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Preparing for a Gorilla Birth: What to Expect When You're Expecting, Part 2

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher with Stephanie Jacobs

12-year-old Uzumma is pregnant with her first baby. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
In part one of this blog, gorilla keeper Stephanie Jacobs told us how first-time expectant-mother Uzumma is doing and filled us in on all the work that happens behind the scenes to prepare for a gorilla pregnancy. So let’s pick up the conversation with questions about getting ready for a birth and everything that comes next.

WPZ: Thanks again, Stephanie for giving us a behind-the-scenes peek into the gorilla unit. So what happens while we all wait for this baby to be born? Obviously you and the other keepers are watching and waiting, but what else needs to happen before a baby arrives?

Stephanie: So much happens! Really, we’re all over-the-moon excited [about Uzumma’s pregnancy by Kwame], but there is a lot to do. To begin with, keepers and the Animal Health Department make sure Uzumma’s BMP (birth management plan) is all ready to go. This is a document identifying what needs to be done prior to the birth, any anticipated complications and their possible solutions, and alternate plans should things go awry.

A model burlap doll like this will be used behind the scenes, allowing Uzumma to practice maternal behaviors like cuddling and holding her baby. Photo: Stephanie Jacobs/Woodland Park Zoo
There is also additional animal training, using positive reinforcement, that takes place with a pregnancy. Uzumma is participating in daily ultrasound training. She’s doing well, but has shown an intense dislike for ultrasound gel. We’ve now switched to mashed banana, which seems to be more acceptable, and tasty. These voluntary ultrasounds will occur periodically throughout her 2nd & 3rd trimesters in order to monitor the development and health of the fetus. We’ll also be training some maternal behaviors. We will ask her to “pick up” an object (the baby) and ask her to “cuddle” or “hold” this object to her chest (we use a hay-filled burlap “baby”). This will help us help Uzumma position the baby correctly to her nipple if she’s holding the baby, but not at the correct angle for nursing. Another behavior will be to ask Uzumma to orient the “baby” to the mesh wall between the gorillas and keepers. This training will be useful if supplemental feedings become necessary at any point. With this behavior, we’d be able to give the baby these supplemental feedings without too much disruption.

We’ll also be modifying the bedrooms for an infant, making sure there are no places an infant could be trapped or hurt. That means making sure the firehoses they use for traveling aren’t too slack and hammocks are all in good condition without gaps or tears. In the weeks leading up to her due date, hay will be incrementally added to the floor, eventually covering their entire bedroom area ~12” deep. They love it!


Baby Yola, Uzumma's half sister, balances on the vines in 2017. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.
Cameras are also being installed in each room in order to facilitate the overnight observations of Uzumma that will begin as her birth window approaches. The observations will occur on exhibit during the day, but throughout the night, there will be keepers and volunteers monitoring Uzumma for any signs of labor via the mounted cameras in their rooms. Dedicated and trained volunteers will be posted in an office on grounds with access to the cameras, and keepers, animal health staff and managers (all comfortably sleeping at home ) will be able to view them from home if called with a concern.

Up until the birth, it will be business as usual for the gorilla’s daily routine. Uzumma and her family will be on view without interruption, unless there are unforeseen medical issues that require her to rest inside, but that’s standard procedure for all the gorillas.

WPZ: You’ve been able to witness several gorilla births here at Woodland Park Zoo. What is that like?

Stephanie: Being involved in a gorilla pregnancy and observing a birth is always exciting, and always a bit different with each individual.

When Uzumma was a newborn, as seen here in this 2007 photo, Amanda was an exceptionally attentive mother to her. It is hoped that those characteristics have been passed down through personal experience. Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
With Amanda, we had very little to worry about as far as her reaction and acceptance of her infants. She was a stellar mother with all three of her daughters. With Nadiri, we were hopeful that some innate maternal instincts would kick in and she would pick Yola up immediately after labor, but she was just too overwhelmed by it all, prompting keeper staff and animal health staff to briefly assist with Yola’s care. Uzumma’s situation is unique, but not uncommon. While she had an excellent upbringing with mom Amanda and big sister Calaya, she has never actually witnessed a birth herself, or been around a mother with her infant. She was the last baby born into her family group. Even though Uzumma has never observed motherhood from the sidelines, we’re hopeful that she will continue Amanda’s legacy of excellent mothering.

