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Grow with Yola, hello 2!

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Happy Birthday Yola!

Yola and her vine swing. Photo by Dennis Dow, Woodland Park Zoo.

A very gorilla birthday

Mischievous, playful, smart, curious, adorable and loved—that’s Yola. Today, November 20 is her second birthday. The 2-year-old gorilla won’t be getting a heart-shaped cake or streamers, she won’t be renting a bouncy house either—instead she’ll spend the day with her gorilla group, her family, doing what all 2-year-olds do best. She’ll push boundaries by stealing someone’s stick, she’ll snuggle up close to mom when she feels like it, she’ll play chase with her aunt Akenji, and undoubtedly she’ll investigate whatever Leo is up to—but most importantly she’ll be a gorilla.

Being a gorilla is important. Gorillas are endangered. We hear that word a lot, but let’s think about what that really means. Their habitat and natural range is shrinking every day, and while we’ve made some progress in providing them protection —most of the wild population lives outside these protected areas. Many gorillas live in areas strife with political turmoil, hazardous development and even war. They are endangered due to habitat destruction and human encroachment, they’re slaughtered as bushmeat and hunted by poachers. They also face infectious disease as human populations increasingly overlap with their habitat.

Yola, at 6 months, clings to mom, Nadiri. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.
According to a 2010 United Nations report, conservationists believe gorillas may disappear from large parts of the Congo Basin by the mid-2020s. Yola will only be around 8-years-old by then. It’s hard to imagine a world without Yola. It’s even harder to image a world without wild gorillas. On her second birthday, let’s promise Yola we will stand up for her wild cousins and protect their future.

Woodland Park Zoo members, guests, staff and volunteers have shown an outpouring of love for Yola since she was born two years ago. We followed along with fingers crossed as dedicated keepers made sure Yola developed a bond with mom, Nadiri, so she would grow up gorilla. We all cheered as Leo, a male gorilla with a somewhat uncertain family history, stepped up to be a true silverback—protecting little Yola and showing affection for her. We watched in anticipation as the young gorilla was introduced to aunt Akenji and have delighted in watching them play together. We’ve watched as children play hide and seek with Yola. We celebrated her species on World Gorilla Day. It’s not hard to look into her eyes and feel your heart grow a little bigger, and for that we are all better off.

Yola at about 2-months-old. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.

Yola, which means “firefly” in the African language Hausa was chosen because the baby gorilla became a spark that catalyzed and solidified the bonds within her gorilla group, and on her second birthday, it’s clear she has also sparked in all of us a stronger commitment to conservation.

Today we celebrate Yola with an update from her utterly devoted keepers and a promise to be a spark for building a sustainable future for all gorillas.

Yola at 2

Yola and a young guest share a moment. Photo by Dennis Dow, Woodland Park Zoo.
Gorilla keepers Stephanie Payne-Jacobs, Hugh Bailey, Rachel Vass, Judy Sievert and Traci Colwell and curators Kim Szawan and Pat Owen have been with Yola since her birth. They’ve watched her grow and seen her behavior develop and her character blossom. They’ve also been witness to just how much her presence has positively impacted her group—seeing Nadiri, Akenji and Leo become family.

Stephanie and Hugh share a few of their favorite recent moments with Yola:

It always makes me smile when Nadiri goes to retrieve Yola. Yola is usually laughing as she pretends to "struggle" with Nadiri as if to say no to her mom and not come to breakfast or bed. Even though Nadiri usually gets her way (mom knows best), Yola is always testing the boundaries and never passes up an opportunity for play.

There are so many great memories of Yola’s first 2 years, capping with the most recent bouts of play wrestling on exhibit with Akenji and, just yesterday, repeatedly poking Leo in the behind, which caused him to push her away with his foot as he was trying to rest.

I like when she shows her mischievous/curious and playful side the most—when she sits next to Leo while he gets his daily hand treatment and cleaning and plays with the physical rehab props we use with him. Or when she runs past Akenji from a safe distance and playfully tags her. When she squeezes into the door ahead of her mom and swipes the bowl of applesauce her mom gets in the evening—rushing off to eat it in an area that Nadiri cannot easily get to. 

In the evenings, she becomes a wild child and swings and somersaults—being an overly-energetic 2-year-old when we’re trying to feed her dinner. She’ll grab a piece of food in one hand and set off for a swing, eating as she goes.

When she tries to elude her mom’s embrace when we’re shifting them around for meals. (Nadiri knows that she needs to wrangle her baby and shift with her, which Yola doesn’t always want to do.) Yola wants to be with Nadiri and would be upset if we shifted Nadiri away, but she loves the thrill of escaping her mom’s arms and running off… much like any toddler.

We’re just all so glad that she seems to be equally stimulated by her group members and the public at the viewing windows. She seems to genuinely find enjoyment engaging with the kids that come to see her, more so than the adults.

Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.
Keepers tell us that just like any 2-year-old she isn’t shy about showing her preferences either, one of which is tossing unwanted food items out of her room, towards her keepers. It’s usually a raw carrot or a cucumber chunk, but they say even flying vegetables are pretty adorable when it’s coming from Yola!

Happy birthday Yola! Hope year 2 is full of your favorite fruits, lots of play time and plenty of treetop adventures.

What you can do for gorillas

Yola is at the center of her gorilla family. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.

All gorillas are threatened by habitat loss, wildlife trade, hunting, disease and human conflict. Critically endangered and losing ground every day in the wild, gorillas need our help.

Recycle cell phones for gorillas

Come recycle your handheld electronics with us through ECO-CELL to preserve gorilla habitat. By reclaiming the minerals in your electronics and diverting them from landfills, we can reduce demand for mining in gorilla habitat. 

How: Bring any old cellphones, MP3 players, or tablets hanging around your house to the zoo and drop them off at our ECO-CELL station at Woodland Park Zoo's West Membership.

Funds generated from recycled electronics will go toward our Mbeli Bai Gorilla Project that works to protect gorilla families like Yola’s in the Republic of Congo. 

Buy sustainable wood

By purchasing FSC-certified forest products, you can help protect gorilla habitat by encouraging sustainable forestry and curbing illegal logging. Without the FSC label, your timber might come from illegal or destructive sources in central Africa. Do the right thing and support companies that are FSC certified.

Adopt a ZooParent gorilla

ZooParent adoptions are the perfect gift for budding conservationists. Your ZooParent adoption helps us provide exceptional care for all of Woodland Park Zoo's amazing animals. Plus, your support contributes to our conservation efforts at the zoo and around the world.

Visit the zoo

Every visit to Woodland Park Zoo helps support conservation efforts like our Wildlife Survival Fund project, the Mbeli Bai Study. The study researches the social organization and behaviors of more than 450 lowland gorillas living in the Republic of Congo, providing the scientific basis for conservation strategies.

Yola learning the ropes earlier this year. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo