Turning Humans into Temporary Gorilla Moms

Posted February 26, 2013

Baby Gorilla Receives Around-the-Clock Care

CINCINNATI – (February 26, 2013) The Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden is turning humans into temporary gorilla moms.  Over the next several months, the Zoo will use human surrogates to mimic gorilla behavior with the ultimate goal to get a 4-week-old gorilla baby in the hands of a gorilla surrogate.   These human surrogates will feed the gorilla.  They will hold the baby to their chest and eventually carry her on their back.  They will climb on things and even knuckle-walk like a gorilla. They will wear all black scrubs during their shifts and cover themselves with a furry vest – handmade by a Cincinnati Zoo volunteer. They will also vocalize like a gorilla and a host of other skills that most people never even consider.

“This will certainly be a labor of love,” said Thane Maynard, Executive Director of the Cincinnati Zoo. “We will have a surrogacy team, made up of 7-10 staff members, who will be hand-rearing the infant 24/7 until we can safely introduce her to a gorilla surrogate mom. This is such a huge responsibility and privilege and we are honored to be doing our part.”

The Cincinnati Zoo has a “first” for almost everything.  However, using human surrogates as gorilla moms is a first for the second oldest Zoo in the nation. Cincinnati Zoo gorillas have been some of the most prolific gorillas in zoos, making the Zoo one of the top breeders of this endangered species in the world with 48 births to-date.

The baby is learning to hold onto the keepers in a vetro-ventral position as a mother gorilla would hold her most of the time, at this age, as opposed to swaddling her like a human baby. Here is a photo of the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla mom, Muke, holding her newborn Bakari in 2006, in a similar position.

On January 29, the Gladys Porter Zoo (GPZ) in Brownsville, Texas, welcomed a 4.7 pound, female gorilla, which is now almost 7 pounds.  After the birth, mother, 14 -year-old “Kiazi,” didn’t respond well and rejected the infant.  This behavior, which occasionally happens in first-time mothers, resulted in keepers from the Gladys Porter Zoo stepping in to hand-rear the infant until they had a plan in place. Unfortunately, all of the viable surrogates there already had young gorillas, so they began to look elsewhere.  After countless phone calls with the Gladys Porter Zoo, the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) Ape Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) Maternal Management Committee and the Western Lowland Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP) Committee, the Cincinnati Zoo was determined to be the best home for the baby.

Being a surrogate to a baby gorilla is no easy task.  The surrogacy team will be with the infant around the clock, working 8-hour shifts.  These shifts involve a lot more than just cuddling the adorable new addition.  Surrogacy involves understanding primate behavior, vocalizations and mothering instincts.

“Whatever a gorilla mom would do with her baby is what we have to do with this baby,” said Ron Evans, Primate Team Leader at the Cincinnati Zoo.  “The role of the human surrogate mother is critical for the development of this baby. Surrogates must do their very best to teach her the ways of the world, including what behavior is acceptable, what her routines will be when she is with her gorilla family, and what is safe.”

All of this takes place behind the scenes, in the “baby suite” at Gorilla World.  This suite has been upgraded to feature 2-inch mesh that will assist keepers when they (eventually) bottle feed and cameras for around-the-clock monitoring.  In addition, the suite will be outfitted with a mattress for Zoo staff to sit on during their long shifts, especially overnights. The baby suite is located directly across the hall from the rest of the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorillas – to give both parties plenty of time to see, smell and hear each other before introductions begins.

“Ideally, this is a five-month surrogacy program with the human mothers, which means we have five months to ensure the baby is accepted into its gorilla family and has the social behaviors of gorillas to carry it into its adult life,” said Evans. “The proximity to the other gorillas will allow us to observe how the potential surrogates react to her, helping us select the best surrogate mother for her when the time comes.”

Typically, when babies are brought into a surrogacy program the other gorillas show a great deal of interest in the baby.

While most of the attention is on the baby, keepers in Gorilla World are also working diligently with the adult gorillas across the hall to ensure they are aware of the baby, accepting of its presence, and prepared to integrate it into their family.  Through conditioning and enrichment activities, potential surrogates are taught to not only care for their baby like their own but also to bring the baby over to staff when prompted for bottle feedings, medication and regular check-ups.  Two gorillas, 43-year old “Samantha” and 30-year old “M’Linzi” have been identified as the top two candidates for surrogate moms.  Interestingly, Samantha is the infant’s great grandmother and M’Linzi is her third cousin.

The Cincinnati Zoo will continue to send updates on the baby gorilla through its website, www.cincinnatizoo.org, the Cincinnati Zoo blog, Facebook page, Twitter and YouTube accounts.  If everything goes as planned, visitors could see the baby outside as early as this Spring.

There are about 765 gorillas in zoos worldwide including approximately 360 in the AZA’s SSP.  The Cincinnati Zoo is now home to eight Western lowland gorillas, including Silverback Jomo and his family of Samantha, M’Linzi, Asha and Anju.

Western lowland gorillas are critically endangered in the wild, with less than 175,000 individuals. Due primarily to habitat destruction caused by logging, mineral mining and agricultural expansion, wild gorilla numbers continue to shrink.  The bushmeat trade – the killing of wild animals to be used as human food – is also a major threat to the western lowland gorilla population throughout the Central African rainforests.  Over 1,000 gorillas are illegally poached for the bushmeat trade each year. The Cincinnati Zoo supports wild gorilla conservation efforts like the Mbeli Bai Study in Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park in the Republic of Congo.  The Mbeli Bai Study is the longest running research being done with wild western lowland gorillas.  Through research, local education programs, publications and documentaries, the Mbeli Bai Study is raising international awareness for gorillas and their struggle for survival. For more information, visit www.cincinnatizoo.org.