Frank’s mother, Azizi, was hand-raised in the Children’s Zoo.
Azizi was taken to the nursery because her mother wasn’t able to nurse her. She was 2 years old before she was introduced to her new troop in the gorilla exhibit. Because Azizi didn’t know the body language or social structure of gorillas, they didn’t accept her. Paul Donn, the silverback and troop leader, even bit her when she did not respond to him as a normal gorilla would.
“She couldn’t speak gorilla,” said Kim Livingstone, the zoo’s lead keeper for primates.
It was about a year before Azizi began to learn her place within the troop.
The San Diego Zoo’s primate keepers wanted to find a better way. Since then, they have taken several steps toward integrating bonobos, another kind of ape at the San Diego Zoo, with their families earlier. When Azizi became pregnant, they knew they wanted to go one step further.
Azizi gave birth to Frank on Sept. 4, 2008. She held him and protected him, but like her own mother, she did not know how to nurse him because she was hand-raised.
“That’s the cycle we wanted to break,” Livingstone said. “And the only way to do that was to have Frank grow up as part of the social structure of his troop and provide him with the social skills he needed for normal gorilla behavior.”
A fundamental change in the way primates are raised at the San Diego Zoo began. The keepers wanted Frank to have the entire experience of growing up gorilla from the sights to the sounds to the smells.
So, unlike his mother, Frank was never taken from the gorilla building or out of the view of his family. Keepers bottle-fed him within the sight of his troop. He slept in a crib just outside the gorilla bedrooms where the troop members could watch over him. Like a human baby, the gorilla infant isn’t mobile at birth. Keepers worked in shifts so they keep an eye on him 24 hours a day. His family could often touch him if they wanted. Within a month, he was spending four days a week in the bedrooms with them. A few months later, keepers left him with the troop at night also.
The logistics of this new system weren’t easy. Frank needed to eat every few hours, so keepers had to get the other gorillas to move away from Frank for bottle-feeding. Keepers called on earlier training, asking the adult gorillas to move to designated stations within the bedroom, or to follow the keepers into other areas of the building when it was time for Frank’s feedings. Frank ate and grew.
Other signs that this hybrid method of gorilla rearing was working became evident to keepers. Frank was able to communicate with the other gorillas as if he had been completely gorilla-raised. The older gorillas knew the difference between Frank’s cries when he was scared or uncomfortable and his cries when he was simply cranky — two sounds indistinguishable to human ears.
“When we trained him to go into the chute where he would be fed, he whined and cried because he didn’t want to be away from the other gorillas, but they didn’t even flinch,” said Greg Vicino, an animal care supervisor for the zoo. “We assume there’s a hidden clue within his calls. That was one of the first signs of success.”
By the time he was 6 months old, keepers felt Frank was mobile enough to go into the exhibit. First, they let him explore the area on his own. The date he would first go out with his family — and Zoo guests could finally see him — was set for March 6.
Keepers held their breath.
“I wasn’t worried at all about him being hurt,” said Vicino. “The one thing I was most nervous about is they would leave him behind.”
They didn’t. But he was still gulping three or four bottles a day, so the keepers fed him through metal mesh that separates the keeper area and the open exhibit. When he was full, he would lumber off to play with his family.
Frank displayed all the normal baby gorilla behaviors and met all the milestones of gorillas that had been raised with their families in the zoo.
“This has been very successful,” Livingstone said. “This is the first time we have ever raised an ape infant where they never left the facility and the family troop. Now he is getting the social skills he needs at a very young age. In the past, he would have still been in the nursery.
“Hopefully he will someday lead his own troop.”
Come to the San Diego Zoo’s Discovery Days: Absolutely Apes, Sept. 18, 19 and 20 for special keeper talks about orangutans, gorillas and bonobos. Frank is out with his troop every other day and can be seen Sept. 18 and 20. During Discovery Days apes will be treated to extra enrichment items. Special meals, tours and gift packages are available for guests. More information at www.sandiegozoo.org.
Dani Dodge is a former newspaper reporter and editor now working at the San Diego Zoo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.