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Clare Meeker's 'Growing Up Gorilla' shines a light on Yola's heartwarming story

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

Yola in 2016. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.
Recently we shared the exciting news about Western lowland gorilla Uzumma’s pregnancy and the buzz about her first offspring with Kwame. While we wait for this new precious member of our gorilla family to be born we’re happy to share news related to the last baby born into that family—the now 4-year-old Yola.

Seattle author Clare Meeker spent more than two years documenting Yola’s story and has recently published a book about it. Yola was born in 2015 to Nadiri and Vip. Because Nadiri was partially human-raised as an infant and had no experience as a mom, we were prepared for the possibility that she might not know what to do when she gave birth and that she might not immediately bond with her baby. Indeed, Yola’s first few months were spent in the care of her dedicated keepers who constantly stayed in close proximity to Nadiri. The goal was to help Nadiri bond with her baby while her maternal instincts slowly kicked in—ultimately allowing the infant to be fully integrated into her true gorilla family.

Clare’s book, Growing Up Gorilla, illustrates how the birth of little Yola brought our whole gorilla family together—enabling a new sense of stability and cohesion for the whole group. Recently we had a chance to talk to Clare about the story and why it was so important for her to share it.

WPZ: Hi Clare. Before we get into Yola’s story, tell us a little about why you wanted to write this book.

Clare: I have always been drawn to true animal stories. Growing Up Gorilla was the culmination of a dream I had of writing a book about Nadiri years ago when she was a baby gorilla. It took twenty years and the birth of Nadiri’s own baby to learn the bigger story about life in a gorilla family and a mother and daughter’s hard-won devotion to each other. I’m so glad I waited!

I also wanted to shine a light on the Zoo’s innovative, gorilla-centered approach to infant care and the dedicated work the zoo staff are doing every day to help us better understand these endangered animals and help them survive and thrive.

Clare Meeker reads aloud from her book about Yola, Growing Up Gorilla. Photo courtesy of Clare Meeker.

Children who were at the zoo got to hear Yola's story directly from the author! Photo courtesy of Clare Meeker

WPZ: What kind of research do you have to do to tell a story like Nadiri and Yola’s? It is such a complex story!

Clare: I began my research by reading an interview with mammal curator Martin Ramirez in the paper about how the zoo staff was helping the pregnant Nadiri prepare for the birth by having her practice picking up and holding a burlap doll the way a mother gorilla would hold her infant in the wild. After Nadiri walked away from her baby shortly after the birth, I interviewed Martin Ramirez about the goals the gorilla keepers had set to encourage Nadiri to bond with her baby. I used these goals to structure the story around a series of problems that had to be solved in order for Yola to successfully bond with her mother and become part of the family group. Since Yola was cared for in the gorilla dens and out of public view for the first 5 months of her life, I relied on the Woodland Park Zoo blog for monthly progress reports on Yola’s development and the bonding process with her mother in addition to my own observations of Nadiri’s family group in the outdoor exhibit.

Another critical piece of my research was the Keeper Record book which gave daily reports in the keepers’ own words about milestone events in building a relationship between and daughter and with the adult silverback Leo and Nadiri’s half-sister Akenji. Last and most importantly, I interviewed the zoo’s infant animal care specialist Harmony Frazier, who retired last year, zoo veterinarian Darin Collins, and gorilla keeper Judy Sievert who provided important details about Yola’s birth and developing relationship with her mother. They also helped me gain a deeper understanding of gorilla social behavior and the fascinating dynamics in Nadiri’s family group.

Nadiri and Yola in 2016 by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.
WPZ: As you probably know, Yola just turned 4 years old on November 20th. What changes have you noticed in her and in the whole family during your visits over these years?

Clare: Gorilla babies develop twice as fast as human babies during their first year of life. By 6 months of age, Yola was not just walking, but running, climbing, swinging, and doing somersaults in the outdoor exhibit. Her outgoing personality and adventurous spirit made her the center of attention with the public. But whenever her auntie Akenji came near her, Yola would run to her mother’s side for protection. Akenji had been used to being the center of attention before Yola joined the family group and sometimes she acted out in a bit of a rough way with Yola. The biggest change I’ve noticed as Yola has grown older is that she is much more confident around Akenji. They often lay down and rest next to each other and Yola will watch her climb a tree and learn from her. At four years old, Yola is also a lot bigger now and can hold her own with the three adult females (including Uzumma) in the group and with their new silverback leader Kwame.

WPZ: We’re guessing you’ve heard that Uzumma, Yola’s older half-sister, is expecting her first baby next spring. Given what you’ve learned about gorilla families, what are your thoughts?

Clare: I’m looking forward to Yola having a new baby in the group to play with. Technically, since Yola and Uzumma are half-sisters, Uzumma’s baby will be Yola’s niece or nephew—but in many ways they will grow up together as peers. Gorillas learn by watching the older gorillas around them. And with all that Yola has learned from having grown up surrounded by her gorilla family, she will be a perfect role model for her younger family member. 

WPZ: Thank you, Clare!

Clare's book, Growing Up Gorilla, is available at Woodland Park Zoo's ZooStore. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo

We love Growing Up Gorilla and think it would make a fabulous and touching holiday gift for readers and animal lovers of all ages. The limited number of signed copies at Woodland Park Zoo’s ZooStore have all been snatched up—but you can still find it through online retailers and at your local library.

Every visit to Woodland Park Zoo supports conservation of animals in the wild—so when people come to visit Yola, Nadiri and the others they are also helping support wild gorilla research and conservation. Woodland Park Zoo supports conservation efforts for the western lowland gorilla and mountain gorilla through the Mbeli Bai Gorilla Study and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund. To help support these important projects, the public can drop off used handheld electronics (cell phones, MP3 players, handheld games, e-readers, digital still and video cameras, GPS, portable hard drives, etc.) at the zoo. The handheld electronics are turned over to ECO-CELL, which operates a strict NO LANDFILL program and reimburses organizations for their recyclable contributions. ECO-CELL reuses mineral ore from these devices to reduce the demand for unsustainable coltan mining in the Congo that destroys habitat for critically endangered gorillas. The zoo directs funds from ECO-CELL toward the Mbeli Bai Gorilla Study, Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and other great ape conservation projects.

Photo of Yola in 2017 by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo