Volume 9, Number 1, 1999

Gorilla antics anew at Philadelphia’s zoo

Julie Unger Smith, AG ’87, has some special new friends at the Philadelphia Zoo. As lead gorilla keeper in the zoo’s new primate reserve, she’s getting to know four new Western Lowland gorillas that she and other zoo officials hope will establish a new troop there.

The new kids include spoiled Kimya, who is 5; laid-back Michael, who is 8; the shy and childless female gorilla, Demba, 28; and the “stud-muffin” of all gorillas, the irrepressible Chaka, who at 15 has already fathered eight offspring and left a pregnant female behind at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Unger Smith delights in her new charges and rarely has time to dwell on the tragic 1995 Christmas Eve electrical fire that killed all of the 23 primates who were then living at the Philadelphia Zoo. For Unger Smith, losing all six gorillas in the zoo’s original troop was like losing friends.

In the intervening years, she and other zoo personnel have been able to channel their grief into action as zoo officials sought their advice on the design of a new primate facility.

The result sets new standards for animal safety. Using a strategy similar to the ones hospitals employ to protect their patients, the system uses every means possible to protect the animals, without resorting to the potentially more dangerous alternative of evacuation.

Smoke, carbon monoxide and heat detectors are in place in a system that triggers an immediate call to the fire department in the event of a problem. Sprinklers are critically positioned, as are automatic doors that close off a zone around flames, should fire break out. Also, in case of fire, smoke dampers automatically shut to keep smoke from spreading throughout the reserve, and the ventilation system is designed to pump smoke out while drawing fresh air in. All systems were tested with chemical smoke before the animals moved in.

The habitats, all carefully made with fireproof materials, are designed to enlighten as well as to entertain. The theme is that of an abandoned logging mill where plenty of interesting materials have been left behind for the primates to play with and explore. Throughout the exhibit, videos and graphics introduce visitors to famous animal conservationists.

Twenty-five-foot-high, floor-to-ceiling windows ensure great views of the primates’ indoor playrooms, which are full of ropes, pulleys, logs, crates and cargo nets left by the fictitious loggers. Microphones installed in the indoor playrooms allow visitors to hear what the animals have to say to each other.

The Keystone Health Plan East Gorilla Theatre features huge windows where visitors can see the gorillas out in their yard.

There are other windows the gorillas themselves like to use, Unger Smith says. For instance, it’s not unusual for zoo staff to be assembled for a meeting and see a curious Demba peeking at them from the yard. The gorillas also can watch goings-on in the primate reserve kitchen, and, once again, Demba has shown a special interest in watching meals prepared.

The four gorillas, along with two orangutans, arrived in Philadelphia on April 23, in two tractor-trailers. Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Sandy Bauers said the primate transfer required “260 pounds of vegetables, a fleet of trucks and planes—in short, the logistics of a minor space launch.”

“It was so emotional,” Unger Smith says. “I remember looking at the vans and thinking it was like getting a mail-order husband or a computer-picked roommate. It helped to remember that my UD roommate, Trisha Sudderly, is still my best friend.

“I had talked with the keepers at the zoos the gorillas were coming from and I knew the personality of each, but when I realized I might be working with these gorillas for the rest of my career, it made me a little anxious.

“I wondered if I could bond as strongly with these guys as I had before. I’d been away from gorillas for three-and-a-half years. I knew I would like them, but I wondered if I would love them.

“I knew it would be hard to open my heart again, but from that first day, I’ve just been flooded with feelings for them. From the minute I saw them, I didn’t have any choice—I fell in love again. It’s been so wonderful, so healing.”

Chaka, the male silverback, is especially dear to Unger Smith, partly because he is the son of John and Samantha, two of the gorillas who died in the Philadelphia fire.

“Chaka! Come here, big guy!” she calls as the proud primate lumbers toward the spot where she throws apples and oranges. Chaka complies and sits munching happily as a photographer snaps his Smith and Chaka both keep their cool. His antics prompt questions from the group that she willingly answers.

“He’s one happy gorilla,” she says.

And, in light of what Chaka’s former zookeepers said, the move to Philadelphia also seems to have helped Chaka mature.

