Gorillas, Our Cousins
Public radio, station 90.1 in Indianapolis presented an interesting program about zoos. I tuned in late but here are a few stories they told.
A family group of gorillas, that had lived on cement floors behind steel bars was about to be released into an outdoor wild habitat filled with lush plants and real earth. The big silverback was the first to cautiously scout out the strange new habitat. From the door of his concrete and steel indoor apartment he looked out at nature for the first time in his life. He just looked for the longest while, at the trees and brush, and then up to the sky and fleeting clouds.
I tried to imagine what thoughts went through my distant cousin’s mind. Other zoos had warned that an abrupt relocation would be traumatic for the family of concrete born primates. They had never seen, much less climbed a tree before. Would they fall and injure themselves? Would they be intimidated by an infinite sky above them, and billowing clouds, cool rain splattering on their shaggy shoulders, wind blowing through their long hair? What would they think about mud between their toes; since when did fruit and vegetables hang from branches waiting for discovery? How would the gorillas react to their new world?
It was predicted that their zoo stunted neural tracts would be overwhelmed by the strange environment that suddenly appeared on the other side of the steel door? How long would it take for them to adapt, if at all, to such change? How would they react, with defiance, anger, shyness, terror? What might happen to their family structure, breeding behavior, and relationship with their keepers and zoo visitors? How would a human react in their place?
The story, I’m happy to say, turned out well. The 400 plus pound silverback finally ventured into his new enclosure. He was not excited, or scared, or particularly overwhelmed, he just took it all in quietly. Upon identifying zookeepers and curators apprehensively watching behind a heavy glass window, he approached and evaluated the situation. He recognized his keepers and other familiar humans who had been visiting him more frequently lately. What would he do? How would he react? To the terror of his visitors he calmly dug deeply into the loose earth in front of the heavy glass barrier and uncovered a large jagged rock which he raised over his head in both hands as if to crash it through the glass window. The viewers feared the worse. They had taken precaution to remove all rocks and item that could be throw by the apes. But, there it was , a large heavy jagged rock that couls have easilt shattered the glass. After a few moments of contemplation, the silverback discarded the rock and lay down on his back to enjoy his family and welcome his baby who climbed onto his massive chest. Needless to say, the onlookers were relieved and in tears that the gorilla family had adjusted so easily to their new quarters.
Long ago, while in college, I was a zookeeper and cared for gorillas. My experiences are still etched into my mind. The facilities at NYC’s Bronx Zoo at that time were state of the art, but by today’s standards they were primitive. The gorillas displayed little of the intelligent social behavior of wild gorillas or contemporary gorillas in natural environments. A young male was being raised alone because he was too small to handle the lone female who had lost her large siverback mate in a tragic drowning accident several years ago. The male had fallen into a moat that was filled with deep water. The zookeepers pulled his limp body to shore desperately tried to resuscitate him to no avail. At that time, in the 1950s mouth to mouth resuscitation was not a recognized life saving procedure, and if it had been, could a human perform it on a large gorilla? I doubt it, but it would have been worth a try. The zoo had been grooming the young male to eventually become the mate of the “widowed” female. But as we know today, sex in apes is not instinctive and must be taught so the mating plan was for naught.
Back to the present: The onlookers behind the glass understandably were in tears at the primates easy adjustment, and so was I just listening to the narration, and as I write this blog.
There is a movement afoot that is critical of zoos. They say zoos should be abolished for the sake and health of the animals. I disagree. These critics are a hundred years behind the times. Most zoos now must be certified and adhere to strict regulations pertaining to breeding, medical, and mental well-being. Today’s zoos serve a vital role for the preservation of wildlife and endangered species, and the public good. My wife and I just visited our local Indianapolis Zoo, which is one the very best from both the animal’s and visitor’s perspective. Ground breaking has recently occurred for their new Orangutan exhibit, in which the red apes will range throughout the zoo on an overhead highway and be housed in a natural environment. Wishful dreams are for a male gorilla habitat, and a bonobo habitat. Knowing bonobos, I am sure they would scandalize many mid-west visitors, and provide educational viewing for the rest of us.
The local PBS station presented several other moving stories about zoos which I will relate in future blogs. I know kids love animal stories so I wrote about my personal adventures caring for animals at the zoo and in the wild. Look for the series of stories about “Roy the Animal Boy” in past blogs. The stories are based upon actual events. My next blog will be about the very drowning incident I mentioned above. Check out graygoosegosling. Many thanks.