Skip to main content

Q & A with gorilla keeper Stephanie: Get the scoop on caring for Nadiri and her baby Zuna

 Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications and Stephanie Payne, Gorilla Keeper

Zuna, seen here at just about 5 weeks old, is the picture of sweetness—and those eyes are everything! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Note from the Editor: In case you haven’t already heard, our newest gorilla baby has a name! Little Zuna—which means “sweet” in the African language, Lingala—was born on January 29th and is officially 6 weeks old now. She is the second baby and second daughter for 25-year-old mom Nadiri and the first between her and 21-year-old dad Kwame. Nadiri did not immediately hold and nurse her baby after giving birth, so the gorilla keepers have been providing round-the-clock care and bottle feedings of human infant formula.

While Nadiri has been showing increasingly skilled maternal care and even started to nurse Zuna—a wonderful indication of the growing bond between them—we knew that these brief bouts of nursing weren't going to be enough to replace the bottle feedings. So our expert veterinary staff and gorilla care team have adjusted the neonatal care plan in a way that allows Zuna to get some extra TLC from our amazing gorilla keepers while still keeping her immersed round-the-clock in the sights, sounds and smells of her gorilla family.

We know you want to hear all the latest news about them—so while mother, baby and family are all adjusting to a new normal, we chatted with gorilla keeper Stephanie Payne to find out why the birth of this little girl has kept everyone on their toes, and why it marks such a wonderful milestone for Nadiri as a mother.

This sweetie is 6 weeks old now! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

WPZ: First of all, how are Nadiri and the baby doing? Is everyone healthy and well?

Stephanie: Nadi and Zuna are both doing well, as is the entire family. The whole group has had an attitude adjustment in the best way to allow for more space and a sense of calmness for Nadiri and her baby. Everyone is very curious about this new family member, while also being very respectful to Nadiri and baby. It’s been a very positive experience, even with the necessary changes in their care routine.

The play sessions behind the scenes between Yola, Kitoko, Uzumma and Kwame have been epic, and the quiet times in between have given them all an opportunity to observe Nadiri and her baby from a respectful distance. Nadiri continues to engage with her baby while she is in human care, and is clearly bonded to Zuna, but the plan is to wait until the baby is taking bottles consistently before returning her to Nadiri for round-the-clock care.

Nadiri cradles her baby, Zuna, during one of their visits. Photo: Judy Sievert, Woodland Park Zoo

WPZ: Many of our guests and members are familiar with the story of Nadiri’s first pregnancy five years ago and the birth of Yola. That’s when you and others on our animal care team had to step in to care for the baby for several months, reintroduce her to Nadiri and reintegrate her into the whole gorilla family. Zuna has had to spend time in human care too, but the circumstances are not the same. Can you explain what’s different this time around?

Stephanie: When her first daughter, Yola, was born, Nadiri would not touch her. She was not ready to care for a baby. Yola was hand-reared by keepers for her first five months until Nadiri could take over all the full-time parenting duties. But even before that milestone, Yola and her mother still spent time together every day of her life.

Nadiri, in 2016, with first daughter Yola. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

This time around, Nadiri picked up her baby right after giving birth, but instead of holding her as an experienced mother would, she laid the baby on the ground next to her and would not pick her back up. That’s when we stepped in, ready to provide round-the-clock care for the baby including bottle feeding her human infant formula, keeping her warm and providing her with regular short visits with her mother.

After a few introductory sessions, which focused on nurturing Nadiri’s confidence, we were thrilled to see Nadiri allow Zuna to suckle and nurse, something we weren't sure Nadiri would tolerate. This was a huge step for both of them and a wonderful sign of the growing bond between them. Still it was clear that the length and frequency of these nursing bouts were not going to be enough to properly nourish the baby, so bottle-feedings continued, and are likely to continue, throughout Zuna’s infancy. 

Our approach to getting Nadiri and her new baby to bond has been similar to the way it was done with Yola, but having gone through that experience five years ago gave us and Nadiri a better place from which to start. The biggest difference, and one of the main reasons it has all gone as well and quickly as it has this time is the family group Nadiri is part of now—especially her bond with the absolutely fabulous silverback (adult male leader of the group), Kwame.

When Yola was born, Nadiri was living with her half-sister Akenji and silverback Leo. Leo proved to be a very appropriate and protective silverback towards Nadiri and Yola, but Nadiri and Leo didn’t really have a close relationship beyond that innate, protective bond spurred on by the birth of Yola.

