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The Golden Years of Gorilla-hood

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, communications
Everyone has their favorite animal at the zoo, or maybe even a few, but we’d venture to guess that heaps of you have an especially soft spot for our oldest gorillas, Pete and Nina.

The pair dines on Italian plums, a treat from their keepers. Video by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Walking by the west gorilla exhibit, you can’t help but check in on the wrinkled pair. Nina, famously posing with her trademark stick and pink tongue, greets her visitors with a curious eye for people watching. Her attention to visitors has endeared her to hundreds of thousands of guests. Everyone knows her. The tiny, grandmotherly-gorilla seems to be the most adored among our youngest guests; and may have singlehandedly taught the children of Seattle how to stick out their tongues. (Sorry, moms). Pete, with his silver hair and balding head, has stuck by Nina’s side for all her 46 years. The gentleman of gorillas, his keepers say Pete is polite and appreciative of any attention he receives, expressing his gratitude with content grunts. Pete was an excellent dad and is still very companionable with Nina.

Pete and Nina, chillaxing in the summer sun. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.
At 46 years old, the iconic pair is a foundation of the zoo’s gorilla program. Pete and Nina have lived at Woodland Park Zoo since 1968 and have had four offspring together (Wanto, Kamilah, Zuri and Alafia), all of which have played a big role in furthering future generations through the gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP) at other zoos. They were also surrogate parents to Nadiri and Akenji when their mother, Jumoke, was unable to raise them. Pete and Nina have 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

What a great mom! Nina with daughter, Kami, born in 1977. Photo by Woodland Park Zoo.
But, how do gorillas live to be great-gorillas?

Pete and Nina are part of a special geriatric gorilla health program here at the zoo. Just like humans, gorillas are affected by many of the same health issues related to old age.

By their appearance alone, it’s evident they have aged, explains Martin Ramirez, the zoo’s curator of mammals. “Nina and Pete are experiencing some of the same aches and pains of aging humans. They’re more sedentary, they have arthritis and they are experiencing gradual weight loss. However, while the senior gorillas are doing relatively well for their age, we have to accept the fact that the couple is facing their sunset years. We will continue to give them the same quality care we give all our animals.”

Matriarch Nina, reigning with her signature stick. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.
Hey, handsome! Pete's red hair might be balding, but he's still got style. Photo by Dennis Conner/WPZ, 2007.

As part of the zoo’s exemplary quality care program, Nina and Pete are under a prescribed program to help manage their geriatric infirmities. “We medically manage their osteoarthritis with daily medications to help maintain their mobility, and provide vitamin and mineral supplements for overall health,” explains Dr. Darin Collins, the zoo’s director of animal health.

According to Pat Owen, a collection manager at the zoo, the gorillas’ zookeepers conduct visual checks twice daily on Pete and Nina. “The keepers take a close look at how each gorilla is moving about, their appetites and fluid intake, how responsive their eyes are, and the condition of their gums, teeth and jaws,” says Owen.

During one of these checks, keepers noticed that one of Pete’s lower teeth didn’t look quite right. With closer inspection it was determined that the tooth was infected. Performing surgery or examining an animal under anesthesia poses a risk, especially for elderly animals, despite every safety precaution taken to ensure a successful procedure. The last time Pete was anesthetized was for a dental procedure in 2008. This Saturday, September 20, he will experience an anesthetic procedure for the potential extraction of or endodontic repair on the infected lower right canine tooth. Depending on Pete’s stability during the procedure, the medical team will attempt a cardiac ultrasound for potential age-related cardiovascular concerns that are prevalent in male gorillas. The procedure on Pete will be performed at the zoo’s Animal Health Complex where Collins and the zoo’s animal health team will work alongside a medical team consisting of endodontists, a dentist/oral surgeon and radiologist. Because of his age, anesthesia for the geriatric patient is a high risk. “However, leaving the infected tooth is potentially life threatening so we are taking the risk to intervene on his behalf,” says Collins.

Nina snacks on a celery stalk while she keeps an eye on her visitors. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.
Bette Davis once lamented that “Getting old is not for sissies,” but with a crew of dedicated keepers, a world-class animal health team and a community of adoring fans, Pete and Nina are two gorillas living their golden years in a community that couldn't possibly love them more. 

Here are some tips inspired by our oldest gorillas on how to age gracefully…
  1. Stick out your tongue. A sign that Nina is content and relaxed, sticking out your tongue proves both enjoyable and reduces stress. Children will fall madly in love with you.
  2. Keep trying new things! Pete enjoys novel enrichment items such as a bouquet of falling rose petals from our organic rose garden.
  3. Eat a wide variety of vegetables. Gorillas are vegetarian and forage all day to eat a variety of vegetation, including fruits, leaves and veggies.
  4. Snack on yogurt. Yogurt is really great for the health of your gut; even Pete and Nina receive non-fat yogurt treats to keep their digestive systems in check.
  5. Visit your doctor regularly. As the field of zoo medicine continues to evolve (improved husbandry and management techniques, excellent animal care, better nutrition, increased medical knowledge, diagnostic and therapeutic techniquesanimals in zoos are living longer. “A few decades ago, gorillas lived only in to their 30s or even younger. Today, the species, particularly female gorillas, can live in to their 40s and 50s,” explains Ramirez.
  6. Spend time with your best friends and family. It’s clear to see, Pete and Nina are quite fond of each other and whether they are sharing an afternoon kale snack or grooming each other, their companionship enriches both of their lives.
  7. Stay fashionable! Looking good is feeling good. Don’t stop rocking your signature look!
Nina models a Sounders scarf in 2012. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Visitors spend time with Pete and Nina, the zoo's oldest gorillas. Video by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

We wish you well on your upcoming tooth procedure, Pete!


Michelle said…
I love these two! Thanks for taking such great care of them and all the animals! Best wishes for Pete's procedure on Saturday.
I don't know you, Michelle, but I want to tell you that you took the
exact words out of my mouth...thanks. I'd like to say that Nina and
Pete are king and queen, and star divas in their own right. They are
the perfect devoted couple, though it's sad some of their children are
not with them. God Bless Nina and Pete and all their children and

Unknown said…
When we moved to Seattle in 2001 we were delighted to learn that we had two role models - Pete and Nina - who share our names and age. As they seemed to be thriving, we took it as a good omen that we would have a long and happy stay in the Emerald City.
All four of us are still here!