In my last blog entry, I talked about how the SSP makes recommendations regarding moving gorillas. The obvious question here is: How does one go about moving a gorilla? Let's start at the beginning.
We have a special structure made for our facility that we are able to connect to one of their bedrooms. When we find out about an upcoming move, we hook it up to the bedroom and begin to train the gorilla to start moving into it. Remember a few weeks ago when I talked about desensitization training? This is a perfect example of desensitizing a gorilla to something novel. We spend weeks allowing the gorilla to come in and out as they choose, helping them to get used to it. Once they are comfortable with that, we start working on closing the door with them in the structure. At first, we close the door, reward them, then open it right back up again, and slowly work up to keeping them inside it for longer periods of time.
Once the gorilla is comfortable in their structure, we are all ready to move them to their new home! Depending on the distance, we can either drive or fly them. For example, when Kira moved here from Boston, her previous zoo rented a large, air-conditioned van to transport her in. We always have two keepers or staff members accompany our animals, regardless of the mode of transportation. In addition to Kira, we've moved three other gorillas in my time here: Nne, Kivu and Motuba. All three of them flew to their new homes in Minnesota, Kansas and Philadelphia (from Nebraska), respectively.
You might think that a gorilla would be scared flying on an airplane. I was worried about that too, which is why I was so happy to have the opportunity to fly with Nne to Como Zoo in Minnesota. Initially, we covered her structure in blankets to keep her calm. On the plane, I was free to go back into the cargo area to check on and hang out with Nne throughout the flight. I brought lots of her favorite treats and some juice, and spent a lot of time with her back there. I found that each time I pulled the blanket back, she was extremely interested in her surroundings, and would strain to peer around the edges of the blanket when I laid it back down. Eventually I removed the blankets completely and let her check things out. She actually really seemed to enjoy herself! She even participated in a couple of training sessions with me.
Upon landing in our final destination, the gorilla structure was loaded onto a rented moving truck and strapped in nice and tight for the short drive from the airport to the zoo. Once we got to the zoo, we hooked it up to her new bedroom, opened the door, and let her walk right into her new home. Nne was the lucky first gorilla to check out a new exhibit and holding space at Como Zoo! Her new keepers were amazed by her, as most of them had only ever worked with adult male gorillas before. Nne climbed around and explored her new digs with such ease, they couldn't believe it!
The hardest part of the trip for both of us was saying goodbye. Luckily, we had flown her new keeper to Philadelphia to hang out with us for a couple of days before the move. That way, Nne got to meet and spend some time with her new keeper, and he could learn all about Nne from her current keepers. Both myself and her new keeper traveled together with Nne, and I was able to stay for a couple of days after the move, to give Nne a familiar face and to help her acclimate to her new home. I truly believe that it helped Nne to see that I—someone she trusted—trusted this new keeper, which helped her become more comfortable with him. Having the chance to hang out there for a couple of days helped me know that she was in excellent hands, too, and I felt really good about leaving her when the time came (not to say that it was a tear-free goodbye!).
I keep in touch with Nne's keepers today and know that she is doing fantastic! For those of you who knew Nne, you'll remember that she was quite dominant in her group here in Philly. You better believe that she made sure everyone knew of her dominance in her new home as well! One of the females in her new group just had a baby, and Nne has been really good with both the baby and the new mama.
While this entry was specifically about Nne's move, the same process has held true for Kira, Kivu and Motuba's travels as well, and all have handled their moves with ease. Next week, I'll talk about getting to know a new gorilla and how we go about getting them used to a new facility, new keepers and their new troop.
By Kristen Farley-Rambo, Primary Gorilla Keeper