“We were told he was like a baby operating a steamroller—that mentally he was just a kid in this big aggressive, strong body, that he was immature for a silverback and might not be able to be the leader of the troop,” Unger Smith says. “But, we think he’s pretty mellow. He’s not reckless or immature. His actions toward the other gorillas have been very appropriate.”

While the introduction process is somewhat “tedious,” Unger Smith says, all of the gorillas have met each other at least once, although when this story was written, all four had yet to be together.

With zookeepers across the country anxious to see if Chaka can coax the shy Demba to mate, their relationship is being developed with special care. The gorillas have “howdy boxes” through which they can see each other and exchange toys.

“Chaka has had several opportunities to establish himself with Demba and show that he’s the dominant male in the troop,” Unger Smith says, “and he’s done so in the most benign way possible. It wouldn’t have been unusual for him to go and pull her off a shelf or bite her, but when he has reached for her and she’s screamed, he’s let her go.”

Demba, the oldest gorilla, was born in the Dallas Zoo and, in what was the fashion of the times, she was raised by humans. Today’s zoo officials cringe remembering how she was often dressed up and taken out to promote the zoo. She has never expressed interest in mating, but recently she thrilled zookeepers with her interest in another gorilla’s baby. Hopes are high that she may want one of her own, Unger Smith says.

“She really does think she’s a person,” Unger Smith says, “and she is very people oriented. The first time we put her together with Chaka, she had this look on her face that said, ‘Help! There’s a gorilla in my cage!’ But, we can deal with that.”

And, while Demba is most known for her shyness, Unger Smith says she’s seen evidence that Demba can be “a feisty girl” when she wants to be.

“I’ve seen her chase Chaka and slap him away,” she says, adding, “We always put toys or something in the playrooms with the gorillas to sort of displace their aggression. The other day, we put a box in the room with Chaka and Demba. Chaka broke the box open and pushed it over to Demba. He put his hand in one end of it and tried to touch her through the other end. She slapped him away.

“But, we think it’s going well,” Unger Smith says. “We’d love to get a baby from her, and, if there’s an animal who can do the job, it’s Chaka!”

Of the two younger gorillas, it was Mike who Unger Smith says “just completely won me over.”

“When he came in, he had a head cold. He was just sitting there with his legs crossed and his hands on his knees. I guess because he’s from California, he’s just very laid back. His mother, Jessica, was born and raised in Philadelphia. He’s the spitting image of her—it’s almost like the similarities you see when your friends have babies.”

Mike, one of a large gorilla troop, is used to having to grab quickly for his share of the food. His playroom pal, Kimya, is just the opposite. He was the favored child in his troop and slightly spoiled. While Mike hoards food, Kimya slowly eats one piece at a time, seeming confident that if he wants more, someone will be there to provide it.

“When Kimya first came, he was a little whiny, and it took me longer to bond with him,” Unger Smith says. “I had to realize that, at 5, he really is just a baby and this is his first time away from his family. Now, I think he’s just a doll.”

Dealing with all of the gorillas, especially the younger ones, Unger Smith says, may help her be a better parent. Her first child–a daughter–arrived in October.

“I did have a real battle of wills with Mike and Kimya over the food,” she says. “With Mike hoarding everything, I needed to separate them while they ate, and they didn’t want to be apart. I’m such a wimp because I love them so much, it was hard for me to enforce. But, if Kimya was going to get enough to eat, I knew I’d have to use the tough love approach and make them do what was best for them. Now, instead of begging and cajoling, I just firmly tell the boys to move and they do what I say. It’s been a good lesson in assertive parenting for me!”

One of the things that most encourages Unger Smith as she and the gorillas continue to get used to each other is the way they respond to her.

“With the old troop, I’d always turn out the lights and say goodnight when it was time to leave for the day, and they’d always answer me with this nice contented rumble. Old habits die hard, and, when I say goodnight to these guys, the silence is deafening. Just the other day though, when I came in and said good morning to them, one or two of them answered me. It means they are getting to know my voice. It’s very exciting!”

–Beth Thomas