People often wonder if we go into the exhibit space with our gorillas. The answer is no. We do not go in with any of our ape species (gorillas, orangutans and gibbons). While we have excellent relationships with all of our animals, they are simply too big and too strong to safely be in the same space as them. Besides, have you seen those canines?
Instead, we work “protected contact,” which means that there is always a mesh barrier between us and the gorillas (as opposed to “free contact,” meaning that we go in with the animal, as we do with other species). We are very hands-on with our gorillas, and as we’ve talked about before, we do a great deal of training with them. But all of that training is done through protected contact.
You may wonder how exactly we are “hands-on” with an animal we don’t go in with. We do this by asking the individual to come over to us and have them place various body parts up to the mesh. Once they’ve presented the requested body part, we will physically touch them, but we don’t stick our fingers far inside the mesh. In this way, we are also able to give highly sought after back or belly scratches!
There are actually a variety of animals in the Zoo that we work with through protected contact. Bears, big cats, apes, hippos, and our rhinoceros are included in this group, as you might expect. But we also work though protected contact with our giraffes, zebras, and even some smaller primates as well. These animals, while typically very gentle, can be unpredictable and could kick their keeper if startled, for example, or an animal could trap or press a keeper up against a barrier accidentally because of its large size.
We have many species that, generally speaking, we can work with through free contact, but individual personalities must also be taken into consideration. Because they are a larger monkey, many Zoo staffs don’t go in with spectacled langurs (just as we don’t go in with our red-capped mangabey or our male colobus monkey), but our langurs are very laid back and are used to us going into their exhibit with them.
We have excellent relationships with all of our animals. In fact, I believe that a positive and trusting relationship between the animals and their keepers is integral to being a successful zoo keeper. While we aren’t able to go in with all of our animals, working protected contact does not inhibit this relationship in any way. Zoos allow access to these groups of animals even when they are on exhibit, which fosters this positive working relationship.
By Kristen Farley-Rambo, Primary Gorilla Keeper