Beginning in late February or early March, those overnight observations will begin. This is always exciting because labor could begin anytime. Typically, gorilla births occur overnight or first thing in the morning.

Once the birth watch begins next spring, dedicated and trained volunteers will have access to cameras mounted in Uzumma's bedroom to monitor her for signs of labor. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo
Some of the signs of pre-labor we’ll be looking out for are increased restlessness, continuous nest building and disruption to their usual sleep pattern, increased urination, any signs of vaginal discharge, straining and bearing down, lying prone more often than usual, touching and tasting their genitals and of course, her water breaking.

The labor itself can last several hours, and involves much of the pre-labor behavior, but with more intensity. As long as Uzumma remains healthy and safe, she will stay with her family group throughout it all. This will be a great opportunity for the rest of the females to gain confidence as they witness a birth—although given that Uzumma is the dominant female it is likely the others will give her some space by keeping a comfortable distance.

WPZ: How big is a newborn gorilla? Is it like a human infant?

Stephanie: Newborn gorillas are about half the weight of a newborn human, approximately 3.5 to 5 lbs. Instead of having a fontanel, or soft-spot, at the top of their newborn skull, as human’s do, gorillas are born with overlapping cranial bony plates. The overlap allows for the narrow trip through the birth canal, but once they are born, these plates shift into their proper, closed position. This allows for a completely protected skull shortly after birth, which is very beneficial when a mother’s nightly nests can be high up in trees.

Initially, gorilla mothers cradle and carry their newborns. When they're a little older—as seen here when Uzumma was a baby—they will be able to hold onto to their mother by grasping her hair with hands and feet. Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

Mothers will hold and carry their newborns continuously as they move from place to place for the first few months. She will support them with one arm or even hold her infant’s hand in her mouth as she climbs until the infant is better able to grasp its mother’s hair with hands and feet and can hold on themselves.

Following the birth, we’ll be closely observing Uzumma and her baby to make sure Uzumma is showing all the signs of an engaged and responsive mother gorilla.

Typically, the mother will immediately pick up her baby, inspect the body and clean off any afterbirth, which includes eating the placenta (a healthy source of antibodies for both she and her baby). She will then hold her baby to her chest, adjusting position as her baby roots around for a nipple. Being responsive to any squirms or vocalizations is also important, as a mother’s ability to read her babies cues may dampen any anxiety about what to do in this new situation.

After an infant is born, keepers will look for signs of nursing and bonding between mother and child. Here, in a photo from 2007, baby Uzumma gazes up at her mother Amanda. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
Once we see the infant situated in Uzumma’s arms, we’ll be looking for positive signs of nursing. If the infant’s sucking response is intact and strong, little knots appear at the top of their jawline. These little mandibular muscles show us that their sucking response is engaged, and barring any disruption in Uzumma’s milk production, nursing should be taking place. To further ensure that milk is flowing, we’ll be watching for any urination or defecation, particularly the passing of the baby’s initial meconium stool, followed by the yellowish milk stool, which confirms the onset of nursing and the important passive transfer of Uzumma’s antibodies to her baby.

Barring any medical complications, Uzumma and her baby will remain with her family group pre-, during and post- labor. The timeline of introductions of her baby to the others in her group will be facilitated by Uzumma. Typically, a curious individual will slowly approach and sit near the mother and baby, reading the mother’s cues for any signs that it’s okay to proceed more closely. They may then slowly reach out for a touch or a smell, but whether or not this happens will likely be determined by Uzumma. The fact that she is the dominant female should be helpful in enforcing these boundaries.

We will be keeping a close eye on Yola, as youngsters of her age have been known to be over rambunctious around new mothers and their infants. If necessary, Yola will be distracted by keepers for the first couple hours and days, giving Uzumma and her baby some extra space.