Silverback gorilla, Kwame, has proven to be playful and gentle father as well as just an all-around wonderful family leader. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

In contrast, Nadiri has been attracted to Kwame since the day he arrived a couple years ago—and they have established a very close bond. When they are together, we hear a lot of content grunts and see lots of sidelong glances between them. You can feel Nadiri become more engaged in the moment and more confident about being a mom with Kwame next to her. Being a female with an offspring is an important role in a gorilla family group, and that really seemed to sink in with Nadiri.

Also, the experience of watching Uzumma and Kitoko has been invaluable. Uzumma has done such a good job showing Nadiri, Akenji and Yola what it takes to raise an infant in such a dynamic and engaging family group.

WPZ: So Kwame has been able to meet his new daughter then? That’s wonderful!

Stephanie: Yes! Kwame gently inspected his new baby shortly after she was born (bending down near her to see and smell her before moving off) and his curiosity and interest have only increased since then. When Nadiri was first holding Zuna, we watched Kwame crouch down to smell her or touch her gently on the head with his fingers or mouth. He often lies and sits near Nadiri throughout the day and she is very comfortable with Kwame and Yola’s presence nearby.

Baby Zuna, seen here at nearly 5 weeks old. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

WPZ: We know that sometimes new gorilla mothers don’t want anyone to get too close to their newborn. So have the other members of Nadiri’s gorilla family been able to meet Zuna, too? What about Yola, and Kitoko? And as for Kwame, what role do males play with raising an infant?

Stephanie: Nadiri is more cautious when it comes to Uzumma and Akenji, but she has allowed them to approach and smell the baby, as long as they do so respectfully and slowly. Kitoko will often try and play as near as possible to Nadiri and Zuna, while still staying out of trouble with his mom for getting too close. Nadiri will content grumble towards him, and she genuinely looks bemused by his antics, but if he gets too close, Nadiri will either gently push him away, or Uzumma will pull him away (a bit less gently, being the straight-forward lady that she is.)

In general, silverbacks serve as protector for new moms and babies, sometimes playing with babies as they get older. Kwame has already proven that he’ll protect Nadiri (several times now, he has gently displayed between Nadiri and Uzumma, staring at Uzumma until she moves away) but beyond being a protector, he’s also very interested in his babies. He’ll often lie on his belly and forearms to get a good, low look at the baby, just as he did with Kitoko. He also frequently pulls Kitoko into his arms and holds him briefly, inspecting him before putting him down. This is in addition to the play sessions he has with both Kitoko and Yola, which are accompanied by loud, chuffing gorilla laughter. Kwame is just an all-around swell guy. I really can’t say enough about him and we’re so lucky to have him with us at Woodland Park Zoo.

Watch here to see Kwame playing with his son Kitoko, who is now 1 year old:
WPZ: Does having a baby change Nadiri’s “place” in the troop hierarchy? Does it change the behavior of others in the group? How does that work within a gorilla family?

Stephanie: Having a baby will definitely give Nadiri a status boost in the family, but whether it changes her position as subordinate female remains to be seen. Kwame will protect Nadiri and her baby when necessary, but the females are also giving her more space and respect with her new baby. I think its two-fold; a silverback will protect a new mom and her baby and the other females know this, which gives them reason to give new mom and baby a wider berth. The arrival of a baby is just so interesting to all the members of a family group. A baby benefits every family member. There really has been a palpable sense of calm throughout the group over the past few weeks, like a little, baby olive branch.

WPZ: So tell us about Zuna! What is she like? Who does she look like? Is there anything you can tell about her personality already … or does all that come later?

Stephanie: She’s beautiful! It’s still too early to really recognize any strong personality traits, but she does have the incredibly cute habit of sticking her tongue out. She seems pretty mellow, too, but that could also change as she’s more able to project her likes and dislikes. She’s just starting to hold her head up and track the activities around her. The first couple months are really all about sleeping and eating and eating and sleeping.

WPZ: What are the milestones you and your team will be looking for as Zuna grows and develops? At what age would she start to get teeth, start to chew on solids or have strength and coordination to do other things?

Stephanie: Currently, we’re really just focused on making sure that the baby is getting proper nutrition and hydration. Beyond that, it’s not much different from a human baby; noting when they begin to track objects with their eyes, hold their heads up, sit unassisted, start to walk, pull themselves up with their arms and, of course, teething! Gorilla babies teethe very early, and we are already seeing whiteness through the baby’s lower gums. Baby gorillas also develop strength and agility early on to allow for that rambunctious gorilla life. She’ll likely be walking and climbing sometime near the four-month mark.

WPZ: It sounds like there is A LOT of work that goes on with you and your teammates throughout this whole process of welcoming a new baby into our gorilla family. What is that like?

