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Growing up gorilla

Posted by: Stephanie Payne-Jacobs, Zookeeper

Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

While the experience of providing hands-on care for a baby gorilla is unique and rewarding, it’s with mixed emotions that keepers and Animal Health staff have taken on this responsibility. The ultimate goal of our current long hours and intense focus is to see the baby integrated into her true gorilla family.

Until then, raising Nadiri’s baby in close proximity to her family reminds us that our biggest priority is to raise her as a gorilla, and to instill in her an understanding that she is indeed one of the amazing gorillas that she sees, smells and hears throughout the day.

In this update, I’d like to provide a glimpse into the progress we are making toward that goal in our work behind the scenes.

Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Over the three months since giving birth, Nadiri continues to develop a relationship with her baby, which evolves as the baby goes through weekly developmental changes. Keepers are fostering this relationship via the three daily visits between Nadiri and her baby, which began shortly after she was born.

These visits occur first thing in the morning, midday—before Nadiri’s group goes out onto exhibit—and at the end of the day when they come inside, and can often last up to two hours. The more lengthy visits are typically at the beginning and end of the day, with the midday visit averaging around 20 minutes.

Before each visit, Nadiri is asked to walk away from her group mates, female Akenji and silverback Leo, and into a separate area with her baby in order to give them some time alone, away from the cares and concerns of group dynamics. Keepers are able to access both Nadiri and baby through the mesh for feedings, rewards and occasional repositioning of the baby, though that is rarely necessary now that her core strength allows her to sit upright on her own. While these visits have not yet led Nadiri to pick her baby up and have that maternal behavior kick-in, which was the original objective, they have led to a very positive connection between mother and baby. That connection will continue to grow once the baby is mobile and independent enough to be with her group full-time.

A keeper snapped this gentle moment between mom Nadiri and her baby behind the scenes. Photo: Woodland Park Zoo.

During the visits, Nadiri will frequently spend a good deal of time lying or sitting by the baby, touching her and gently investigating her hands, face and ears. The baby is also reaching out to Nadiri, holding onto Nadiri’s arms, fingers, and touching her face. The baby is also becoming more aware of the solid foods that Nadiri is offered during these visits and will often have her face pressed against her mom’s as Nadiri is eating something enticing. This is when the baby is exposed to the food that she will also be eating one day soon, as pieces of kale, romaine, celery and just about anything else in Nadiri’s diet is often dropped  within the baby’s reach. She has yet to do more than mouth solid foods at this point, but that doesn’t keep her curious nature from reaching out for these different items.

Photo: Woodland Park Zoo.

Once the visits are over, Nadiri is reunited with her group and the baby rejoins her human caretaker. During the time that Leo’s group is on exhibit, which is currently every afternoon for several hours, the baby is further familiarized with her future indoor bedrooms, climbing structures and hammocks. She is also brought outside to an off-view area in order to experience different weather patterns, temperatures and substrates.

Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Since the baby’s area is adjacent to the gorilla group, separated only by a mesh partition, she is consistently exposed to the play, disagreements, movements and subtle communications of her future family. Though the baby has yet to join her group full-time, her constant presence has already had a positive influence on her family’s group dynamics. Since her birth in November, there has been a steady increase in the already generous amount of play sessions and positive vocalizations between Leo, Akenji and Nadiri.

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

For their part, Leo and Akenji have both shown their own interest in the baby. Leo often watches the baby and will occationally content-vocalize towards her. Akenji initially exhibited a bit of jealousy towards all the attention the baby was receiving, so we now make a point to engage Akenji  in more activities during these visits, if she’s  not already playing with Leo. She’s slowly coming around to sharing the spotlight with her little half-niece.

Akenji. Photo by Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo.

While Leo will be the baby’s primary silverback, keepers are also making sure that she is familiar with her father, Vip, as well. Vip has had visual access to the baby since the day after her birth, as Nadiri’s daily visits with Vip were stopped only briefly, on the day of her labor. Similar to Leo, Vip has shown subtle interest in his latest offspring, looking in her direction and reaching out to gently touch her.

Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

As the baby gets stronger and more independent, the goal of her becoming a full-time member of Leo’s group gets closer and closer. We all look forward to that day, not only for her, but for the gorilla and human families that await her arrival.


Editor's Note: You have the chance to be part of this baby gorilla's story. She needs a name, and we need your help! Enter the naming contest online now for your chance to win a special zoo prize package. Ends February 29.

Enter the contest online now!


Julie Jay said…
Thank you so much for the wonderful article and photos. I really appreciate your updates. Also, thank you to the keepers for taking such good care of the baby and for nurturing the relationship between baby and mother.
Unknown said…
Why are the baby and her mother not in Vip's group?
We currently have three silverback males at the zoo and each male has a social group of females that lives together with him. The groupings, which are known to change over time, are based on a number of factors including compatibility, age, relations, and so on. In Nadiri's case, though she has visits with Vip and has mated with him, she spends most of her time in silverback Leo's social group which includes female Akenji and the new baby. Nadiri and Akenji are good social companions for Leo and his interactions with the baby have been positive too.
Julie said…
Thank you for this update. We have come so far from the days when baby animals were taken from their mothers and raised in zoo nurseries. I appreciate the work involved in helping the little one have the best possible interactions with the other gorillas.
Unknown said…
Wish they would show a list of name ideas people have submitted.
That would be neat to see and read
Unknown said…
It would be cool to read names people posted
Unknown said…
When is Woodland Park Zoo announcing the winning name of the baby gorilla. I thought it was scheduled for March first
We're going over the thousands of entries now and we expect to pick and announce a winner in about two weeks!
Savannah Allen said…
I'm so excited to see who won!!! <3 i bet all the names are fantastic!