Kwame is the silverback of the family and the father of Uzumma's baby. This will be their first offspring together. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

WPZ: Will zoo visitors be able to see the new baby right away?

Stephanie: Uzumma and her family group will most likely be off view for a day or two following the birth, depending on how Uzumma and her baby are bonding, how the group is adjusting and what the weather is like. Seattle in March can be tricky as far as predicting temperatures and conditions. We have strict temperature guidelines that we follow throughout the colder months, and even stricter guidelines when there is an infant involved. If we have some sunny, mild days, and Uzumma and baby are thriving, then visitors should be able to see the group outside for short periods soon after the birth. Since gorilla mothers rarely put their infants down in the first few months, Uzumma’s body heat will help keep that baby warm; we just want to make sure Uzumma is also kept warm.

Our goal is to keep their days as normal as possible for them. Even in times of exciting and positive change, meeting some simple daily expectations can be very reassuring. For that reason, it’s in everyone’s best interest to resume their normal routine as soon as possible.

WPZ: How can visitors get involved?

Stephanie: We really want visitors to be familiar and connected to the animals that live at Woodland Park Zoo. Our hope is that connection then extends the visitor’s engagement with the world beyond the zoo gates. It’s so great that a visit here can personalize a guest’s experience to various species and reinforce the concept that we all live in one giant biome—that our personal choices affect people, animals and habitats across the globe. One small way to encourage that connection and familiarity is to give everyone the chance to participate in the naming process, connecting that individual’s experience to a particular animal and its wild counterparts, for life. We don’t know exactly how that will work yet, but we’ll be able to share more as the time gets closer.

WPZ: So is there anything more you want to share with us about what to expect when expecting a baby gorilla?

Stephanie: It will be fun to watch Yola’s reaction to this new family member and how Uzumma takes on her new role as a mother. Fortunately, Yola isn’t one to show jealousy, but we’ll see what happens when there’s a new baby in town. More than anything, I’m sure she’ll be happy to have a playmate. We’re also thrilled for the opportunity for Akenji, Nadiri and Yola to witness the whole birth process and the mothering skills that follow. Aside from experiencing it firsthand, this is the best opportunity to show them how it’s done.

Who will the baby look like? Kwame—seen here on the right with half-brother K'tembe in this photo from the early 2000s—was an adorable toddler! Photo: Jessie Cohen/Smithsonian's National Zoo
Who will the baby look like? Uzumma—seen in this 2008 photo—was a beautiful baby! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
Seattle is already lucky to have had this wonderful group of five gorillas to watch over the past year as they became a cohesive breeding group, but that was just the beginning. There are many years of delight ahead for the gorilla keepers and visitors alike. Uzumma’s baby will bring everyone in Kwame’s group even closer together. Nothing is more enriching to a gorilla than a large, complex gorilla social group with varying ages. Visitors should plan on seeing lots of fun activity and natural gorilla behaviors in the gorilla habitats this summer.

We will find out what type of mother Uzumma will be; how long will she take to allow the other females in her group to touch, hold and finally play with her baby? What will Kwame’s reaction be? How will his role as silverback evolve with a new son or daughter in his group? Just like in a human family, there will be many changes that are planned for and many that will need to be handled on the fly. There will be so much for the keepers, the gorillas and the visitors to learn about having a new baby in the family.

WPZ: THANKS so much, Stephanie!


One way you can help gorillas is to recycle old cell phones. Woodland Park Zoo partners with ECO-CELL to recycle minerals found in many handheld electronics, reducing the demand for mining in gorilla habitat. look for ECO-CELL drop boxes on zoo grounds. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo
Every visit to Woodland Park Zoo supports conservation of animals in the wild—so when people come to visit Uzumma, Kwame 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.

Uzumma in late 2019, photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren, Woodland Park Zoo.

Comments

  1. The baby will be gorgeous. If it is a boy, it could look like Grandpa Vip!

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