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10 Gorillas, 3 Groups, 2 Exhibits

Posted by: Stephanie Payne, Zookeeper

With 10 gorillas making up three social groups living in two on-view exhibits, it can be challenging for visitors to keep up with the gorillas at Woodland Park Zoo—especially with all the moves and changes over the last few years.

Several of the changes were influenced by recommendations from the national gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP), a group of gorilla specialists that makes breeding recommendations and gorilla transfers based on the genetic diversity and wellbeing of the approximately 340 gorillas in accredited North American zoos.

Let’s explore the dynamics of each of the gorilla groups to help you understand which gorilla is where and why. Then we’ll share tips on when and where to look for the gorillas to make the most of your visit.

We start with Group 1’s Nina and Pete—the bedrocks of Woodland Park Zoo’s gorilla program.

Nina. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Silverback Pete (right). Photos by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Who is in Group 1?

Pete and Nina, our oldest gorillas and lifetime residents, currently occupy the largest exhibit, one that has been nicknamed the “retirement village” by keepers. Pete and Nina have spent a lifetime raising their own offspring (Wanto, Kamilah, Zuri and Alafia, who are all living elsewhere now), as well as being surrogate parents to Nadiri and Akenji when their mother, Jumoke, was unable to raise them. Pete and Nina are also grandparents to thirteen grandchildren that live throughout the United States. These two enjoy spending time in the shelter and you often will see them with the soft, fleece blankets that the zoo and generous donors provide them.

This exhibit used to be the home of a much larger group: Pete, Nina, Naku, Akenji, Nadiri and Alafia. Based on the SSP recommendations, Alafia is now living in sunny Los Angeles, and has a very good relationship with her new silverback, Kelly.

Naku is now in Milwaukee and just delivered her first baby in early March. Unfortunately, the infant did not survive due to a respiratory infection, but we are relieved that Naku cared for the baby. She was doing everything that a mother gorilla should do. As a result, we expect that she will raise any future babies successfully.

Nadiri and Akenji are both still at WPZ, but have been living in our outdoor, off-view exhibit as we’ve focused on creating a new group with our newest silverback, Leo (Still with me? I’ll revisit this later!)

When and Where Can I See Group 1?

For now, Pete and Nina can be seen daily in the West exhibit (the one closer to Jaguar Cove on the Tropical Rain Forest loop). If you’re lucky, Pete will be wearing his fleece chapeau and Nina will have her tongue out, both signs that they are fully relaxed!

Who is in Group 2?

Group 2 is composed of Leo, Akenji and Nadiri. This group currently spends a portion of the day in an outdoor exhibit that is off public view, but they can usually be observed in the East exhibit in the afternoon.   

Silverback Leonel. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Leo, our newest silverback, came to WPZ from Granby Zoo in Quebec in 2008, with the hope that he would socialize well with our two adult females, Nadiri and Akenji. He had never lived successfully with other gorillas for an extended length of time, and we felt that Nadiri and Akenji’s personalities would suit this somewhat socially challenged individual. After a long and careful introduction, the trio did indeed become a cohesive group.

Our further hope, that Leo would successfully breed with Nadiri, proved to be in vain. Despite SSP recommendation, genetics are only the beginning; gorillas need to actually like and accept one another in order to successfully breed, and Leo made it clear from the beginning that he preferred the more forward Akenji over less confident Nadiri. Having been hand raised by humans, Leo seems to be a bit amiss when it comes to proper breeding behavior. We’re hoping that Leo’s attraction to Akenji will result in Akenji’s first pregnancy and that he figures it out soon, as he is the only viable breeding option for Akenji here at the zoo. She is related to our other two silverbacks (Group 1’s Pete is her grandfather and Group 3’s Vip is her father).

Akenji. Photo by Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo.

While they are a successful social group, the challenge of getting Nadiri pregnant still remains. Nadiri is eighteen and the only living offspring of her father, Congo, who was a genetic founder, or, a wild born gorilla. She is nulliparous (has never become pregnant) and is genetically underrepresented in the captive population. The combination of her age and underrepresented genes makes her breeding status a priority for the keepers. 

We are all attuned to the ticking of her biological clock.

Which brings us to …

Who is in Group 3?

This family group is our most dynamic, as it includes our youngest gorilla, 7-year-old Uzumma, who is not shy about tormenting the more mellow gorillas in the group with her gregarious personality. She shares the East exhibit with her father, Vip; her mother, Amanda; her older sister, Calaya, and an unrelated female, Jumoke.

Introducing the females of Vip's group:

Calaya. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Jumoke. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Amanda. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Uzumma. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Vip has sired six females at WPZ since his arrival in 1996: Monifa and Akenji with Jumoke; Naku with Alafia; Ngozi, Calaya and Uzumma with Amanda. When it became apparent that Leo and Nadiri were not interested in one another, Vip became the last viable option. This involved a lot of discussion, planning and strategizing, as bringing these two together for daily visits would necessitate keeping Vip inside while the females in his group went into their day exhibit, as well as asking Nadiri, already a self-conscious and suspicious girl, to shift into a holding area with a silverback that she had only seen in the distance.

Silverback Vip. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

After months of careful and cautious introductions, directed by the interest and willingness of Nadiri and Vip, we have established a daily visitation routine, which typically lasts approximately 2 hours in the morning but extends all day during Nadiri’s estrous period, when she is more likely to be receptive to Vip and become pregnant.

When and Where Can I See Groups 2 and 3? 

Keeping in mind that the gorilla schedule is always being tweaked a bit depending on the complex social needs of these apes, we do have some tips for the best times to look for each group in the East exhibit.Visitors who arrive at the East exhibit before 11:00 a.m. may likely see only the females of Group 3 on exhibit. Vip rejoins the females usually between 10:30-11:30 a.m., depending on when his visit with Nadiri is finished that morning.

Often, Leo’s Group 2 then rotates onto view in the East exhibit in the afternoon. When one group goes on view in the East exhibit, the other group rotates to the outdoor, off-view exhibit (which the gorillas really enjoy).

Leonel on exhibit. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Are There More Changes Coming?

Our goal is always to create a dynamic environment that encourages natural behavior, which means there will no doubt be further changes on the horizon. But for now, you can look for Group 1 in the West exhibit and either Group 2 or 3 in the East exhibit.

Hopefully things won’t have changed again before your next visit, but if they have, you can be assured that any changes made are in the gorilla’s best interests. Always feel free to ask a keeper if you have any questions about the groups, or check our blog for further updates.

Enjoy your visit and please take some time to observe the beautiful gorilla ambassadors that we are fortunate enough to have living among us here in Seattle!


Anonymous said…
I really enjoyed all the information this blog provides about our beloved Gorillas. What I wish was that you'd find some way for people like me who read this blog to comment with our facebook info. I don't have any of the other options available to me so signed in as Anonymous. In reality, Victoria G. Marshall. Zoo visitor for over 52 years.
Anonymous said…
Oh I love all of the information!!! So well written, I feel like I have a connection with these beautiful amazing apes!
Anonymous said…
The anonymous is Gina Barbosa, I just forgot my passwords and sign in name etc.
Anonymous said…
I've gained a better understanding of these amazing animals because of this blog. Each one is such an individual personality. Loved the descriptions.
Three woderful groups. I know Amanda like my own sister. Of all the
years I observed her in the group 2:6 (but of course the silverbacks had to alternate because of Charlie's nature)at the Metro Toronto Zoo,
I found her to be a very caring female, and my adviser. Love you Amanda,your family, and all who are near you.