Last week, I wrote about how we move gorillas to a new zoo. This week, I want to talk about how we get a new gorilla acclimated to his or her new home, keepers and social group.
One of the most exciting aspects of the job for me is having the opportunity to meet and get to know a new gorilla. It's like making a new friend! When a new gorilla first arrives here at the Zoo, we keep them separate from the other gorillas for a short quarantine period. We take the opportunity to spend some quality one-on-one time with them so that we can get to know each other. We spend hours sitting with them, playing with them, and asking them to participate in training sessions. We also want them to get to know the facility, so we rotate them around all of the bedrooms and exhibit spaces. Not only does this allow them to check out their new digs, but it gets them more comfortable in these spaces so that when it comes time to introduce them to their new social group, the others don't have an overwhelming "home field advantage," so to speak. This was especially true for Kira when she got here. She wasn't as strong as the other gorillas and hadn't spent a whole lot of time climbing in her last facility. We wanted to give her ample time to get used to her surroundings and build up some strength.
Even while being kept separate, the gorillas start to get to know each other during this stage, as we allow them to see, hear and smell each other. Once the new gorilla passes his or her initial quarantine period and we are confident that they are comfortable in their new home, we fully introduce them to their new group. This process is heavily monitored, but we've never had an introduction in which the new gorilla wasn't accepted into the group. It's always interesting to see how alliances and bonds are formed during this process. For example, when our girls Kira and Honi lived together as a pair, while they never showed any aggression towards each other, we also didn't see any bonding. They simply coexisted. However, the day that Motuba arrived in Philly, I saw the girls playing for the first time! Upon introduction to their new silverback, it was clear that Honi, as the dominant female, had Kira's back. If Motuba so much as looked at Kira funny, Honi was there to defend her.
While it takes some time for everyone to earn complete trust in each other, working on a positive keeper-gorilla relationship is always a work in progress and something we strive for, and hands down, my favorite part of the job.
By Kristen Farley-Rambo, Primary Gorilla Keeper