Decades of Dedication – Cincinnati Zoo Gorillas

Posted September 24, 2019 by Ron Evans

Since the mid-1930s gorillas have been a foundation species for the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden (CZBG) beginning with the first resident “Susie”. Susie resided in the “Monkey House”. This registered historic landmark is the Reptile House today. Susie was billed as the world’s only trained gorilla and would sit at a tea table, use utensils and wear human clothing. Susie was a huge Cincinnati celebrity.  Although we would not depict gorillas this way to guests today, Susie was demonstrating the awesome power gorillas had to “turn the gate” while compelling guests to be curious about the natural world. Susie set the longevity record for a gorilla in zoos back then at the “ripe old age” of 22.  Today the record is 62 thanks to many advancements in gorilla husbandry and care.
Building on the shoulders of the previous generation is the mandate for proper animal care and welfare.  By the 1950s, CZBG opened the Ape House. Although archaic by today’s standards, it was considered to be a modern facility with large indoor rooms, extended vertical space, multiple resting shelves, smooth tile block walls for better disinfecting and monkey bars for the gorillas to stretch out a little more than Susie could. This facility permitted pairs of gorillas to be housed together with the first two couples being “King Tut” with “Penelope” and “Hatari” with “Mahari”.  As was the case still in the 50s and 60s, zoos would bring in young gorillas from the wild.  There were no established sustainable breeding populations and gorillas were not considered to be a critically endangered species yet so wild collection was acceptable.  Also, during this period gorilla diets were improving with a wider variety of produce items being offered.

As a direct result of these improvements, CZBG celebrated the first two gorilla births in 1970.  Hatari and Mahari produced a male and a week later King Tut and Penelope a female. As the mothers were not caring properly for the infants and CZBG had no baby gorilla experience, the babies were taken to Good Samaritan Hospital for the first weeks of their lives with nurses later returning to assist with their care back at the Ape House.  The pair was named “Sam” and “Samantha” in honor of Good Sam’s assistance. These births ushered in the first gorilla baby boom.  With mother rearing eluding the gorillas throughout the 70s and 80s, CZBG became experts in hand-rearing gorilla offspring.  The success of the gorilla breeding program influenced Newsweek to deem CZBG the ‘Sexiest Zoo in America”.

By the late 70s with a glut of gorillas filling up the Ape House and demonstrating its limitations, the zoo invested further in this featured species by designing one of the first naturalistic, outdoor gorilla habitats in the world. “Gorilla World” opened in 1978 and featured a large outdoor space with grass, rockwork climbing areas, a waterfall and stream. This facility also boasted twelve behind the scenes bedrooms to house the ever-growing gorilla population. Gorilla World served a model for other gorilla habitats built throughout the 80s and, with CZBG sustaining its status at the top reproducer of gorillas in the country, provided these high-profile and sought-after animals to many zoos. During the 70s more awareness was had for the plight of wild gorillas, their need for their protection and eliminate wild collection. Zoo breeding programs became more critical.

By the late 80s gorillas were a featured centerpiece at many zoos that had developed their own very successful programs. The need for more cooperative cross-institutions management had become critical. This was accomplished through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Gorilla Species Survival Program (GSSP).  Although not as honed back then, today the GSSP is a peer-elected group of gorilla experts that keeps track of all 360+ gorillas in North America.  They monitor all genetics, personalities and zoo facility capacity.  They seek input and feedback from all holding intuitions and create a detailed masterplan every two years with recommendations for breeding or transfers to address gorilla social needs. Gorillas are no longer sold or traded.  All decisions are made for what is best for each individual and the collective population management. As a result, gorillas can be maintained in North America without any dangers of inbreeding for 200 years, making them one of the most successful species ever managed in zoos.  I have served on the GSSP for over 10 years.