Zuna, seen here just days after birth. She has already grown so much in just 6 weeks! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Stephanie: It really is amazing. It’s a lot of hard work, especially with a special case like Nadiri. We had to have every scenario planned for, and even then, you can’t predict what the gorillas will ultimately choose to do. Luckily, we have an amazing team of keepers, managers and Animal Health department who really allowed for a relaxed approach to gorilla-directed decisions. It also helps that one of the gorilla keepers on our team, Judy Sievert, has known Nadiri her whole life. They have a very unique bond, which allows Judy to ask things of Nadiri that no one else would ever be able to do. Judy is the one who was able to actually place the baby onto Nadiri’s arm or leg during those first visits, and then move the baby to a ventral/ventral position (chest to chest) on Nadiri, which helped the baby latch onto Nadiri’s nipple and allowed for those initial bouts of nursing.

Shawn Bell is another one of our gorilla keepers who has been instrumental in this process, He was the one who helped Nadiri—through positive reinforcement—to initially gain enough confidence to pick her baby up on her own. He really raised all our expectations as far as what Nadiri was capable of during those early visits and it was amazing to see her patting her baby and calming her when she got fussy. It is clear that Nadiri's confidence has really just blossomed with this baby and has become such an attentive mother as a result. Whether it was due to Nadiri’s bond with Judy, Shawn’s training efforts, or both, it has all been working out really well over time, and I'm just so happy for Nadiri.

WPZ: This is the first time in a long time that we’ve had a multi-generational gorilla family with adults, babies and juveniles of different ages. How do you expect this will affect the group dynamic? What should our guests look forward to seeing?

5 -year-old Yola and 1-year-old Kitoko enjoy lots of play sessions together. Soon enough, little Zuna—half-sister to both of them—will be able to join in the fun! Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

Stephanie: Lots of play! Kitoko is already a handful. At 1 year old, he is a constant blur of activity. Being the son of the dominant female, he can go just about anywhere and do anything – he has sort of an all-access pass. Yola is his number one playmate, and their play is becoming more and more rambunctious as he gets older and as Uzumma relaxes more as a mother. It will be interesting to see how this new baby eventually integrates herself into the playgroup and what Nadiri’s role will be in facilitating that interaction. Nadiri is not naturally playful, and when Yola was young, she often sought Uzumma out for play. This playful relationship was helpful in endearing her to Uzumma, the dominant female. Hopefully, Yola’s status and Uzumma’s engaging nature will eventually encourage Nadiri’s new baby to join the playful fray.

WPZ: Speaking of “seeing” … when will the whole family be back out on exhibit?

Stephanie: With Zuna currently in our care, Kwame’s group has been spending a few hours outside each day—but as soon as she is back with her mom, the weather and daily temps will really determine when they go out, and for how long. It will likely be in several-hour increments to accommodate the baby’s bottle-feeding schedule, but we’ll be sure to communicate when those feedings occur throughout the day. It will be interesting to see whether Nadiri’s position in the group changes, allowing her to feel more comfortable being in the shelter and near Kwame more often than before with a baby in her arms.

WPZ: Is there anything more that you want people to know about our gorillas or their wild cousins?

Stephanie: We want everyone to know everything about gorillas! Our wish is that every zoo guest ends their visit with a sense of having just spent time with extended family, because that’s exactly who the gorillas are to us. They all have such intense, individual personalities and unique stories, and if we could, we’d sit down and have one-on-one discussions until each person walked away caring about gorillas and their place in this world. It’s hard, with so many people and habitats struggling to survive, it can feel overwhelming at times, so I guess the simplest message is just do your best and try to live in an ecologically and socially responsible way each day, with the hope that that ripple of care and intention reaches those who need it most.

WPZ: THANK YOU, Stephanie for all that you and your team do to take such amazing care of all our gorillas!

Growing Up Gorilla
Stay tuned for updates and milestones about Zuna, Kitoko and Yola by visiting and following the zoo’s Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. #GrowingUpGorilla.

Shower her with Love!
To share in the love and joy of this new baby bundle, we are asking our community to help us throw a virtual baby shower for Nadiri! Help us celebrate and show your love to Nadiri, Kwame and new baby girl by making a gift of any size.

Become a ZooParent in honor of Zuna!
ZooParent adoptions—which can include a plush toy—are the perfect way to pay tribute to the zoo’s newest addition. ZooParent adoptions help the zoo provide exceptional care for all of Woodland Park Zoo's amazing animals and support conservation efforts in the Pacific Northwest and around the world.


Anna said…
I love these updates! Thank you for sharing!!!!
Unknown said…
Thanks so much for these wonderful updates. We are so interested in this family!
Thank you for this indepth interview. So thrilled to hear that Nadiri is bonding with Zuna and gaining confidence as a gorilla mother for the second time.