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Gorilla dating game

Posted by: Stephanie Payne-Jacobs, Zookeeper

Calaya enjoys organic flowers from the zoo's Rose Garden. Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Calaya joins the dating game

As animal caretakers, the daily welfare of the gorillas is our highest priority, but looking ahead and planning for the future of each gorilla is just as important.

Such long term plans may revolve around future breeding opportunities, socially appropriate groupings or age related concerns. At the heart of this planning is making sure we meet the mental and physical health of each individual, while also assuring the genetic sustainability and health of the population.

Recently, Woodland Park Zoo had to say goodbye to a member of the gorilla family due to a match-making opportunity that we felt was in the gorilla’s best interest.

In late February, Calaya, a young adult female gorilla from Vip’s group, was transferred to National Zoo in Washington D.C. as part of a breeding recommendation by the Species Survival Plan (SSP). The SSP is a cooperative breeding program across conservation zoos designed to maintain the genetic diversity and demographic health of populations, and its work is especially important for critically endangered species like the western lowland gorilla.

As a 12 year old, it is time for Calaya to leave her natal group and find an unrelated silverback to mate with, much as she would in the wild.

It goes without saying that finding a mate in western equatorial Africa would indeed occur under different circumstances. In the wild, male silverbacks may cautiously approach the periphery of a group with females and try to woo them away from their natal group. The females, in turn, may have the opportunity to check out any potential mates at large, common gathering areas where food is plentiful, such as a “bai.”

Being a life-long Seattleite, however, Calaya needed a bit of matchmaking magic to happen in order to reach her new mate, a silverback named Baraka in Washington D.C.  Unsure of whether Calaya and Baraka would like one another, we had to rely on their personalities, histories and level of experience as gauges to measure their compatibility.

Calaya at play in her Woodland Park Zoo exhibit. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

The ultimate goal

Having a baby gorilla is the ultimate enrichment for a gorilla group—it encourages natural behavior in ways that cannot be replicated by caretakers. When breeding situations go smoothly, the mother and infant benefit from the experience, as does the rest of the group. Gorillas learn from experience and from one another, and no one can teach a gorilla how to be a gorilla better than a gorilla. In Calaya’s case, we are confident that her excellent upbringing with her gentle and attentive mother, Amanda, in her family group has provided her with all the necessary knowledge she needs to become a great mother and asset to her new gorilla family.

Calaya is loaded into a crate then transported by aircraft to Washington D.C. Photo: Elliott Rosenthal

Calaya’s journey begins

Unbeknownst to Calaya, her journey began four days before her departure, when her soon-to-be National Zoo caretaker arrived in Seattle in order to spend some time with Calaya before her transfer. He had a lot of questions about Calaya’s personality, her likes and dislikes and general history, which we were happy to answer (ad nauseam, he might offer). Our most common refrain was “Calaya is a gorilla’s gorilla.” What is that, you may wonder?

It means that while Calaya has always been comfortable around the humans in her life, she much prefers her gorilla companions and remains fairly indifferent to our praise, sweet talk and company in general. She is socially and politically savvy amongst the members of her family and tends to steer clear of conflict, though she will back up her mom, Amanda, and sister, Uzumma, if they need her help in a dispute. In short, she speaks the subtle language of gorilla very well, a skill that hand-raised gorillas may often find a bit more challenging.

Given her well-roundedness, age and the changing dynamics of her current group, Calaya was deemed a good match for Baraka, a 23-year-old silverback who was raised by an auntie gorilla mother in his natal group. Neither Calaya nor Baraka had been in the immediate presence of an unrelated, potential mate, so we were excited to see what their reaction would be upon her arrival.

Zookeepers regularly checked on Calaya throughout the travel and kept her well supplied with favorite treats. Photo: Elliott Rosenthal.

 Away we go

The trip to D.C. went as smoothly as we could have hoped. With her crate heavily bedded down with hay and covered with blankets, Calaya remained calm during transport to the airport as well as throughout the flight. The National Zoo keeper and I accompanied her along every step of the way and made sure she was warm, calm and cared for throughout her journey. We indulged her with her favorite fruits, nuts and fluids until she showed us in no uncertain terms that she had had enough (she would shove any further offerings away with a hasty poke of her finger). Traveling via the FedEx animal shipment department, we were able to have access to her crate during the flight, though we left her mostly alone as we had ample opportunity before, after and between our two flights to see to her needs. I must add that while many airport employees were understandably curious as to who or what was in the crate, everyone was extremely professional and respectful and stayed well away, making our job a lot easier.

After a long day of travel, we finally arrived to D.C.  in the early evening. A zoo police escort from the airport to the zoo hastened our arrival to National Zoo and, with the help of an amazing group of zoo staff, Calaya was out of her crate and into her rooms within an hour of landing. Once her crate door was opened, she cautiously walked out in into the tufts of piled hay, blankets and scattered food that was awaiting her and immediately picked up a piece of watermelon and sat on her favorite pink stool, which had been sent ahead.

For all transferring zoo animals, there is a necessary quarantine period at the receiving zoo’s end, which is usually 30 days. This is to guarantee the health of the incoming animal as well as the established group the animal may be joining. Quarantine areas are typically located in a separate building, away from where the animal will eventually be living. Fortunately, however, National Zoo has a specific ape quarantine area that is adjacent to the gorilla living quarters. This allows Calaya to be in immediate proximity to the sights, sounds and scents of her future group.

A love connection

Baraka, Calaya's new mate at National Zoo.
Photo courtesy of National Zoo.
It didn’t take long for Baraka and Calaya to notice each other. The interest started casually at first, with Baraka sitting by the bedroom window and Calaya occasionally pausing to check out the new male from across the room. By her first full day there, Baraka was content grunting towards her and Calaya was posturing towards him in a way that can only be described as “Hey, I’m looking at you and I like what I see. Look at me!”

By the second day, Calaya had made a nice nest overnight in a hammock within Baraka’s sight line, and Baraka had made an equally lovely nest by the mesh window in his bedroom. At this point, keepers began having difficulty shifting Baraka out of his room-with-a-view for cleaning and feeding. He was now spending most of the day at this window in a bedroom that had previously been largely ignored.

Between Baraka’s refusal to leave his vantage point, his near-constant courtship vocalizations and Calaya’s shared interest, we all couldn’t have been happier with their initial meeting. These affiliative interactions continued throughout my week-long stay, and the updates from National Zoo report that the love connection is still going strong. Calaya’s quarantine period will end soon, and when it does, she will be introduced to her new family. We are hoping that Calaya and Baraka will then add to that family—and the genetic diversity of the population—very soon.

As I went to say goodbye on my last day, Calaya and Baraka remained focused on one another. I left with a smile on my face, knowing her future there would be a great one.


Donna Jacobsen said…
Hi, can you post some exciting news about some of the construction that is taking place today around the zoo? Like the building of new habitats and new cages and gateways? .
You got it, Donna! We are in the process of constructing our new Banyan Wilds exhibit, which will feature sloth bears and Malayan tigers. The exhibit opens May 2 and we plan to take readers behind the scenes with updates on the construction and finishing touches as we countdown to opening. Stay tuned.
Anonymous said…
Let us know when she starts fixing up a nursery!