The 90s saw further advancements in gorilla care including CZBG’s first comprehensive environmental enrichment program designed to more deeply address the psychological needs of these highly intelligent animals. A long list of healthy novel foods, manipulation items, puzzle feeders, varying substrates and other mental engagement activities were developed and delivered daily, with evaluation and records kept. This, along with improved gorilla behavior understanding and management, created an environment more conducive to mother rearing.  Although experts at caring for the physical health of gorilla infants, hand rearing of apes can have varying undesired effects on their personality development and ability to successfully mix with other gorillas later in life. Gorillas have 13-20 different vocalization and inflections and many facial expressions and body postures that form a complex language. There are also dynamic rules of etiquette in gorilla societies. Little gorillas must start learning these skills and life lessons from day one like humans. Today it is unusual to need to hand rear a gorilla. In 1995, CZBG set the record for the most births in the same year at six, a feat that still stands today.

In the early 2000s, a comprehensive operant conditioning training program with the gorillas was initiated. This methodology involving close relationship building, positive reinforcement and measured behavior approximation shaping, enabling improved awake health examinations and reducing the need for as much veterinary intervention. Today the gorillas voluntarily have approximately 30 different behaviors including numerous body part presentations, hand injections, awake cardiac and fetal ultrasound and physical therapy exercises. These behavior modification techniques are integrated into all aspects of their care to increase the rate of desired behavior.

In 2013, CZBG was recommended to receive a 1-month old orphaned gorilla from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, TX. At the time, Brownsville had no potential foster gorillas to take her.   This required CZBG to put together a team of human fosters for 24/7 care and holding of the infant as a gorilla mother would.  The infant was housed in Gorilla World next to the other gorillas and future gorilla foster to get used to all the sights, sounds, smells and each other.  While caring for the health and nutrition, the human foster team spoke to the baby in gorilla vocalization, carried the baby as a mother gorilla would and even wore furry black vests to mimic the texture of gorilla hair. Other specialized pre- introduction training took place as well to ensure a positive outcome.  At 4 ½ months old, the infant and foster mother “Mlinzi” were successfully introduced.   In honor of the tremendous sacrifice from the Gladys Porter Zoo for the good of the baby, she was named “Gladys”.  Gladys is now six years old and a well-rounded confident young social gorilla. The Gladys project is representative of CZBG’s accrued expertise in gorilla management over the decades.

Wild western lowland gorillas are critically endangered species.  Their rainforest home range throughout west Central Africa are under constant pressure as deforestation for lumber is at an unsustainable rate. CZBG has been paying forward our privileged history with gorillas by supporting wild gorilla conservation in the Republic of Congo for 20 years with the Nouabale Ndoki Project (NNP).  NNP includes the longest running research of wild western lowland gorillas, the Mbeli Bai Study, where critically information on gorilla behavior, social structure and large-scale demographics is collected helping to better understand the relationship between the gorillas, rainforests and humans. CZBG has aided the NNP in holistic manner supporting research, capacity building, education outreach and protection at Mbeli Bai, as well as, other gorilla study sites like Mondika where more detailed study of specific gorilla families is conducted.  These stories and actions steps are then brought full circle to CZBG guests.

Building on success in 2015, CZBG looked to improve gorilla welfare further and engage our guests in inspiring ways by expanding the Gorilla World facility. A new indoor habitat added is the largest of its kind and is layered with special features designed to create exciting opportunities for the gorillas. Guests are treated to unforgettable up-close observations and interactions.  Two new large behind the scenes bedroom/ play area suites connect the existing outdoor habitat and holding suite. This permits greater flexibility and rotation for the gorilla groupings along with specialized areas for training and welfare assessment.  This dynamic place cements CZBG’s role as a leader in gorilla care and interpretation long into the future.

Whether it was the tragic death of the beloved “Harambe”, the birth of the 50th gorilla, “Elle”, the sensational story of “Ndume” or just the experience of being nose-to- “nose print” with one of these magnificent creatures, gorillas consistently demonstrate their awesome ability to compel people to take notice and care deeply. From Susie to Elle and through every progression, gorillas have maintained that inspirational constant for the Cincinnati Zoo. Now heading strong into a tenth decade.